By Joe Cohen
Standard-Times Staff Writer
NEW BEDFORD — For 22 years, James “call me Jim” Mathes and “Chamber of Commerce” were practically synonymous on SouthCoast. Mr. Mathes, smiling and outgoing, was the local chamber and the local chamber was Mr. Mathes.
Then in 2006, everything changed.
Mr. Mathes followed his passion for education and helping underserved children by becoming executive director of the SMILES mentoring program in New Bedford and Fall River. It was a program he helped create in his role at the chamber.
And the New Bedford Area Chamber of Commerce went out and hired an outsider as its new president, Roy M. Nascimento.
He was quiet, reserved and new to the tightly knit business community of New Bedford and surrounding SouthCoast towns.
There were people who sized up Mr. Nascimento and thought that at the very best, this was no Jim Mathes.
But what a difference a year makes, especially for those who were skeptical about the transition.
Mr. Nascimento, 36, has streamlined the New Bedford Area Chamber of Commerce, refocused it, tightened it up and begun a rebuilding effort. Often working quietly, he typically shares any praise directed at him with staff and the board of directors.
All of this, observers note, took place after a failed merger attempt between the New Bedford Area Chamber and the Fall River Area Chamber of Commerce & Industry Inc., something that placed a cloud over both organizations.
To top it off, Mr. Nascimento has tackled the challenges of managing the chamber in a difficult economy that has tested the staying power of chambers of commerce nationwide.
“Roy puts the chamber first; Jim was the chamber,” says Peter Muise, chairman of the board of the New Bedford Area Chamber. Mr. Nascimento’s “quietness is often mistaken,” Mr. Muise said of what he believes is Mr. Nascimento’s formidable talent and experience.
Mr. Muise, whose full-time job is executive vice president of First Citizens’ Federal Credit Union, said Mr. Nascimento was hired to, in effect, “step into the shoes of a legend,” referring to Mr. Mathes’ longevity and presence while heading the area chamber.
Maureen Sylvia Armstrong, immediate past chairwoman of the chamber, and president and chief executive officer of the Sylvia Group of Insurance Agencies in Dartmouth, has a similar assessment of Mr. Nascimento. Ms. Armstrong headed the chamber when Mr. Nascimento was hired.
“Jim (Mathes) and Roy are very different people with different skill sets and two different time periods” to deal with, Ms. Armstrong said. Mr. Mathes left “big shoes to fill.”
“Overall, he sees the bigger picture,” Ms. Armstrong said of Mr. Nascimento. “He is very focused … he’s got the chamber operating at a very efficient level.” Mr. Nascimento is more oriented toward making chamber activities “valuable” to membership and then through membership to the community, versus focusing directly on reaching the community.
“Jim Mathes was in tune with the entire community,” Ms. Armstrong said, and Mr. Nascimento is more likely to do things that have “direct impact on (chamber) membership.”
Chairman-elect James R. Pratt Jr. agrees, saying Mr. Nascimento “refocused” the chamber and “re-energized” the board of directors.
“I’m very pleased with the transition,” said Mr. Pratt, managing partner of the accounting firm Hodgson, Pratt & Associates PC here.
“He turned the chamber around from a fiscal point,” Mr. Pratt said, and created “new programs at the core of what the chamber does well.”
Mr. Pratt said Mr. Nascimento gets credit for “re-energizing the board” with a retreat that produced a business plan for the next three years. “We’re very, very pleased,” Mr. Pratt said.
One hiccup that some observers might have seen, Mr. Pratt said, was that Mr. Nascimento had a “bit of learning curve to know who the players are” in New Bedford and larger SouthCoast community, in contrast to Mr. Mathes, an experienced and longtime local schmoozer. But that type of criticism, chamber officials suggest, is more misplaced vanity than legitimate criticism.
“It’s going to take time” to thoroughly understand the community and establish a reputation, Ms. Armstrong said.
Mr. Muise agreed, saying that comparing Mr. Mathes to Mr. Nascimento is comparing “22 years to one year.”
“It is unfair to compare and contrast” the two men, he said. “There wasn’t anybody Jim didn’t know.”
“Roy is pushing the chamber forward. Roy is allowing chamber committees more public roles; he is asking the directors to take more public roles. There is a need for a number of voices” representing the chamber, Mr. Muise said.
He ticks off some of Mr. Nascimento’s tangible accomplishments — creation of subcommittees, greater attention to new businesses that can yield new members, new bylaws and improved communications.
Perhaps the most fundamental difference between the old and the new: Mr. Mathes was very involved in the wider SouthCoast community and led the chamber along that path.
It was under Mr. Mathes’ leadership the chamber took a key role in the Summerfest festival in New Bedford. Under Mr. Nascimento, the chamber pulled back its level of involvement, saying it was not in keeping with the primary mission of serving regional and all members’ interests, and it posed an inappropriate financial risk.
