Chamber exec rolling along since leaving old self in the dust

Call it "Michael Varney 2.0."

Gone is the self-described pedal-to-the-metal, white-knuckled businessman of his earlier years. The new leader of the North Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce's says he's learned to live a little while trying to keep member businesses alive.

Varney says he barely resembles who he was as a longtime Midwestern radio station manager and fiercely driven small business owner.

Now, he says, "If there isn't laughter in the halls at work, you are in the wrong place."

A 20-year radio veteran, Varney managed stations before deregulation. Those were the days before conglomerates were allowed to gobble up small stations, he noted.

He admits to missing radio just a bit.

"Radio was like show business, and it was exciting and every day was something new," Varney said. "I miss the old days, where you could make decisions at a local level, and you could make money on a local level. Now, the (station) decisions are made far away."

Like so many Southern Nevada transplants, Varney was drawn to the hot desert weather. He said it wasn't a tough choice to swap out a climate where homeowners swore their front yards were tundra instead of lawn for Las Vegas.

Varney's relocation proved good for his career. He landed a job as vice president of sales and marketing at the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce, during a time the chamber was growing into one of the largest in the nation. Varney left that position in late 2005 to join the Power Efficiency Corp. Following a stint at Nevada corporate headquarters, he formed his own Chamber Consulting Services, for chambers around the country.

In late April of this year, Varney was selected to replace Sharon Powers, the outgoing president and chief executive officer of the North Las Vegas Chamber, which has more than 600 members. Since then, Varney has been busy planning an economic revival in the valley's hardest-hit city.

Varney's plans in his new role include revamping the North Las Vegas Chamber, which has lost about 300 members since its pre-recession heyday.

"Our role at the North Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce is to be a resource the small-business person can turn to for information, increasing business relationships, advocacy and connection to the community," he said.

Question: What will be your biggest challenges, and goals, as the new president and CEO of the North Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce?

Answer: The biggest challenge facing North Las Vegas right now is unemployment. Our top priority is promoting a strong local economy. Put the two together and our mission is clear: Help local companies grow so they can hire more people. We also plan to work closely with the city of North Las Vegas to support their economic development efforts. Our mantra is "when business is good, life is good." A solid business community adds jobs and increases personal income. The multiplier effect personal income has on the local economy is the ultimate objective. Families have more choices, the tax base can rebound and the overall quality of life improves.

Question: How do you plan to grow chamber membership as North Las Vegas' economy continues to suffer?

Answer: I've lived through a number of recessions. This one is obviously the deepest and most prolonged. But one thing I have noticed is that many companies find a way to survive, and some even thrive during times of economic adversity. The North Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce is on a mission to provide programs and services that help companies through the trough and position them to take maximum advantage of the upswing when it occurs.

Question: What differences can we expect to see in the North Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce during your first year in charge?

Answer: Before I was hired, I provided the board of directors with a "Top 10" list of ideas that I believe will have the most profound effect on our operations. Of those 10 concepts, there are four that are most critical: super-serving small businesses, increasing our relevance and value, playing a greater role in major community initiatives and broadening our volunteer base. We're improving our internal systems and putting a white-hot focus on member service. Early returns tell us that businesses like our new direction.

Question: How will you work with Southern Nevada educators to help diversify the economy?

Answer: I think the Las Vegas Valley is starting to take the role of education more seriously than I can ever remember. Educators are reaching out to the business community for direction on what employers need and want in graduates. … New and different ideas about how to go about improving K-12 public education are flourishing unlike ever before. We've adopted several at-risk schools in North Las Vegas, and North Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce board members and I serve on committees to explore ways to improve education with an end-game of upgrading the work force. An upgraded work force is key to economic diversification.

Question: Can you explain your affinity for working with chambers?

Answer: It turned out to be a dream career. A good chamber of commerce has such a profound effect on business owners, executives, their employees, their employees' families and the community. Chambers promote capitalism and free enterprise.

Question: What things did you learn as a small-business owner in Wisconsin that can help you to better assist the North Las Vegas Chamber's smallest members?

Answer: A small business owner's sensations can go from "lost in the woods" to euphoria all in the same day. There seems to be a constant quest for information and best practices...but there is no handbook on how to succeed. The small-business owner just has to figure it out ... and many do. That's why they love what they do. They've bucked the odds and succeeded.

Question: Why did you decide to leave Wisconsin for Las Vegas?

Answer: My wife was diagnosed with fibromyalgia around the first of the year in 1997. Her symptoms seemed to be brought on by certain changes in weather that are so prevalent in Southern Wisconsin. Her doctor suggested that a warm dry climate might provide some relief. I drove her to Las Vegas to live for a month in early February 1997, so she could experiment with a better climate. The experiment lasted 30 days. The weather seemed to really make difference. So, in mid-April, we made the move. Now we watch blizzards on television and wonder what took us so long.

Contact reporter Valerie Miller at vmiller or 702-387-5286.