Karen Colimore, the newly appointed president of the Princeton Regional Chamber of Commerce, won’t have to worry about meeting a payroll. So says Michael Hierl, who chaired the chamber from 2003 through 2005, and who now chairs the chamber’s foundation. Colimore, who has held high-level positions with SERV and with Cancer Care of New Jersey, was chosen, says Hierl, for her experience in managing a mature non-profit. That, he says, is what the chamber is after four years of Kristen Appelget’s leadership.
Hierl, whose day job is leading the Pacesetter Group, a management consulting and software company, says that, under Appelget, who resigned last spring to become director of community relations at Princeton University, the chamber made enormous strides. “We were the 22nd largest chamber in the state four years ago, and we’re now 5th or 6th,” he says.
Appelget was, in effect, running a start-up, albeit a nearly 50-year-old start-up, whose resources were so thin that paying staff on time was an issue, he says. Chosen from a pool of 300 candidates in a nationwide search, which Hierl headed up, Appelget was charged with keeping the organization afloat and building programs that would attract membership. “She exceeded everybody’s expectations,” says Hierl. “She hit the ball out of the park.” Appelget, he says, left the chamber in fine shape in terms of membership, up from 400 to 1,000 during her tenure, and in terms of financial resources.
“Don’t get me wrong, she could have gotten us to the next level,” he says, “but when she left we had an opportunity to look for someone with experience at a higher level. We were hiring for a very different role, for a real CEO role.”
With a more focused job description, the chamber’s search committee, headed up by chamber chair Karen Jezierny, director of public affairs at Princeton University, looked at a smaller pool of candidates. “We had a targeted approach,” says Hierl. “The applicant pool was more experienced and more senior.”
The search committee worked to hone a description of the perfect president for the chamber, circa 2006, rather than, say, the chamber that Ellen Hodges, Appelget’s predecessor, headed for several decades, beginning in the 1960s. A chamber that, as Hodges liked to recall, gathered together on Saturdays to plant flowers along Nassau Street. The chamber was then focused on downtown merchants and professionals. It did try to embrace the new reality, wherein companies put down roots in South Brunswick, West Windsor, and a dozen other nearby towns, and listed “Princeton” as their business address. But, according to Hierl, it was floundering, struggling to meet basic financial obligations, when Appelget took over.
Now, on solid ground, and seeking to climb to even higher ground — 2,000 members within three years — the chamber needs an experienced manager, he says. The chamber spent a great deal of time defining exactly what skills that manager should have, and sought input from many sources. “Melissa Tenzer, the owner of CareersUSA, talked to Mark Schweiker, the former governor of Pennsylvania,” says Hierl. “He heads the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce now.” With some knowledge of the Princeton Regional Chamber, Schweiker, who has spoken at chamber events, told her that the organization was at a point where it should look for fundraising experience as it evaluated candidates.
Other key attributes the chamber sought included proven ability to lead a staff, motivate volunteers, and create programs that would engage members.
Then there’s the personality piece. “I knew Karen from Cancer Care,” says Larry Krampf, member of the search committee and president of Princeton Communications. “She’s a good consensus builder and she has excellent interpersonal skills.”
Yes, she does. After five minutes, Colimore seems like an old friend. Sure, it’s a cliche, but she is an extraordinary example of the phenomenon. Meeting with her in a conference room feels like settling in on the back porch for a nice long chat with a childhood friend. There are so many shared interests. There is so much in common. There is a sense that she keen to know more, to build a relationship. This ability to form an instant connection is a gift — it can’t be learned. And most often, as is the case with Colimore, it is accompanied by a sunny personality.
Her warm, empathetic approach, coupled with just the right mix of diffidence and intelligence, serves Colimore well as she travels the windey — but always upward — road that so many ambitious female Baby Boomer are navigating.
Colimore is a native of Baltimore, where her father, an Italian immigrant, owned a construction business, and her mother worked in a department store. The oldest of four siblings, she has one brother, an architect and guitar maker who lives in Western Maryland. Both of her sisters have remained in Baltimore, where one works for the Post Office and the other is a chef who owns the Pierpoint restaurant in the Federal Hill section of the city, across from the Inner Harbor. Frommer’s guide raves over the restaurant’s “divine” desserts and its entrees with “Maryland and Italian roots.”
