EXCLUSIVE: Former Chamber CEO J.J. Hollie talks with Woodlands Online; Woodlands Area Chamber of Commerce responds

By: Sean K. Thompson
| Published 04/17/2024


THE WOODLANDS, TX – Recently, shockwaves went through The Woodlands business community at the announcement that J.J. Hollie, president and CEO of The Woodlands Area Chamber of Commerce, had abruptly resigned after nine years in the position.

Questions soon arose as to the nature of the timing and reasoning behind the resignation and subsequent appointment of chairman Brian Albert as interim CEO, announced by the Chamber in a press release you can find here:

These questions mounted as word spread that apparently the resignation was forced on Hollie by the board. In an effort to get concrete answers and mitigate the effect of unbridled rumors, Woodlands Online reached out to Hollie, who agreed to have a sit-down, exclusive interview with us. After affirming that his resignation was not voluntary, Hollie answered our questions.

What exactly happened on the day your relationship with the Chamber ended, and what was your first indication that something was happening?

I’d like to start off by saying just how important the Woodlands Area Chamber of Commerce is, and what a good job the staff, the volunteers, people like the diplomat team, and the members have done over the nine years that I’ve been there. It is a very important organization to any community. Every chamber is different. Every community is different, but the Chamber is and has been very important to The Woodlands.

And there’s a lot of great things that have happened at the Chamber. We developed our strategic plan, we rebranded the Chamber, and we renegotiated a lease that saved us over half of our lease payments. The Chamber was excelling financially. It was having great events. We were adding almost one new member a day, 30 to 35 new members a month. It is a highly active chamber. And it’s a very successful chamber, and it’s a very influential chamber. We opposed issues like incorporation because we did not feel like that was the right step for The Woodlands at that time. We have testified in Austin in favor of bills on economic development, such as the replacement of the Chapter 313 code.

[Editor’s Note: The Chapter 313 incentive is designed to attract new businesses by offering them a 10-year limitation on their appraised property value for a portion of the school district property tax. In exchange for the value limitation, the business agrees to build or install new property and create jobs in the school district.]

And we have launched our innovation initiative to support the innovation economy. It’s just so many things that the Chamber is doing well. And so it was a shock to me that the Board of Directors would vote to offer to either terminate me or allow me to resign. At the end of the day, I’m still not aware of what was discussed or why that choice was made.

The announcement from the Chamber came on Tuesday, April 9; was that when you learned the board’s decision?

I believe the board meeting took place on Thursday, April 4. I understand there was an emergency board meeting that morning that I was not invited to, and that a vote was taken. Ironically enough, I was presenting a Discovery Day that morning to about 30 new members about how great the Chamber is and how they made the right choice in getting involved, and this is their pathway to opportunity both personally and professionally. After we closed off the Discovery Day at about 9:30 that morning, I met with our chairman and vice chairman and was given the choice of resignation or termination.

So, you say a board meeting was called without your invitation to attend it. Was that unusual in and of itself?

That is highly unusual. I’ve never not been invited to a board meeting. I also understand there was an executive committee meeting that I was not invited to as well. Typically, as per our bylaws, the Executive Committee – which is a subcommittee of the board – meets in June to do a CEO review and deliver the state of the Chamber. There’s discussion back and forth, then I leave the room. The Executive Committee goes into executive session and then the chairman will come out and report to me the good, the bad, and ugly. That’s how it usually goes and what I was expecting in a couple of months. Instead, it was this.

As you know, nobody’s perfect; nobody’s a perfect employee. I’ve always got room to grow and room to get better. That I was not given that opportunity either to hear what the problems or issues were and respond to those or given an opportunity to correct them really surprises me.

You say that you were informed by the chairman and vice chairman that you could choose to be terminated or to resign. Were any reasons given to you at that time concerning this decision? And what was your response to that decision?

I asked them how much time did I have to think about this, because I was offered a lengthy severance agreement to either sign or not sign, and I wanted to have time for my attorney and myself to review it. I was told that I would have 24 hours. I responded later that I’d like to have through the end of day, because this was complicated and obviously a momentous decision that didn’t need to be taken lightly. I was told I had until noon. So, I sent a resignation letter just before noon and I said that I do resign contingent on signing the severance agreement. I’ve since gone back and forth on various elements of the agreement, and have ultimately decided not to sign it, frankly, because I think our membership, our volunteers, our staff, and all the people who have worked so hard to make the Chamber what it is need to know the truth.

