By Matt Szafranski, Editor-in-Chief of Western Massachusetts Politics & Insight
Holyoke at-large City Councilor Michael Sullivan has centered his pitch for mayor on his business background and six years on the Council. Though Sullivan has tried to diminish his opponent Joshua Garcia as a mere Town Administrator of Blandford, Garcia can argue municipal experience. Sullivan has leaned into the business side, even saying Holyoke needs a CEO not, as Garcia has put it, a quarterback.
Sullivan’s businesses have not always exemplified the best of the private sector. A graphic arts company at which he served as president and treasurer faced an onslaught of creditors and tax collectors. His demolition business made headlines, but not the kind job and transportation safety regulators look kindly upon.
Neither Sullivan nor his campaign directly replied to WMP&I’s inquiry into his business history.
As a human, Sullivan has a generally positive reputation. Holyoke sources describe him as pleasant and amiable one-on-one, if sometimes inconsistent. He has a reputation for assisting city youth.
However, as a businessman, the reputation is murkier. Despite invoking the millions his businesses once dealt with and employing residents, Sullivan has not delved into his private sector experience much. He skipped over it almost entirely during a WAMC interview.
Sullivan is not currently an officer of an active business corporation. A business he founded in 1980, the year he turned 27, called Berkshire-Westwood Graphics Group was wound down by the Secretary of State. Another, Max Salvage & Maintenance omitted him as a director and officer starting in 2018.
This article is based on a review of court filings, dockets, judgments, liens, corporate records, and federal agency records. Until reached for comment for the article, Sullivan declined or did not reply to interview requests. Few parties mentioned in records responded to requests for comment or could be reached.
On Thursday morning, WMP&I posed questions to Sullivan and his campaign about his businesses. In a statement released to the media Friday that was not shared with WMP&I, his campaign blasted this blog.
Sullivan’s campaign claimed WMP&I’s editor-in-chief was an “avowed Left Wing Liberal Blogger.” The opening paragraph says after Thursday night’s debate, “Mike Sullivan learned of a last-minute mud-slinging campaign by Agawam left wing blogger Matt Szafranski, a Garcia supporter trying to rescue Garcia’s failing campaign.”
Headquarters for the Sullivan empire has historically been 20 Hadley Mill Road. As its name implies, it is an old mill building where Berkshire-Westwood, Max Salvage, and its one-time owner BPS Realty Corp based their operations.
Land records indicate BPS Realty bought it in 1989. Berkshire-Westwood and its predecessor company leased its space from BPS. Hadley Mill, LLC of Needham, bought it for $435,000. Berkshire-Westwood leased again. The lease, recorded in the Registry of Deeds, ran for 10 years with two five-year options.
A year later, Berkshire-Westwood signed the first of several agreements with Eastman Kodak that would serve as the basis for a lawsuit. According to a complaint the former film behemoth filed in US District Court in Rochester, New York, Kodak granted Berkshire-Westwood an October 2008 promissory note for $800,000. Sullivan’s signature appears on each agreement Kodak attached to its complaint.
But according to the complaint, after five installments for the promissory note, Berkshire-Westwood stopped paying. Kodak alleged it had continued shipping product on the promise of repayment of the note and past invoices totaling $3.3 million. It claimed Berkshire-Westwood refused to pay.
Kodak filed its complaint on April 16, 2009. Kodak’s own decline is well-documented and the economy was in trouble. It is not wholly surprising that Berkshire-Westwood would have had troubles. Sullivan blamed the Internet, which took revenue from many of Berkshire-Westwood’s newspaper clients.
The agreements Kodak attached to the complaint include products for newspaper businesses among others. In his statement, Sullivan accused Kodak of canceling the contracts on Berkshire-Westwood and then “used its vast legal resources to win a default judgment against BWGG.”
US District Court in Rochester, N.Y. (via justice.gov)
However, on July 6, 2010, US District Court Judge David Larimer’s opinion states that Berkshire-Westwood reportedly did not intend to respond. It never answered the complaint. Larimer said that Kodak had provided sufficient evidence that Berkshire-Westwood “ordered, accepted delivery — and failed to pay Kodak — for significant amounts of Kodak products.” He slapped Sullivan’s company with a $3.6 million judgment including interest.
Eastman Kodak did not respond to a request for comment. It is unclear if it ever collected anything. A faster moving suit was underway in Boston.
Sovereign Bank filed a commercial paper action against Berkshire-Westwood in Suffolk Superior Court on November 4, 2009. The full contents of the suit were not immediately available, but commercial paper can be short-term lending. The bank, now Santander, sued Sullivan and two other company officers individually. The docket reflects that Sullivan was served in hand. Neither Berkshire-Westwood nor its officers, including Sullivan answered. The court defaulted the individuals that January. Berkshire-Westwood defaulted in February.
Sovereign began the process of assessing the judgment, which got the defendants’ attention. On March 5, 2010, the docket notes, “Suggestion of bankruptcy by Defendant, Michael J Sullivan.” The docket does not state whether Sullivan was suggesting it for himself or the company, In his statement, Sullivan admitted an unclear “we” were considering bankruptcy at counsel’s suggestion. Instead, he said, the company “chose an orderly liquidation.”
How orderly it was is unclear. In May 2010, the court issued a final judgment. The next month the court executed it. The Hampden Register of Deeds recorded it July 13, 2010. Without explanation, Sullivan was not on the judgment. Berkshire-Westwood and officers Craig Plante and Robert Beaulac were.