Colimore is close to all of her siblings, but is especially proud of her restaurateur sister, Nancy Longo, because she was her mentor. “I was a caterer when I was in my 20s,” says Colimore, who studied at London’s Cordon Bleu. “She was in her teens and came to parties to help me. She did the garnishes.” Her sister decided then and there that she wanted a culinary career, studied at the Culinary Institute in Baltimore, and is on the verge of opening a second restaurant, this time in New York City. Excited over the prospect, Colimore says “I’m looking forward to the opening.”
While her sister found her calling in the land of white tablecloths, brulee, and, to quote Frommer’s review, “stylish preparations of tenderloin, duck breast, and oysters,” Colimore had had enough after three years, and moved on.
She teamed up with her uncle, an artist four years younger than she is, for the next leg of her career-building journey. He was working as an artist in Sante Fe at the time that she was deciding that catering was not for her. “We decided to take a cross country trip together,” she recounts. Her uncle made it as far as San Diego, where he settled down, and where his big metal sculptures soon earned him the nickname, “Tin Man.” Colimore continued up the coast until she was stopped by the beauty of Santa Cruz.
She promptly enrolled in the University of California at Santa Cruz, where she earned a degree in psychology, summa cum laude, in 1984. She was married as an undergraduate, to Robert Shaw, a business consultant in the Princeton area and the author of “Trust in the Balance.” The pair, now divorced, have a 21-year-old daughter, Gabrielle Shaw, a communications major at New York University. During their undergraduate days both were studious, eschewing surfing for the library, where Colimore spent most of her California days.
They headed east so that Shaw could pursue a graduate degree at Yale, where Colimore worked for four years. Her first job there was as a research assistant for Yale Family Television Research. “We looked at the effect of cartoons on children,” she says. It was interesting work, and had an effect on what she allowed her daughter to watch on television, but after two years she moved on to the university’s development office. There she found her life’s work. She has been involved in fundraising in one form or another ever since.
Fundraising, she points out, is not all about asking for a check. “At Yale I started off as a research assistant,” she says. “I identified majors donors.” The work involved researching the lives of Yale graduates, and she found it fascinating to be involved with the likes of Meryl Streep, a Yalie who has been active in supporting her alma mater’s arts programs.
She was then recruited by Yale’s development department to work with Fortune 100 companies. It was there that she found her niche within the fundraising profession. Rather than encourage titans of industry or the scions of oil potentates to give or will fortunes to the school, she encouraged corporations to join membership programs. “It’s similar to what we do here,” she says from her new chamber office. A corporate donor would make a contribution to become a member, and in turn, some of its executives would be invited to special lectures or to meetings with top economics’ professors, who would discourse on economic trends. At these exclusive, intimate events, of course, the executives would have an excellent opportunity to network with one another.
“It’s very appealing,” says Colimore. Corporations receive substantial benefits even as they aid the institution.
The chamber model is a little different, but appeals to the same dynamic. Corporations, and in the case of the chamber, mid-size and small businesses as well, pay dues, and in return reap the opportunity to serve on committees and boards, recruit well-known speakers for events, and enjoy the kind of close contact that can lead to business opportunities.
Colimore deviated a bit from her nascent career in corporate fundraising when she followed her then-husband to New Jersey in the late 1980s. She took a job with the New Jersey Network as membership manager, responsible for all aspects of individual memberships. In this capacity she coordinated special events and activities — including those infamous fundraising marathons that interrupt programming for days at a time.
Loathe to utter even one negative syllable about any item on her CV, Colimore convincingly says that the New Jersey Network is a wonderful place to work. But it wasn’t for her, and she stayed for less than a year. “My daughter was a little girl,” she explains. “It was time consuming (all those fundraising marathons). It was not a great match for person with a young child.”
