The Chamber’s new President and CEO Anna B. Buckalew lays out her vision of a prosperous Montgomery and the way she’ll lead the Chamber in its collaborative efforts to make it a reality.
After decades occupying various roles in The Montgomery Area Chamber of Commerce, Anna B. Buckalew just recently stepped up and stepped into the shoes of President and CEO. The position puts her leading one of Alabama’s “Big Five” metro chambers, and she has the distinction of being the first
female to do so. MBJ sat down with Buckalew to get her thoughts on the transition, her new job and the increasingly vital part the Chamber will play in the future of Montgomery and the River Region.
MBJ: You are taking over from Randy George, who served as president for 31 years and acted as head of eco-nomic development prior to his tenure as president. What’s the most important thing you’ve learned from Randy while working with him over the years?
AB: Randy has been a daily living example of servant leadership in action. He fostered a culture in the organization where he didn’t ask anything of the staff team that he himself wouldn’t do. His level of loyalty and support for the team was unwavering. He would make you fight hard for the programs and initiatives you wanted to implement, but he respected the staff leaders who had the passion to fight for what they believed in and wanted to create some-thing new. He would give you freedom to innovate and achieve your objectives, but expected results. He never second-guessed you if you failed at something, either. If you made a mistake, he would help you figure out where you went wrong and how to make sure you don’t make that same mistake twice.
What are some of the significant changes you’ve seen in your time at the Chamber?
Well, the fact that women were not allowed to wear pants or open-toed shoes and that pantyhose were mandatory when I first started now makes me chuckle! It was definitely a very traditional environment when I first came here in 1988.
What are some “points of pride” for you related to your Chamber work thus far?
I’ve worked across the spectrum of all our departments during my career, and that has been a great privilege: to be able to understand the Chamber literally inside and out. I’m at my happiest when I’m creating something new, and many of the programs we have in place today are things that I can trace back to initiatives I worked on originally. But more importantly, when I look back on those new programs and capitalizing on opportunities for our city and region, it was the business leaders and elected leadership who I worked with that made those experiences so rich. For instance, we created a brand-new governmental affairs program and federal initiative to build relationships and carry agenda items to our congressional delegation. The Chamber at the time just wasn’t involved in federal affairs and was only nominally involved in state legislative matters. But it wasn’t about what “I” built, it was about the exceptional business and elected leaders we had at the time who shared that vision, and they used their expertise and contacts to stand up a brand-new program that has yielded untold benefits to our community over many years.
What is your favorite part of working for the Chamber, and what are you most looking forward to in your new role?
Hands down, the best part is working with tremendous leaders who love Montgomery and the River Region. It is a rare gift to have worked beside some of the icons of business and statesmen that I have over the years. I have learned so much from these insightful, gracious, brilliant, tough, visionary people who have worked to move Montgomery, the region and our state forward. I count myself truly lucky that I’ve had that opportunity. And I am deeply honored to have been selected by our leadership to lead the Chamber as its President and CEO moving forward.
You officially took the reins April 2. Have you encountered any surprises during the transition once you were named President and CEO elect and during this first month on the job?
The only surprise has been how overwhelmingly positive everyone’s response has been. I have been blown away by the genuine sincerity of so many people who are excited not only for me but also for the future of the Chamber. It is beyond people extending polite congratulations; these are the most heartfelt conversations, letters, notes and calls. When I say how incredibly humbling it has been, that is an understatement. But it’s more than just excitement for me. Everyone has been so excited for the Chamber and what the future holds.
Why do you feel the work the Chamber does is important?
The Chamber’s mission statement talks about creating jobs and improving the quality of life. And that is exactly what we do, but the “how” is where the real power is. We create jobs and improve the quality of life by catalyzing leadership around opportunities — opportunities that create prosperity and a better future for our city and region. We bring leader-ship together to grow Montgomery and the entire region, and that grows business for everyone.
How is the Montgomery Area Chamber different from other major metro chambers?
Our Chamber is an innovative, consolidated organization that addresses tourism, economic development, business growth, workforce development and community strategies under one umbrella. In many cities and regions there are duplicative entities that focus on pieces of that mission. Here in Montgomery, we link the public and private sector around a shared vision, execute that work through one unified organization, and as a result, we achieve far greater results at a tremendous value to our investors and public sector partners.
What do you see as your initial priorities?
There is an energy in Montgomery right now, and so many opportunities at hand. My first priority is getting out and visiting with and listening to as many people and groups as I possibly can. I want to sit down with all of our major stakeholders and let them know how much we value their partnership, and I genuinely want to know what’s on their mind, what they’re facing in their business or organization, and what they believe Montgomery’s greatest challenges and opportunities are. I want to hear from our members and our small and minority businesses and understand what they need to be successful. The Chamber is a powerful catalyst that connects people to people and people to resources. And the best way for me to set that tone is to connect with as many people as I can right now.
Internally, our awesome staff team is working together to be sure we are operating at our highest capacity, and that we are focused around those initiatives that can yield the greatest results. We have a great board and executive committee, and they are working to complete a facility plan that provides consolidated operations for the Chamber and fosters new economic development efforts within the Innovation District downtown. And, our leadership, elected officials and staff are very aggressively working on some game-changing projects for our community.
How do you plan to reach your goals and ultimate vision?
In a word, partnership. As President and CEO, it’s my role to lead the staff team and the operational side of the Chamber and work with the leadership of our community to build the vision and define the priorities. Our partners the City of Montgomery, the Mayor, the Montgomery County Commission, our state legislators, the Governor’s office, the congressional delegation, joined with the strength of the business community create an incredibly powerful coalition to move Montgomery forward. The Chamber is a business association, and keeping the business community aligned and working in concert with the public sector is a top priority.