Neither could be reached for comment. Lawyers for Sovereign Bank did not respond to requests for comment. Sullivan’s statement emphasized the judgment did not include him but does not give any indication of why he escaped the judge’s order.
Berkshire-Westwood was attracting attention from all corners. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts hit Berkshire-Westwood with a $5861 lien. The Internal Revenue Service had filed their own liens for $11064, which technically remain. Creditors had filed suit in superior and district court in the 413.
By then, Berkshire-Westwood was probably gone. The Secretary of the Commonwealth, which oversees corporate filings in Massachusetts, dissolved Berkshire-Westwood in 2012. A spokesperson for the Secretary’s office said the usual practice is to dissolve dormant corporations after two years, though it can be a little longer. Berkshire-Westwood filed its last corporate report in 2008.
If Berkshire-Westwood were Sullivan’s only business failure, he might have only been the victim of a bad economy and a changing industry. His next venture had issues, too, though
A photo of Max Salvage Work in 2016. (via Facebook)
Like Berkshire-Westwood, Max Salvage & Maintenance found a home at 20 Hadley Mill Road. It was a career change Sullivan told The Republican in 2017. Corporate records show Sullivan was, at least briefly, involved in both Max Salvage and Berkshire-Westwood. The former’s paperwork came through the Secretary’s office on November 9, 2007, months before Sullivan signed the last agreements with Kodak.
Max Salvage gained little attention in its early years. Yet, issues began shortly after creditors Thanos-ed Berkshire-Westwood. On March 17, 2012, The Republican reported a spark Max Salvage produced while cutting metal at a Water Street mill in Holyoke caused a massive fire. Sullivan acknowledged the fire in his statement.
Little more than a year later, Sullivan himself fell through a roof while working on another mill. That got the attention of the Occupational Safety & Health Administration. The Holyoke Building Commissioner said Max Salvage’s demolition permit had not received approval. Sullivan blamed an employee for not filing the proper paperwork.
Around this time, the commonwealth and Uncle Sam were back at the Hampden Registry of Deeds. Massachusetts imposed a $17,349 lien in 2013 for nonpayment of unemployment taxes. The feds filed liens totaling $26,127. The federal lien was satisfied in 2017. The unemployment lien dissolved in 2016. Sullivan said the issue arose around the employment of Dean Vocational students and Max Salvage paid the tax bills. The Department of Revenue had not returned with confirmation as of posting time.
The company’s troubles continued, if indirectly. A lawsuit seeking an attachment hit Max Salvage in 2014. Its fate is unclear from the docket. In 2017, Max Salvage was on site of another job when a front-end loader fell into a canal, necessitating an environmental cleanup. News reports from the time are unclear, but Sullivan told The Republican the machine belonged to the site owner (not Max Salvage) and they would be responsible for supervision. State police described the driver as an apprentice but did not identify the driver’s employer.
Eventually, OSHA fined Max Salvage according to 2018 records. It issued $15,000 in fines for requirements of excavation and protective equipment and for ladders. It was settled downward or otherwise abated.
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration regulates commercial vehicles. (via Wikipedia)
The US Department of Transportation ostensibly pulled Max Salvage’s license in a safety audit. The full details of Max Salvage’s situation are not clear. A spokesperson for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration said inactive records are not easily retrieved. A Freedom of Information Act request for the file is pending.
Sullivan’s statement did not address the front loader, OSHA or the USDOT license.
Max Salvage’s status is not clear either. Google describes it as closed. Its last Facebook post was of photos of a job site on March 6, 2020, which could indicate coronavirus impact. Other businesses operate at 20 Hadley Mill Road. New owners bought the building last month and sources say they have planned a marijuana business.
Since its inception, several individuals have been Max Salvage’s president, but Sullivan had been treasurer, secretary, and CFO. In 2018, Sullivan’s name came off Max Salvage’s corporate filings Two officers, Jovany Rodriquez and Jonathan Moquin, split the vacated roles. Sullivan, now 67, said in his statement he had retired in 2018. However, a 2019 edition of BusinessWest listed Sullivan as Max Salvage’s chief executive.
In their bouts in the debaters’ ring, Sullivan has charged that Garcia was trying to use the mayor’s office as a stepping stone. Garcia countered, without directly naming Sullivan, that becoming mayor is not a retirement plan.
Max Salvage would file two more years of reports thereafter. Its last report came into the Secretary’s office in August of 2020. Seven months later, Sullivan formed his campaign account for mayor.
Sullivan ran for City Council in 2015 on his business background and, notably, by distinguishing himself from the former similarly named mayor.
In-office, Sullivan has not stood out much amid other colorful characters in Holyoke’s municipal legislature, aside from comments about the homeless he now regrets. In terms of issues regarding his background, he contested the Roman Catholic Diocese’s contention that Mater Dolorosa was unstable. He voted against a plan to buy it. The church fell to the wrecker’s ball. He has taken an interest in the city government’s own demolition and construction decisions.
Sullivan has cited his seat on the Finance Committee to address Holyoke’s financial troubles, though he has argued the same in reelection campaigns. It may not be the only relevant resume data point, anyway.
In an interview with The Republican in 2015, he said Max Salvage had rehabbed three buildings and demolished “several” others. Without apparently going into detail, he also said he had experience with the “painful process of downsizing” in the context of recession.