Chamber honors those who make West Orange great

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WEST ORANGE, NJ — JAG Physical Therapy was honored as the Business of the Year during the West Orange Chamber of Commerce’s annual awards dinner at The Manor on May 17.

John Gallucci, JAG’s president and chief executive officer, accepted the distinction by acknowledging that his company’s success would not have been possible without the support of his wife and children. Gallucci recalled that he had a comfortable job with Barnabas Health when he decided to take out a loan on his house and start JAG. And while it was a tremendous risk, he said his family was firmly behind him.

More than a decade later, JAG has expanded to include 14 physical therapy centers while earning attention from the national sports medicine community. Yet through it all, Gallucci said his company has never lost sight of its original mission.

“JAG Physical Therapy stands for some principles that my mom and dad instilled in me, which is to treat everybody as an individual — to treat each individual as a VIP,” Gallucci said.

That philosophy has certainly served JAG well, attracting everyone from average Joes to billionaires to professional athletes in need of quality health care. Gallucci said one of his career highlights was working with baseball legend Yogi Berra, telling the West Orange Chronicle that there was nothing like being charmed by Berra’s personality and engaged by his wisdom. He remembered one day in particular when the former New York Yankee was working so hard at his physical therapy in the West Orange center that it inspired a New Jersey Devils player 50 years his junior to push himself harder in his own session.

No matter who it is, though, Gallucci said it means a lot to him knowing he is making a difference in people’s lives.

“There’s nothing more rewarding than being able to get (people) after injury and illness and bring them back to reach their goals,” Gallucci said in a May 17 phone interview, pointing out that many of the people JAG sees cannot even walk up stairs or brush their teeth when they begin treatment.

Doing business in West Orange has also been a pleasure for JAG. Gallucci said the WOCC is probably the most engaging chamber of commerce he has ever worked with, describing it as a model for offering networking opportunities and doing everything possible to make local businesses successful. Likewise, he said the township’s political leaders have always been supportive of business, while the business community itself offers a camaraderie not found in most places. It is for those reasons Gallucci decided to first set up shop in West Orange 12 years ago, he said, and why his corporate headquarters remain in town although JAG has spread throughout New Jersey and New York.

In fact, Gallucci is so passionate about West Orange that JAG Physical Therapy has given back to the community in a number of ways. Through the years, Gallucci said JAG has hosted injury-prevention programs for senior citizens and child athletes. It has also sponsored philanthropic events for the Police Athletic League and the Mayor’s Program for Individuals with Disabilities. It has even lent its services to West Orange High School.

Overall, Gallucci said, JAG has supported West Orange upon arriving in town since he knows how important benefiting one’s community is while establishing a business.

“You need to have an unbelievable relationship with the community because that’s who you’re servicing,” Gallucci said. “You also need to appreciate the community by a certain amount of giveback to make sure that the community understands the appreciation we have to be able to do business in their town.”

Gallucci’s company was not the only honoree to have had an impact on West Orange. Fire Chief Peter Smeraldo has left an indelible mark on the township since taking over the department in 2005, and he was named Firefighter of the Year. But when it was time to accept the award, Smeraldo stressed that he did not deserve the distinction any more than the firefighters he oversees. He said the department is great because everyone works together as a team, which is why he accepted the plaque on behalf of the entire WOFD.

Still, Smeraldo told the Chronicle beforehand that being singled out ahead of his retirement in June is a “wonderful honor.” And it almost never happened — the chief said he grew up wanting to be a police officer, only taking the firefighters’ exam to try it. Three decades later, he said he is proudest of having maintained the WOFD’s staffing levels, purchased necessary equipment and ensured all firefighters were safe during tough economic times. And he said he appreciates the support he has received all along.

“It’s been tremendous,” Smeraldo said. “From the mayors to the elected officials to the administration to all those I’ve worked with through the years and the community (who have given) support — I want to thank them from the bottom of my heart.”

