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Joe Viele marks two years as SRI Chamber director

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Joe Viele, executive director of the Southern Rhode Island Chamber of Commerce, recently reflected on his two-year anniversary with the organization.

SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — After two years on the job, Joe Viele said that he still loves going to work every day at the Southern Rhode Island Chamber of Commerce.

He became executive director in November 2019 after spending over 40 years doing something different. He ran a rental business in Peace Dale that involved moving around equipment and satisfying customers so they would come back. Becoming an administrator invited some doubts about how much he’d like it.

“One of the surprises I’ve had is that I enjoy it. I love going to work,” said Viele, who closed his Liberty Rentals storefront when he transitioned to his current job helping 600 chamber business members develop their operations that feed the total economy of South County.

It’s no secret, though, that Viele is a customer service kind of guy. It kept Liberty Rentals going for decades and it is the hallmark of his approach at the chamber.

“I think my customer service experience is my biggest asset. It’s not something you can touch or feel, but it’s something you do. It makes people feel valued,” he said.

And in that style he also has ambassadors on his staff who he encourages to be innovative in their style in helping members in any way they can. Don’t delay long in figuring out a solution, he said, is his motto.

“The road is full of flat squirrels who couldn’t decide,” he said with a laugh during a recent interview about his management direction for both himself and his staff.

“Think on your feet, make a decision and don’t be a flat squirrel,” he added.

Larry Fish, owner of Pier Cleaners, long-time chairman of the town’s Economic Development Commission and on-site oversight manager of the Wakefield Mall, has known Viele for over 30 years. At the time of Viele’s appointment, he put it succinctly why Viele was the person for the job.

“Number one, his finest trait is that he’s honest as the day is long. He tells it like it is. As opposed to a lawyer, an insurance guy, a banker, he’s been in our shoes,” Fish said.

In an interview last week, Fish said, “No surprises here. He is who he is and has performed as advertised. He’s representing the common business owner. He’s not going to cut any corners, he’s going to tell you right to your eyes the way it is. That is a good thing for all of us and what is needed,” he said.

At that same time of appointment, Clay Johnson of the Goddard School, said, ”No matter the challenge, Joe operates at the speed of business. He is always looking for the most effective way of promoting prosperity.”

Johnson recently told The Independent that Viele has responded to a huge demand for innovation.

“Joe Viele has stepped up and shown a path wholly different from the calcified government response. Joe understands that the business community knows what it needs and that government is often a clumsy obstacle to progress. He has provided superb leadership at a critical time,” he said.

Viele replaced Elizabeth Berman who resigned to join DiStefano Brothers Construction in Wakefield. Since 2012, she led the organization and, with the Board of Directors on which Viele sat for many years, made several changes to focus more tightly on bringing members together.

This is a foundation on which he has built his approach, Viele said, having worked with her while a member of the chamber’s executive board.

For instance, Berman, as leader of the chamber’s daily operations, ran its annual “Taste of Southern Rhode Island” display of food, sweets and beverages chamber members offer in the various kinds of restaurants.

“It was canceled last year, my first year at the chamber, and she really helped me put it together this year,” he said, illustrating the cooperative relationship he is building among the chamber members.

“I was the white-haired business guy on the board when we hired her and I was now that white-haired guy looking for her guidance,” he said.

Guidance is a key word for him. Keeping in touch with the chamber members, responding to their needs, problem solving with them, helping many find focus and help to salvage profits during he COVID-19 pandemic are examples of how he sees his role leading this large organization.

However, Viele said he just doesn’t want to keep a good formula working. He wants to add to it.

In recent months, he, the board and his staff have been working on creating some business development plans for the future. He said these will help business to learn about skills that might require a significant investment of money.

Viele said he wants to help them do it through their membership. The areas include developing podcasts, learning about cyber security and understanding how to maximize social media for their own business benefit.

“We’re hoping to be able to fill the seats with enough people for the presenters,” he said when asked about the level of interest among members. Business development programs like these, he said, take a while to develop a following and he expects that will happen during the next year.

Again, it comes down to customer service and innovation he learned so well owning his own business for decades. He wants to help them become better by giving them the tools to keep customers coming back.

“Everybody has to walk away feeling good about the customer service experience,” he said. “I’m not selling you a pump to keep your basement dry, I’m selling you an experience,” he said.

Write to Bill Seymour, freelance writer covering news and feature stories, at independent.southcountylife@gmail.com.

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