Why You Need to Know Him:
Because as the newly named top executive at the regional, nonprofit North Texas Commission, James D. Spaniolo will help shape perceptions in Austin and Washington, D.C., about Dallas-Fort Worth and its role on the national and international stage.
Spaniolo, 70, was named the group’s president and chief executive in August, succeeding Mabrie Jackson. Jackson, who’d led the commission since 2010, left last January to take a public affairs and community outreach position with H-E-B/Central Market. She took over the commission’s leadership from Dan S. Petty, who’d spent a whopping 17 years in the job.
Founded in 1971, the North Texas Commission is a public-private consortium of about 200 dues-paying companies, cities, counties, chambers of commerce, economic development agencies, and higher education institutions in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Its stated purpose is to improve “the economic vitality, infrastructure, and lifestyle of North Texas by marketing the region, promoting collaboration, and advocating on critical issues.”
“It has a real opportunity… to be a unifying force to help us be more effective in Washington or Austin.”James Spaniolo, North Texas Commission
Spaniolo began his new job in October, and promptly embarked on a “listening tour” of the region. One day, for example, he visited with Garland Mayor Douglas Athas. On another, he met in Fort Worth with Andrew Johnsen, a state government affairs executive at BNSF Railway. “I’ve been doing a lot of checking in with people, a lot of driving,” Spaniolo says. “And, I’ve been learning a lot. What has impressed me is how vast and deep and rich North Texas is. The quality of life and the diversity, the strong public and private leadership—I’m really energized by that.”
Spaniolo’s new role represents a homecoming of sorts. For nearly a decade, from 2004 until 2013, he served as the seventh president of the University of Texas at Arlington. During his tenure, enrollment at the school increased by 34 percent, to more than 33,800. Annual research expenditures more than tripled to nearly $72 million, and private giving did the same, hitting $20 million annually. Spaniolo also presided over $400 million in campus construction, including a major engineering research complex and a 20-acre, mixed-use development. During his time at UTA, Spaniolo was a board member not only for the North Texas Commission, but also for the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce, the Arlington Chamber, and the Dallas Regional Chamber.
Following his retirement from the university nearly four years ago, he moved back to his native Michigan, where he served as a part-time special adviser for higher education to the state’s governor. But he also remained connected to North Texas, working as a business consultant for clients here. So, why did he decide to return to the Lone Star State?
“I missed being engaged in something on a full-time basis,” Spaniolo replies. “And, even though I’m from Michigan, the 10 years I spent in Texas were so interesting and rewarding, this was really where I considered home. So, I decided to come back.
“What attracted me about the North Texas Commission” in particular, he went on, “was, because of the breadth of its membership, it has a real opportunity not only to be an advocate for things that matter, but to be a unifying force to help us be more effective in Washington, or Austin, or wherever.”
Commission member Stephen Tolerico, chief marketing officer at Dallas-based Sewell Automotive Cos., was part of the search committee that hired Spaniolo. Tolerico recently took over as the commission’s chairman, succeeding Robert Hastings, an executive vice president at Fort Worth-based Bell Helicopter.
“I think [Spaniolo] is a great choice … because of his wealth of experience,” Tolerico says. “So many of Jim’s previous positions have prepared him for his new position … Not only does he possess a working knowledge of the organization as a former board member, but he also has the leadership attributes the president and CEO of the commission will need to advocate on our region’s behalf.
“Sewell Automotive, and I believe other organizations, have been longtime members of the North Texas Commission because it is uniquely positioned to advocate on behalf of the major issues that affect the entire North Texas region,” Tolerico goes on. “It is our belief that as our region succeeds, our company will be a beneficiary. A rising tide will lift all boats.”
Spaniolo grew up in a small Michigan town called Cassapolis, where his father owned the local newspaper. He received an undergraduate degree in political science from Michigan State University, a law degree from The University of Michigan Law School, and a master’s degree in public administration from The University of Michigan Institute of Public Policy Studies. He’s been married to his wife, Sue, for four years. In late October she was still living and working in Michigan, but he was expecting her to join him in Arlington by year’s end to begin this new chapter in their lives.