Sgt. Patrick Matullo, who was recognized as the Police Officer of the Year at the dinner, has also served West Orange for a long time — nearly 12 years. But Matullo told the Chronicle some of his favorite work with the WOPD has come since taking charge of the department’s Community Services Unit last year. Under his leadership, the CSU hosts an after-school program for Washington Elementary School students, holds informational sessions for senior citizens, organizes block parties for residents and much more. By doing so, he said, the WOPD hopes to build relationships with community members that could benefit everyone.

“When the community has issues and there are open lines of communication between us and them, it makes things a lot easier for us to try and come to some kind of solution to any problems or issues they may have,” Matullo, who also heads up the department’s Traffic Bureau, said in an interview prior to the ceremony.

Debra Coen, the 2017 Educator of the Year, was also honored for her unique contribution to the West Orange community. Three years ago Coen launched an introductory engineering course specifically for WOHS students with special needs, giving them the chance to learn such real world skills as measuring and working on an assembly line. At the same time, she said the teens get exposed to concepts including problem solving and teamwork that could help make them more independent once they graduate.

And while the class is still fairly new, Coen said she has already seen some successes. She recalled that one student hated the program the first time he enrolled, but taking the course a second time enabled him to become a leader among his peers since he could help them with subjects he had already learned. Another student was nervous about using a glue gun at the start of the program, she said, but by the end he was using the tool like a professional — even on items that did not need to be glued. Above all, the teacher said her class has shown students that they should not listen to anyone who doubts them due to their special needs.

“People tend to think ‘Oh, they have autism or are intellectually disabled, so they can’t do it,’” Coen told the Chronicle in a May 17 phone interview, adding that her course demonstrates otherwise to her students. “It gives them the idea that ‘yeah, you can do it.’ And some of these kids shine a whole lot in my classroom.”

All four honorees certainly shined at the awards dinner, with Mayor Robert Parisi lauding them for setting an example for the rest of the township. But they were not the only ones in the spotlight. Two guest speakers also addressed the audience, each giving a take on how to run a successful business.

For Hugh Weber, president of the New Jersey Devils and the Prudential Center, the key component of making his assets prosperous is embracing the larger community in which they are situated. Weber said that when he took over the Devils, the team was dominating the NHL but failing financially. To fix that, the president said he and his partners considered what the organization’s purpose should be, realizing that the Devils could fill a void by serving the people of New Jersey. As a result, the franchise introduced the first farm-to-table concessions stands featuring state-based chefs and produce. It also instituted the NHL’s first Flex Membership program so fans could have a customizable platform for purchasing tickets and with membership benefits.

The team’s fortunes improved with these changes, with Weber pointing out that the Prudential Center is now the eighth busiest concert venue in the country. Just as vital though, the Devils are benefiting the state through initiatives like the 82 Hours Program, which grants employees 82 paid hours every year for community service work. Through the program, the president told the Chronicle, employees have done everything from counseling young people at Newark’s Covenant House to planting grass to prevent beach erosion in Lavallette. And he hopes his employees will continue making a difference.

“We believe that we have the ability to have a transformative effect on people’s lives,” Weber said in an interview before the ceremony.

Pastor Terry Smith of The Life Christian Church also discussed a transformative effect — specifically, the power West Orange business leaders have to create their own reality. Though New Jersey is often viewed as a place rife with negativity, Smith said local entrepreneurs can create a “hospitable climate” in which good can occur. It is in such an environment that people can be inspired to achieve their dreams, he said.

But to perpetuate that climate, Smith told the Chronicle, the right attitude is necessary.

“When we have a positive attitude about the township, a positive attitude about opportunities, a positive attitude about each other, it helps to create a climate where positive things can happen,” Smith, who has written two best-selling books about leadership, said in a May 17 phone interview. “There’s an attitude of positivity that’s infectious and that helps create reality.”

Photos by Sean Quinn