James H. Gatling ’78 MBA is an accomplished, award-winning professional whose career includes work as a research chemist, a process engineer and, for the last 34 years, president and CEO of New Opportunities, an anti-poverty and social service nonprofit organization based in Waterbury. His next big project? Raising fish and growing vegetables. And he’s enlisted UNH students for help.
Farming fish and vegetables may seem an endeavor quite disparate from Gatling’s background. But it’s actually a culmination of his varied experiences and a tangible fruition of his life’s work: enabling people to improve their lives and revive their communities through innovative programs that empower them to become self-sustaining.
New Opportunities employed 60 people in one location when Gatling got involved in the early 1970s as a volunteer, tutoring inner-city youth through a program of his then-employer, Uniroyal Chemical Company. Enlightened and invigorated by the experience, Gatling joined the New Opportunities Board of Directors in 1973. Six years later, having earned his MBA at UNH (subsequent to a B.S. in chemistry from Hampton Institute), he left the chemistry field to take the helm as president and CEO. Under his direction, the organization has grown to encompass 500 employees at five locations, serving 70,000 people throughout 40 towns in northwest Connecticut. During that time, Gatling would also go on to earn a Ph.D. in business administration from LaSalle University in 1994, and he received an honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters degree from Post University in 1995.
“The thing that drew me to New Opportunities was the results,” Gatling says. “This area was suffering from urban decay, and we brought it back to life. You can literally see the change that your efforts have made.”
But with government cuts to social services going deeper every year, Gatling says the agency itself must become self-sustaining. And that’s why the former chemist is bringing fish farming into the mix and turning decay into opportunity once again, with a vision that perhaps only he could have imagined. “The idea came about because I never really left my scientific background,” he says.
New Opportunities is converting an old factory in Waterbury into an energy-efficient, solar-powered commercial fish farm, the proceeds of which will help to fund their other programs. The operation will create jobs and pay taxes to support the local economy, and water
runoff from the fishery will be used as irrigation for a greenhouse where vegetables will be grown and sold at affordable prices to provide healthy food for the local community.
It’s an ambitious vision, but one that “ticks all the boxes,” as Gatling says, providing for urban renewal, jobs, the environment, availability of healthy foods and provision of revenue to keep vital community services afloat.
But he couldn’t do it alone. And as fate would have it, just as work began on the project, Gatling had a visit from Bob Congdon, director of development at UNH. Congdon put Gatling in touch with Larry Flanagan ’80, president and CEO of New Tech Haven, a business incubator that recruits and trains Connecticut college students to support the goals of start-up businesses across the state.
Flanagan worked with UNH faculty and students to refine both the mechanics of the fish farm and its business aspects. Now students and faculty in the College of Business are helping to put the final touches on the business plan to be presented to the state for funding.
“This is one of the most exciting projects I’ve been involved in, and the team from UNH has really helped our chances of getting it funded,” said Gatling. “I hadn’t had much contact with the University since I graduated – you just get so busy in your career. But they reached out to me, and for that I’m truly grateful.”