For 26 years, Don Vizi was a navigator in the Air Force.
Now, the retired lieutenant colonel is tasked with directing the Orange County Chamber of Commerce.
The chamber introduced Vizi—most recently, the executive director of the Woodford County Chamber of Commerce in Versailles, Ky.—at a business after-hours get-together Thursday night at The Market at Grelen.
“I have more than 15 years of experience in progressive leadership positions in chamber of commerce management,” he said. “It looks like there is a lot the chamber has been doing, but it also looks like there’s a lot I could do for the chamber.”
Woodford County, just west of Lexington, is about a seven and a half hour drive from Orange, with a population of approximately 27,000. Its chamber of commerce was founded in 1928—four years after the Orange Chamber began. It has approximately 245 members, including Woodford Reserve Distillery
Vizi becomes the fourth chamber director in the past six years. He replaces Tammy Collins, who resigned in October after less than two years in the job. Collins replaced Lori Landes-Carter, who left in December 2017 to become the county’s tourism manager. Landes-Carter replaced Amanda Settle, who was hired in October 2013 and served as executive director for three years. Settle had replaced longtime chamber director Barbara Bannar, who resigned after 21 years in the post.
Interim chamber director Deanne Marshall said she expects that trend to stop with Vizi on board.
“When Don comes in, watch out,” she said, noting she will stay on as Vizi’s assistant in the Orange office. “I’ll stay here and offer a support system for the chamber and for Don so he can take the chamber to the next level.”
Vizi officially will begin Jan. 21, 2020.
Originally from Lockport, N.Y., Vizi attended the University of Kentucky and earned a B.S. in commerce, lettered three years on the Wildcats’ tennis team and played on the school’s freshman basketball team. After college, he was assistant manager in a department store and about to be drafted for the war in Vietnam when he enlisted in the U.S. Air Force and served 26 years.
“I loved it,” he said. “I could have stayed for 35 or 40 years.”
As a navigator, “We told the pilots where to go.” Vizi said he first served on gunships in Vietnam, and later was stationed in Hawaii where his crew recovered satellites returning to Earth. During that deployment, he earned his master’s in business administration from Pepperdine University in Southern California—without ever stepping foot on campus. Unlike online university programs today, Pepperdine flew its professors out to Hawaii once a month for intense weekend classroom instruction. Over a two-year period, Vizi earned his degree.
At his next post, in Albuquerque, N.M., where he was working on airborne laser lab research, Vizi began his business career. An avid tennis player, Vizi opened a pro shop selling tennis gear and supplies. He wrote a business plan, got financing and hired his wife, Karen, to run the shop. “She would work the shop during the day and I’d come home at night and string rackets,” he said. “I know what it takes to open a business. I know what businesses go through. It was paying its own bills within six months.”
Later assignments had him navigating a research plane studying the northern lights, serving as an instructor at the Armed Forces Staff College in Norfolk and ultimately, navigating the VC-135 for the Air Force Chief of Staff and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “It was like Air Force One,” he said. “That was a great job.”
His first brush with chamber work came after he retired as chief of the command briefing team at Air Force Special Operations Command at Hurlburt Field, Fla., and joined the chamber there.
He soon embarked on a second career, serving as general manager of the Pensacola Area Chamber of Commerce in Florida, president and CEO of the Pocono Mountains Chamber of Commerce in Pennsylvania and the Brentwood and Cool Springs Chamber of Commerce in Tennessee. He also served as president and CEO of the Danville Convention Center in Kentucky and as executive director of the Paso Fino Horse Association in Lexington, Ky. Along the way, he completed the chamber’s institution of organizational management program, “which is like a master’s in chamber work.”
Marshall said Vizi’s chamber-specific leadership and experience were key factors in his hiring.
Vizi said he likes working with people and likes helping businesses, making chamber work a natural fit.
He hopes to implement some of the successful programs he’s introduced elsewhere when he and his wife, their two horses and five alpacas come to Orange.
“I’ve done a lot of work with young people—mentoring programs, business etiquette and leadership programs—skills young people need to be successful,” he said. “We started a women in business mentorship program that pairs a high school or college student with a successful local businesswoman for a five-month program.” Most recently, in Woodford County, he’s offered members a health insurance plan through their chamber membership.
“Chamber members are always asking, ‘What are you doing for me?’ I’m always looking to answer that by bringing new benefits to chamber members,” he said.
Vizi has led the Woodford Chamber for seven years and said he’s ready for a new challenge.
Marshall said approximately 20 individuals applied for the position and the board interviewed four.
Chamber board member Sam Kessler said Vizi checked a lot of boxes for the board and that there were a lot of similarities between where Vizi is in Kentucky and his new position in Orange.
“The only learning curve he’ll have is the area—not the job,” Kessler suggested.
“We are excited to have someone with the knowledge and experience Don has,” current chamber board president Dana Amos said. “He brings a wealth of fundraising, financing and member-focused ideas to the chamber. He will work hard for our members and work well with our board.”