In the time leading up to your discovery of the board’s decision, were there any key performance indicators that there were any issues with you professionally?

Absolutely not. According to all of our key performance indicators, we’re doing very well on our finances. We’re doing good in new membership. Our retention was doing good. Our attendance at events and activities was doing good. All key indicators were in as good as – or better – shape than they’ve been in the past. I think the only answers that can be provided regarding the details or any information about why I was offered this choice have to come from the board members who voted for my ousting. And I think it needs to start with our chairman first.

How can The Woodlands’ business community and private populace possibly get the clearest picture so they can make informed decisions on the situation?

I think the clearest picture can come from hearing from the board members who were in the room, because I’ve been given no information. Which again is highly unusual. If I’ve got areas for improvement, which I’m sure I do, I think it would be good to hear that and it would be good to be able to understand and respond, especially if there are some misunderstandings.

I think it’s important that the community, the members that donate their dollars and their time, and the volunteers would also like to know why. And they would want to know, what was the failure? Where was the Chamber failing so much that we needed to make such a sudden and drastic change?

You spent nine years as president and CEO of the Chamber. What are some of your proudest accomplishments?

Gosh, I have a hard time knowing where to start because I think we have had such a phenomenal team. I’m always grateful to the staff for all the work that they’ve done, and we have a tremendous culture. I think at the end of the day we supported each other. We were there for each other. We were all hands on deck. If there was an event that needed to be done, we really came together as a team. And coming together as a team is what allowed us to develop strategic plans to rebrand the Chamber, to become a strong, influential organization that is financially secure to carry on the events and the activities like the Economic Outlook Conference, Taste of the Town, the Chairman’s Ball, the Health and Fitness Expo, and all those great things that our our Chamber has got to do.

I think I’m probably most proud of the culture that we’ve built, because I think whenever you’re the CEO, that is kind of the secret sauce to what a strong organization is. We’ve all heard that culture eats strategy for breakfast, and it’s true. Have somebody really believe in the strategy and really believe in each other, because if you don’t have that cultural backbone, then the strategy will fail. Because nobody will follow through on it.

We developed that culture in 2018, and it really refined what we do and how we do it and the kind of organization we want to be. It set our vision and then it was tested, and the best way to test strategy is during a crisis. Along came COVID. We didn’t change who we were or what we did, we just changed how we did it. The other thing was that it crystallized our focus, so we didn’t do visitor centers anymore or the Film Commission. We felt like we shouldn’t be a landlord, because that’s not what our chamber needs to be. And so it helped us focus on the things that we wanted to do; and as a result we were only $10,000 shy of having $2,000,000 of revenue last fiscal year. So all the decisions we made – to jettison certain negativities that cost us revenue – we more than made that up. When I was there at the Chamber for about a year and a half, I got a call that we might not be able to make our next salary payments if we didn’t get some checks in. We don’t have that problem anymore. We are a financially secure chamber with almost half a million dollars in the bank. And that being financially secure helps you do more things and helps you fulfill your strategy and helps you just be a better organization.

Do you have any final thoughts or words for us?

The Chamber is a great organization, the Chamber is a strong organization, and the Chamber is not failing in any way. So why would we make this change? We need to support the staff because the staff is distressed and hurting right now, and we need to figure out a way to move forward on this as a community because the Chamber is an important organization that really is a huge piece of the puzzle as to to what The Woodlands is, and we don’t want that to go away.

I wish the Chamber well. I think it’s an important organization in the community. I support the Chamber, but I also am excited about what my next opportunities are.

After the interview, Woodlands Online reached out to representatives at The Woodlands Area Chamber of Commerce for the opportunity to answer three questions posed by us: What necessitated the action of an emergency board meeting and a near-instant response from Hollie? What prompted the decision of the board to call for the termination of Hollie by resignation or otherwise? And, Does the Chamber feel comfortable in its current state of growth despite the flux in leadership? In response, representatives of the Chamber referred us to their original statement, in particular the quote by interim CEO and chairman Brian Albert: “We extend our gratitude to J.J. Hollie for his dedication and contributions to our organization. As we embark on the journey to find new leadership, we are filled with optimism and enthusiasm for the opportunities that lie ahead. With a steadfast commitment to our local business community and Chamber members, we are confident that our next leader will guide us to new heights of success, innovation, and collaboration.”

[Disclosure: In his capacity as president and CEO of The Woodlands Area Chamber of Commerce, Hollie filmed 137 episodes of the Woodlands Online streaming series Between the Trees over a three-year period.]

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