In his four years as the executive director of the Greater Northside Chamber of Commerce, James Montalbano said he helped grow the organization’s membership from fewer than 15 businesses to more than 100.
He hopes to have a similar impact on the Greater Heights Area Chamber of Commerce, which already is more established and has even more potential for growth, he said.
Montalbano, a 54-year-old former Heights resident and graduate of Lutheran High North, recently was hired as the new president for the Greater Heights chamber. He started his new job Thursday.
“As much as I love Northside, the Greater Heights is just at a significantly higher level in terms of development,” Montalbano said. “I just see so much potential and see it as a really great opportunity.”
The last full-time president for the Greater Heights chamber was Louie Gill, who served from December 2019 through May 2020. Before Gill, Jacob Milwee served in the role for five years and had helped the chamber grow to more than 500 member businesses at the time he resigned in 2019 to take a teaching job.
Dee Farino, a board member for the Greater Heights chamber, stepped down while serving as interim president since September of last year and will return to the board now that Montalbano has been hired.
“We had several really qualified candidates, and he just stood out above the rest,” Farino said. “He fits the bill. He has the background and has the knowledge. He knows about the Heights and knows about Houston. I think we’re very lucky to have him.”
Montalbano, the son of a small business owner who grew up in the North Lindale neighborhood, worked as a marketing representative in the music industry in the 1990s before a 20-year career in the IT industry. He said his experiences as a member of other chambers of commerce helped shape his philosophy for leading such an organization.
Some chambers can be cliquish and more about social events than helping businesses and business owners grow and be successful, Montalbano said, so he wants to put together events and services that provide networking opportunities as well as education for a wide range of members. At the Northside chamber, for example, he said he utilized a mix of morning, lunchtime and evening events to cater to the differing styles and schedules of members.
Montalbano said he likes to serve in a coaching and mentoring role as well and wants to help local businesses put together a strategic plan upon becoming chamber members. And he wants to help the Greater Heights chamber – where membership has dwindled to about 350 businesses during the pandemic, according to Farino – attract more members from neighborhoods such as Garden Oaks, Oak Forest and other adjacent communities.
Another idea of Montalbano’s is to tailor events to specialized groups of business professionals, such as a women’s group.
His overarching vision for the chamber is to make sure members are getting a return on the investment they make with their annual dues.
“It’s very important to me and was very important here in Northside,” Montalbano said. “People should view this as an investment. And if somebody makes an investment in something, what should they reasonably expect? A return, right?
“That’s what it’s all about,” he continued. “I really took it upon myself to try to create as many opportunities for members as possible to get as much of a return on their investment as possible. I think that’s lost on a lot of chambers.”
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