Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
When Duane Wilson retires this year from the president and CEO job at the North San Antonio Chamber of Commerce, he will not only have dedicated 25 years to serving the business community in San Antonio, but also brought a struggling association out of the red and into its own mortgage-free headquarters building on the city’s Northside.
As Wilson prepares for his departure this summer, North Chamber members and staff will have to adjust to his absence. But they’ll also have to ensure that in replacing him, and in growing the chamber, they address the same challenges facing associations and businesses nationwide – that leadership be developed and chosen with an eye on age, gender, and racial diversity.
“Chamber work is probably not understood by the business populous as a whole, especially not by entrepreneurs and millennials,” Wilson said. “They don’t see the real value of the Chamber, they don’t see us out there … working on their behalf. But it’s hard to get them engaged. And if you don’t get engaged in a chamber, you’re not going to stay.”
When Wilson announced his retirement this month, it wasn’t the first time he had tried to step down.
“I’ve tried three times,” the 75-year-old said, but ultimately felt the timing wasn’t right. After taking a two-week break to celebrate his 50th wedding anniversary last year, Wilson now has his sights set on June 30 as his last day at the North Chamber. “I’ve been thinking about it for a while.”
Granted, he’s also been working for quite a while, since the age of 12, when he began bagging groceries at a Handy Andy grocery store. Later, while attending Burbank High School, he worked at Weiner News Company before graduating at age 16 and going off to the University of Texas at Austin. It didn’t take long for Wilson to feel like he was too young for college life, so one year later, he joined the Marine Corps.
It was after serving his country that Wilson began a 36-year career at Southwestern Bell, working throughout Texas, finally earning a degree from Our Lake of the Lake University, and retiring in his hometown in 1991.
Within a year, Wilson found retirement bored him, so he started several businesses, then jumped at an offer from Steve Hirsch, a former vice president of human resources at Zachry Corporation, to put his leadership skills to work serving as interim director of the North San Antonio Chamber.
Since then, he estimates appearing at four new business ribbon-cuttings a week, and at least four groundbreakings a year. But his contributions also include work on major transportation and infrastructure initiatives in the city, plus shoring up the North Chamber itself.
“I was here for a few weeks when I found out the Chamber was completely broke,” Wilson said, so he set about instituting profit margins for the association’s various programs as well as downsizing the staff, which currently sits at nine.
Today, it’s the only chamber in San Antonio that owns its headquarters near U.S. Highway 281 and Wurzbach Parkway, the very roadway generated from Wilson’s work with the San Antonio Mobility Coalition which works to solve transportation issues in the city.
As one of the largest business advocacy organizations of its kind in the city, the North Chamber got its start in 1974. Growth was happening north of Hildebrand Avenue, and business owners felt they needed a collective voice in municipal government. The North Chamber has since expanded to serve a swath of the city that stretches from downtown to Loop 1604 north, and from the west at Highway 151 to the east at the City of Windcrest.
Wilson said the North Chamber has partnered with groups as far south as Brooks, and with institutions downtown like the UTSA College of Architecture. The Chamber has tackled issues like the street car proposal, impervious cover fees, and overtime rules. More recently, it joined with others in the city to block a new request for proposals for the city’s airport that included a union-supportive peace agreement. The City amended the RFP.
Wilson also led the creation of the North Chamber’s nine-month professional development program, Leadership Lab, modeling it after a similar program at Southwestern Bell. In April, the Chamber kicks off its new Innovative Leadership Program for Executives in conjunction with the St. Mary’s University Greehey School of Business.
“I worry that we’re losing a lot of our leaders,” Wilson said. “My generation is retiring and leaving and not turning anything over to their kids, and it concerns me.”
About one-third of the North Chamber’s current board members are graduates of Leadership Lab. Chris Thiel, executive vice president and chief financial officer at Alterman, currently serves as chairman of a board made up of seven men and two women on the executive committee, and 36 men and 11 women who serve as directors. The average age is 38, and most are white.
“We’re not a picture of San Antonio, but not because we didn’t want it,” Wilson said. “We are diverse more with [gender].” The North Chamber has had many women serve as board chair, and because the staff is so small, they rely on a diverse set of members to volunteer and lead most of the Chamber’s committees and programs.
Jim Clarke, senior vice president of public policy at the American Society of Association Executives, said ASAE would like to see every organization formalize diversity and inclusion efforts through a committee. “I believe if the staff and board is very active, they need to have a strategic sense on the millennial question or diversity and inclusions, and those things need to be part of the equation,” he said. “That’s a [board’s] role to really engage.”
The issue is on the North Chamber board’s mind, Thiel said. “At our last executive committee meeting, we talked lot about what are we going to do about inclusiveness and diversity,” he said. “And which groups can we reach out to in order to work toward common goals, such as the Hispanic Chamber and Black Chamber, to make sure we have a diverse representation in our board room and membership, but also that we are dealing with the issues that are important to the city throughout.”
Clarke said ASAE is seeing fewer trade association and professional society leaders stay on the job as long as they once did, much like corporate CEOs. He said ASAE is also seeing more young leaders in senior leadership roles, and many organizations like the North Chamber are continuing to grow since the recession. A change in leadership, he said, gives a chamber board the opportunity to make a hiring checklist of what is relevant to its membership.
“Obviously, we’re on great footing with what [Wilson] has done,” Thiel said. “We talked as an executive committee, and what we’re really looking for [in a successor] is somebody who is willing and able to engage the members. Out of the 1,200 members we have, a good number aren’t engaged in our daily activity.”
He said the chamber will search for a replacement leader who is strong politically and can maintain relationships with City, County, and business leadership in San Antonio “to make sure we keep San Antonio a positive business environment and we can continue to bring companies and people to San Antonio.”
Wilson hopes his successor will be someone from South or Central Texas who knows the political climate and council members in San Antonio, and “who understands San Antonio is not Dallas, Houston, or Austin,” he said. “We are a different city that’s based on relationships.”
That person should also be able to read personality styles and adapt easily, and have a vision to take the organization to greater heights, he said.
Wilson plans to spend the next year or so traveling, seeing more of the country, and spending time with his wife, Bettie, and three grandsons.
“Whoever takes this job is there to make it a lot greater than I could have ever done, but I didn’t do [all this],” Wilson said. “I try to stay out of the limelight, you rarely see my name in the paper, because it’s not about me.
“It’s about our membership and what we can do … to help them. It’s about our city, our county, our state. How can we grow and work together. I think we have the greatest city. We’re really diverse, but we all get along … and that is unique of almost any city, that we have such a diverse population that can always find a way to work together.”