Balsama to leave chamber post

AMHERST – May Balsama, who has been executive director of the Souhegan Valley Chamber of Commerce and helped to guide it through years of growth and the national economic disaster of 2008, will leave her post sometime after the first of the year.

But it would be incorrect to say she is retiring.

“I honestly feel like I have one more career left in me that I want to pursue,” she said in an interview in the chamber office on Route 101A last week, “and it’s something that I’ve been interested in for years. That’s what I’m going to be doing next.”

That new career will be in real estate with Nancy Pomerleau, a well-known figure in the local real estate community and someone with whom Balsama’s husband has worked for five years.

“I’ve kind of followed him on some of his projects,” Balsama said. “I really enjoy it, the people and the aspect of home sales and commercial sales, so I’m really looking forward to that.”

This could be counted as Balsama’s fifth career, at least. First was her nearly 40 years involvement with the family business, Balsam’s Hallmark, that had two stores in Nashua and three in Massachusetts. When that was sold, she took up volunteer work and then became the first chair of the Souhegan School Board, even before there was a Souhegan High School in Amherst. From there, it was more volunteer work and then, eight years ago, to the chamber post.

Long before that, though, she took a first stab at real estate, taking courses for two semesters at the Nashua Community College, and then approached Pomerleau about a position. This was 30 years ago.

Laughing, Balsama said, “Nancy said, ‘Well, with all the things you’re involved in and your young children, you don’t have time to work.’ At that point in my life, yes, that was probably the right answer, because it was pre-computer and pre-Internet and you carried around a big multiple listing book and you picked up your clients in your car and drove them to places. So, maybe I didn’t have time.”

The Souhegan board alone took up parts of four nights a week and a lot of mornings to first get the school district started then to plan a high school and then, finally, to open it 20 years ago. It was, Balsama said, well worth the time and effort.

“It was something I’m very proud of,” she said. “It was an exciting time and we did some exciting work to lay a foundation for a school district that is still … I would like to say unique. And certainly at the time we built the school 20 years ago, it was on the cutting edge of an approach to education with the philosophies that drove the school and the staff.”

When her work there was complete, she had the luck of timing: The position of chamber executive director was open, something she found out from her friends, Ann and Clark Logan, of Amherst.

“It was a fortunate series of circumstances,” Balsama explained. “My husband and his uncle decided to close the family business and I was not old enough to retire, nor had any desire to, so I was looking for something that I could do and enjoy and work at gainfully.”

She interviewed for the post, talking with then-members of the board of directors, and was hired. It was, she said, at a very good time.

“We had a very strong economic base in the Souhegan Valley, and this organization was ready to grow into something that addressed the needs of the business community. We had lots of new businesses, lots of young entrepreneurs who started businesses in the area. It was a time when this organization was ready to evolve into something that addressed their needs.”

A key, she said, was the people with whom she worked.

“I had a fantastic board,” she said. “Cliff Harris was the chair at the time and he was ready to bring the chamber along to a new level. So it was a great partnership with the two of us and our board.”

The words “us” or “we” are sprinkled throughout Balsama’s conversation. When she speaks of the chamber, she hardly ever uses the word “I,” or “my” and when she does, it is usually to make the point that it wasn’t, and still isn’t, about her.

“The chamber is all of the members and the people that make up the chamber,” she said. “It’s not just my board or just me or my chairman.”

That, she thinks, is what sets the Souhegan Chamber apart.

“This chamber is different. We address all segments of the community. We respect our nonprofit members, as well as our manufacturers, our big-box stores. We respect the small entrepreneurs and sole proprietors. We try to have activities and events that address each part of that, that community of people. It’s really been very exciting to be part of that,” she said. “We don’t just say, ‘Well, if you got some money, you can be a part of the chamber and you can sponsor something for me’.”

That attitude, she believes, will continue to be part of the chamber’s philosophy but she is hopeful that whoever replaces her – the job was to be posted this week and she will stay until someone is found – will find new ways to reach current and prospective members.

“I think it’s time for someone to be more public than I was, maybe more into the social media than I am, to reach out into organizations that are cropping up all over with networking opportunities for people,” Balsama said. “A new person coming in will find other opportunities. I’m looking forward to him or her taking it to a new level.”

It’s important, she emphasized, to let businesses know what the chamber has to offer – the networking opportunities, the workshops, the continuing education projects.

“We have events that will spotlight what they do, especially our Expo,” she said.

That annual October gathering of more than 200 businesses and thousands of visitors – everyone from other business people to parents and kids; the idea of Expo is, cer ainly, to give businesses exposure but also to make sure people not involved in business have a great time – has grown every year and that is something Balsama is particularly proud of.

Once upon a time, the Expo was small and almost exclusively about business, not about the community, she said.

“This year’s expo was the biggest, it was the most populated both with exhibitors and with visitors,” she said. “Ours is the only one that keeps growing. I think it’s a bellwether” of how the local business community is faring.

“It really covers the region now,” Balsama said of the Expo. “It covers the people, the families, and we offer something that is unique because it really is a broad spectrum. It’s not a home show. You’re going to find roofers, you’re going to find window people, but you’re not only going to find that. You’re also going to find the guy selling the car and the gentleman who makes the most wonderful chowder in the world. It’s like a community within a community. It’s a sampling of every segment.”

But Balsama refuses to take the credit for that.

“No one person does anything,” she said. “One candle doesn’t light the night.”

The Expo grew, she said, and found greater success because of the direction, the inspiration and the support of the chamber’s directors.

“And a cadre of volunteers who are committed to making sure this chamber works,” Balsama quickly added. “I’m just the lucky one to sit in this seat.”

Precisely when she’ll begin anew hasn’t been decided. She’ll stay as long as she’s needed, she said, at least until a successor is found.

“I don’t have a drop dead date. When the time is right, I’ll turn off the lights and leave my keys on the desk,” she said.