Passing the gavel to the new Staten Island Chamber chair

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After two years serving as the chair of the board of the Staten Island Chamber of Commerce, Ralph Branca, president of Victory State Bank, handed the gavel to AnnaMarie Gentile, who will serve in the post for the next two years.

Gentile, an attorney at Angiuli & Gentile, became active in the Chamber about six years ago, serving first on the SI Chamber Foundation board, and from day one, she was dedicated to, and interested in, building the newly-created Young Professionals Group.

“We saw how important it was to have young people involved, especially since they are going to be the future of business in Staten Island,” Gentile said. “That part I’m very proud of, because it is an integral part of the Chamber currently. Many of the young professionals who began their involvement in the Chamber in that group are now very active in the committees that the Chamber has and are really ambassadors for the Chamber.

“We need their energy. We need their enthusiasm. We need their insight.”

Gentile is no stranger to the Chamber’s executive board. She has served a role on the board for four years, the last two as Branca’s vice chair. Now, Gentile will lead the board, with her predecessor serving in an advisory role as immediate past chair.

One of Gentile’s main goals will be to focus on the core of the Chamber — its membership.

“My goals are to increase new membership and retain our present members,” she said. “In increasing new membership, I see the need to reach out to businesses that are not traditional businesses that are members of the Chamber or businesses who don’t realize that the Chamber offers services and opportunities for them, and their types of businesses.”

Gentile believes the answer to the typical question, “what can the Chamber do for me?” should start with “it can help grow your business.” And she believes the message needs to get out to the non-typical Chamber members — the small neighborhood independent businesses, and the less traditional businesses such as the arts community.

“I don’t think we’re getting the message well enough…to these small neighborhood businesses,” she said. “We can help them in Albany, in Washington; we can help them grow their business and network.”

Branca had similar membership goals when he took the post of chair two years ago. He began work to stabilize the income and budget of the Chamber, partnering with charitable organizations such as the Richmond County Savings Foundation, the Staten Island Foundation and the Northfield Foundation. But then, his plan was turned upside down.

“Unfortunately, during my term, one of the worst things happened, which was (Superstorm) Sandy,” Branca said. “So the services turned around — helping the small businesses get back on their feet.”

Instead of building new membership, the Chamber switched its focus to assisting current members with the recovery process, helping companies such as National Grid give out up to $1 million in grants to struggling businesses on Staten Island. Branca traveled to Washington, D.C., with Linda Baran, president and CEO, and other Chamber members to meet with the Small Business Administration and give Island businesses a voice in the recovery.

While he wasn’t able to focus on building membership during his tenure, Branca realizes the importance of doing so. At one time, the Chamber had more than 1,000 members, but now, it has closer to 700. Membership helps with revenue, of course, he said, but it also helps expand the Chamber’s focus, which was diverted a bit by Sandy.

Gentile agrees that building and retaining membership is key.

“If we have an increase in new members and increase in percentage of members who retain their membership, that would be a success as far as I’m concerned,” she said. “I think, especially with what we have occurring here on Staten Island — finally we have people giving attention to Staten Island — if we can utilize that renaissance for the benefit of business on Staten Island…then that would be considered a success as well.”

To Gentile, though, the Chamber’s reach goes beyond just the businesses themselves, but extends to the consumers of the Island.

“When I think about the Chamber, I don’t only think about business — of course, that is what our organization is comprised of — but to me, what needs to happen is we need to get outdoors and reach all residents of Staten Island…so there is validity to members of the Staten Island Chamber of Commerce.

“And people of Staten Island should use members of the Chamber because of this,” she said. “It’s a validation of your business.”

To accomplish her goal, Gentile would like to better utilize the “Call the Chamber” concept that was created a few years ago, getting the word out to Chamber members and prospective members that all they have to do is call the Chamber, and they will get the answers and help they need.

From his own experiences, Branca said a good Chamber chair will be flexible, innovative and willing to compromise.

As for direct advice for Gentile, Branca said: “Look at the situation and try to find different solutions. Don’t always sit back and listen to the ways things were done before. Look and see if there’s a different way to solve a problem.”