Board members say Mr. Nascimento has the chamber more focused on membership and sees the membership — sometimes through the chamber — as having positive effects on SouthCoast.
“It is an organization to forward the business environment on the SouthCoast,” Mr. Muise said. “It is not a (social services) nonprofit … that is not our primary mission … it is not a government entity.”
“I’m sure some people see it supporting political or (other) causes,” Mr. Muise said, but its primary function “should be to support business.”
That has positive community impact, but not in as direct a fashion, Mr. Muise said. For example, the chamber makes a priority of work force education, and that “circles back” to the chamber and its members becoming involved in improving schools and supporting education.
None of this surprises Mr. Mathes, who now heads SMILES, the SouthCoast Mentoring Initiatives for Learning Education and Service organization.
“I knew Roy for seven years before he was hired,” Mr. Mathes said. “He is going to make a distant memory of me (at the chamber) very quickly. I see the direction he has taken to make it a strong chamber … the best in the state.”
“He has his own personality that lends itself well to the role he plays,” Mr. Mathes said of his successor, noting that “I was not a traditional chamber guy” and Mr. Nascimento has a strong chamber background.
“I believe Roy is running a stronger chamber than I left him with,” Mr. Mathes said, pointing to improved communication with members and the use of committees to tackle tasks.
Mr. Mathes said he has intentionally stayed away from some chamber activities during the past year to give Mr. Nascimento room to take over and shape the organization as he sees fit. “We’re both good with it,” Mr. Mathes said. “Roy has a lot of ideas. He needs the same opportunity I had when starting out.”
“Jim’s legacy and contributions to the chamber were extraordinary and will certainly not be forgotten,” said Minerve N. Saleh, chamber board member and a senior official with Sovereign Bank. “I do not think Roy is looking to fill Jim’s shoes. I think he is aspiring to create a new path with the shoes on his own feet.”
Matthew A. Morrissey, executive director of the New Bedford Economic Development Council, said he believes Mr. Nascimento “has positioned the chamber extremely well for an increased role in assisting businesses” on SouthCoast.
“New Bedford needs strong partners, and in particular strong partnerships, to help our businesses through what clearly will be a very challenging period,” he said.
The New Bedford Chamber encompasses 10 communities from Westport to Wareham. About half the membership is from New Bedford. Membership peaked a while ago at about 1,100 businesses, fell to about 900 and has been climbing back from there. It is now at about 1,000 members.
The chamber describes itself as an independent, private, nonprofit association that represents businesses.
The price of membership in the chamber is based on the size of the organization. It ranges from $275 for an organization with less than five employees to $3,500 for an organization with more than 500 employees. Nonprofits receive a 20 percent discount.
The chamber says about 90 percent of its members are “small” businesses, ranging from sole proprietorships to small manufacturing companies. Two of the largest area employers are members, St. Luke’s Hospital/Southcoast Health System and Acushnet Co./Titleist.
The Standard-Times is a member, and Joel H. Burns, the newspaper’s head of human resources, is a vice chair of the board of directors.
Roy Nascimento came to the chamber in a somewhat circuitous route. He was selected for the position from 30 candidates after a nationwide search.
Mr. Nascimento is of Portuguese background. He was born in Fall River to immigrant parents and grew up in Taunton watching his parents operate a small “mom and pop” business.
“I saw how hard they worked,” he said of his parents. “Most of our members are small businesses. … I see how hard they struggle.”
He said he “fell into working at the chamber.” His original plan was to go into economic development. He has an undergraduate degree from UMass Dartmouth and a master’s in public administration from Suffolk University.
Mr. Nascimento’s background includes a stint at BankBoston followed by seven years at MetroSouth Chamber of Commerce in Brockton, where he was vice president when he left.
He then served as president of the Attleboro Chamber of Commerce before coming here in October 2006.
Has he had a good first year in New Bedford? He says yes. “This job is a challenge; it changes every day. I have a great team. This is a wonderful community.”
“The SouthCoast and New Bedford have a bright future. Yes, we have challenges, but we are poised for tremendous growth. … I absolutely believe that,” Mr. Nascimento said.
Told that he sounds a lot like the proverbial chamber of commerce booster, Mr. Nascimento said, “We should point out the positives. A lot of communities would be envious” of New Bedford, and he checked off the following: cobblestone streets, historic district, museums, art galleries, colleges, new condos, and new and old businesses catering to a range of groups. In addition, Mr. Nacimento said, New Bedford has its working waterfront, industrial park and airport.
“The community is thriving; there are a lot of positives,” Mr. Nascimento says, sounding an awful lot like — what was his name? Oh, yes: Jim Mathes.
Contact Joe Cohen at firstname.lastname@example.org
March 16, 2008
By Joe Cohen