Lori Sax. Kathy Lehner in March was named president and CEO of the Venice Area Chamber of Commerce.

Sudden loss of chamber leader brings heartbreak — but also opportunity

Kathy Lehner has big shoes to fill with her new job, heading up the Venice Area Chamber of Commerce.
By: 
Aug. 15, 2018

When John Ryan, leader of the Venice Area Chamber of Commerce for two decades, died suddenly in August 2017 of a heart attack, Kathy Lehner was among the Venice area businesspeople shaken by the community’s major loss.

After the shock wore off and it was time to choose his successor, she knew it would be important to find the right fit. “I was thinking in my head, they better be careful with who they pick,” says Lehner, 55. “All I could think was, please don’t go getting someone from up north who’s going to tell us how they’re going to do it here. Venice is a unique little town.”

Involved with the chamber since 1990, Lehner served as chairwoman in 2005-06. And she was a familiar face around the organization, often emceeing events. So it wasn’t surprising when people started telling her she should be the next CEO. “The more people pointed their fingers at me, and the more I thought about how they better get the right person who knows Venice and knows that chamber, you kind of look in the mirror,” she says.

It meant stepping away from her 21-year real estate career. “But I’ve always loved this organization, and there was always a spot in my heart for it,” she says.

Lehner beat out several candidates for the job and in March officially took on the role of president and CEO. She thinks her multi-year vision for the chamber helped land her the position.

 ‘All I could think was, please don’t go getting someone from up north who’s going to tell us how they’re going to do it here.’ Kathy Lehner, president and CEO, Venice Area Chamber of Commerce

“When I put my resume in in November, I started planning,” she says. During the interview process, she laid out ideas for near term and long-range initiatives, like the chamber’s 100th anniversary in 2025. “I had a plan,” she says. “I had a 30-day plan, a 90-day plan, and all the way out to the 100th birthday.”

In five months, she’s already accomplished what she hoped to achieve in her first year. That includes launching new revenue-generating events for the chamber like Women Empowering Women, a day-long women’s leadership and networking event scheduled for Oct. 26.

She also started a CEO Roundtable program in Venice in conjunction with Manasota SCORE. “I thought if we could do really well we could maybe get two tables and have 15 participants,” she says. “We have 27 applicants, so we’ll have three roundtables for sure. Decisionmakers will be able to talk to someone else in their same position. And talk freely, because it’s noncompeting.”

Revenue that programs like these bring to the chamber help ensure it offers value to members. “For the most part, the chamber’s revenue is dues,” says Lehner. “And when your average dues come in at $315 for the year, that’s not a lot of money. I’ve always felt that the chamber is the business of businesses. So if we’re not acting like a business, how can we be helping other businesses be more successful?”

The chamber currently has more than 1,000 members. Membership has never gotten past 1,197, so a big goal for Lehner is to hit the 1,200 mark.

Beyond programs, momentum and trust have helped Lehner, especially after taking over leadership from a beloved former president under tragic circumstances. “It’s difficult, because it wasn’t like a handoff,” she says. “Some folks don’t like change, but they also know how I am. I see something, I’m going to do it and get it done. It’s just the way it is. All I did was pick up from where John left off, and that’s what I’m going forward with.”

What’s next? Plans include a renovation of the chamber’s lobby and launching a Leadership Venice program. She’s also listening to input from members —careful to make sure new initiatives fit the mission. “We can go adrift if we just start doing things to do things,” she says. “We want to keep the chamber at the forefront, but I don’t want to push us to where we’re tripping over ourselves.”