Brownwood chamber's new director feeling welcome in new home
Nathan Smith isn’t from Brown County. But he had ties to the area long before he was introduced last month as the new executive director of the Brownwood Area Chamber of Commerce.
Smith’s wife, Kara — whose father, Joel Kelton, is Precinct 2 county commissioner — is from May, and the Smiths and their four children live on a ranch in the May area.
Smith, who grew up in Colorado City, previously worked for the Texas Farm Bureau.
In a recent interview in his office, Smith discussed several topics including his background, the path that brought him from the Texas Farm Bureau to the Brownwood chamber and the opportunities and challenges he sees with the Brownwood business climate.
“My wife’s from the May area,” Smith said. “She grew up here. By marriage I’ve got strong ties to the community already. We had moved to Belton several years ago and we kept our place in May, our ranch.
“We experienced COVID in an I-35 city and decided, coming out of COVID in the last year, that we wanted to make our home in May. We really wanted to be here, and raise our kids here, put down roots here. We still have lots of great friends here, a great church home here, and so there were a lot of things that kept continually drawing us back to this area.”
Smith said it has been “great” to be back in Brown County.
“That’s really what we wanted to do as a family, and that’s what’s driven all of our decisions,” Smith said. “My wife and I are both very interested in putting down roots. We both obviously grew up in small towns and that small town feel and community is something that’s so unique and has so much to offer.
“We want to make sure our kids grow up in a small town community. We’re both obviously rural-cut people. The values that you find here in Brownwood and communities like Brownwood are very important to us, and they’re rare.”
After graduating from Colorado City High School, Smith attended Tarleton State University, where he earned a degree in agricultural communications. “It’s a journalism degree with an ag twist, basically,” Smith said.
"I waited tables some in college, and people would ask 'what's your major?' And I'd tell them, and they'd say, 'you learn how to talk to cows?'"
Smith worked at the Texas Farm Bureau, where he was associate director of field operations, for 10 years.
“In that role I worked with a lot of volunteer boards, made up of farmers and ranchers, and did legislative advocacy,” Smith said. “I did lots of volunteer management work, worked with nonprofits and did a little bit of fundraising.”
It was a great job, Smith said, but it kept him on the road two or three nights a week. “Great folks there at the Farm Bureau, great job, but it just wasn’t good for us as a family," he said.
Smith learned the Brownwood chamber needed to hire a new executive director following the resignation of former director Sunni Modawell.
“I was looking for a job, basically, and saw that the chamber had an offering, and thought that would fit well with what I had been doing and some of my skill sets," Smith said.
“I love it. It’s great. There’s been an overwhelming amount of support, encouragement, opinions given. I’ve really been blown away just by the sheer number of people who’ve reached out to offer support, encouragement and offer themselves up as a resource to me and my staff. I had expected that from Brownwood, but the level at which it’s received has been great.”
Smith said one of his goals is to focus on being an advocate with elected officials.
“We’re up against a lot of challenges in rural Texas,” Smith said. “I think challenges in Texas really divided along the lines of urban and rural, not Democrat and Republican. We have be in a position where we can stand up for the businesses in the Brownwood area.”
Regarding the local business climate, Smith said, “I think we’re on the cusp of some great things happening, and in my role I’m going to build on what great work has already been accomplished with this chamber. The chamber here has done so many great things. That's a credit to Sunni's leadership and the staff that she has put together.
“However there are some challenges that our local businesses are facing right now. Everybody is finding it difficult to hire quality folks, and there’s various factors that probably affect that right now. Coming out of the COVID season from last year, Into this new uptick in COVID cases, that’s going to present enough challenges.”
There will always be “market challenges that you have no control over" which are part of the risk of owning and operating a businesses, Smith said.
“Our commitment as a chamber organization is to try to make sure that we are doing everything possible to help support, encourage and promote our businesses locally through good times and difficult times,” he said.
Smith sees “some great things on the horizon” for the Brownwood chamber.
“I want the chamber to be a reflection of what our members want, and I am looking forward to doing a lot of formal and informal surveying in the next few months,” Smith said. “I really want to get back to visiting one-on-one with business owners and groups of business owners to really hear what’s on their mind.
“We could sit in this office and think we know what our businesses in this area need or want or are struggling with, but until we get out there and see and meet with them face to face … I’m a face to face to face kind of person and I think most of our businesses in this area really are that way also.”