Colimore then went to work for SERV Behavioral Health System, a 32-year-old West Trenton-based non-profit that serves chronically mentally ill individuals, children with severe emotional difficulties, and substance abusers. Her first position there was vice president of fund development. In that capacity she coordinated state grant proposals and tripled the organization’s annual budget to $24 million. She was then promoted to the position of president, and in addition to directing all fundraising, she managed event coordination, marketing, volunteer programs, company publications, and public relations.
Then, after 10 years, Colimore accepted a job as executive director of Cancer Care of New Jersey, working from its northern New Jersey headquarters. Her responsibilities at Cancer Care, which serves more than 9,000 people touched by cancer each year, involved overseeing fundraising events, foundation and corporate grant proposals, an annual appeal, and three separate boards of directors — two regional, and one statewide.
So many of Colimore’s responsibilities at these non-profits overlap with her job description as president of the chamber. “The job requires marketing and PR skills,” says Krampf. “It calls for planning, implementing policies and programs, and promoting the chamber throughout the greater Princeton area.” Crucially, heading up the chamber also requires just the right touch with its board. “You have to work with multiple personalities on the board,” says Krampf. One doesn’t have to be especially skilled at reading between the lines to guess that this is a key, and potentially thorny, task. But having reported to three boards at Cancer Care, Colimore should be up to it.
“She’s a pleasure to work with,” says Krampf.
Between work with large New Jersey non-profits and her new job at the chamber, Colimore took a slight detour out of New Jersey. Less than one year ago she was recruited to work for the New York University Medical Center in New York City by a former colleague at Cancer Care. Her position was senior director of major gifts, a job that involved soliciting donations of $50,000 to several million dollars from individuals, corporations, and family foundations.
She says that she “closed some fairly large donations” and enjoyed the work. But she had under-estimated the misery of the commute. “When I was working for Cancer Care, I went into the city for meetings,” she says. The trip didn’t seem to be too bad. But after she began commuting every day from her home in Oakland, a North Jersey town without a direct rail link to Manhattan, she recalled that her prior trips had generally taken place before or after rush hour. She soon found that her prime time commute took a good 35 to 40 minutes longer each way, or four full hours every day. She had a 30-minute drive to the train, had to run between train connections, ride in packed trains, and then walk to her office.
All of this would be bad enough with a sane start time, but it turns out that doctors like to hold meetings first thing in the morning. “I was getting up at 4:30 a.m. for an 8 a.m. meeting,” says Colimore.
Beyond the physical drain that commuting inflicts, she found that it left her no time for the rest of her life — for friends, hobbies, working out.
Just in the process of moving into her office, and into her new apartment in Hopewell, on a 97-acre farm, Colimore is beyond delighted to ditch her commute. Happy to be off the train, and back in Princeton, where she worked for more than 10 years, she is eager to get started in her new role.
It is early days yet, and Colimore is busy getting to know her staff, her board, her committees, and her chamber’s members. She is a people person, and is putting these get-acquainted sessions at the top of her agenda.
The chamber initiative she mentions as among the first to receive her attention is the revitalization of the Princeton Regional Chamber Foundation. In existence for 10 years, it is now gearing up to support and initiate programs that promote civic involvement and form leaders to replace the pre-Baby Boom generation, which is set to retire from its role of community leadership.
Colimore is taking over at a busy time, with the annual Trade Show, the chamber’s biggest event, coming Friday, October 6, and the busy fall season of lectures and meetings just around the corner. None of it ruffles her. None of it makes her appear rushed as she returns phone calls promptly, and makes time to talk about books and restaurants before hanging up. She has the confidence that comes from a knowledge that she has deep experience in all aspects of her new job, and that she has the backing of a chamber that wants to give her all of the resources it has amassed to use in taking it to the next level.
“We want to give someone with Karen’s skills the ability not to worry about meeting payroll,” says Hierl. “She can concentrate on what we need to do to connect the chamber with the greater community. The Princeton Chamber has different elements. There’s the chamber, the convention and visitors bureau, and the foundation. Her role will be to integrate and build a family of chamber companies. We didn’t hire a CEO for the way we are now, but for how we will be in 10 years.”