Michael V. Varney

By Rhonda Bodfield –


If childhood is a series of life-defining moments stitched together with snippets of everyday existence, Mike Varney’s would include football helmets and a can of white paint.

Growing up in Wisconsin, the oldest of five kids, Varney remembers one fall season when he was about 12, asking if he could have a new helmet to join the neighborhood kids in football games. The response? The fence needs painting.

And so it was, armed with a wire brush to prep the surface, with paint chips flying about, that he learned a lesson – “Life owes you nothing. If you want things in life, find a way to earn them.” The white picket fence came with a cost – but he got his helmet.

And when his father, an insurance executive and the sole breadwinner, told him his senior year of high school that education would shape his future – and ended it with a handshake and a “good luck” – he could read between the lines. If he wanted to go to college, he’d work for it. And he did, serving on a road crew, working in retail, tending bar and driving a school bus.

That education launched him into a journey that would include 20 years in broadcast sales and marketing, six years as a small business owner and 18 years split between the chambers of commerce in Las Vegas and Tucson. He has led the Tucson Metro Chamber since 2011.

While he enjoyed his earlier careers, it was chamber work that spoke to him. “From Day One, it was evident that nothing provided that same sense of contribution to the community. I was swept up in the fact that this organization was affecting the lives of lots of people – and there’s a good feeling to that if you do it well.”

Beyond his chamber involvement in the community, Varney serves on the board of directors for Linkages, a local nonprofit organization specializing in job placements for people with disabilities, as well as serving on the board of directors for Visit Tucson and the Southern Arizona Defense Alliance, which he co-founded.

His blended family includes Laurie, his wife of 30 years, two children (Patrick and Jeffrey), two stepchildren (Julie and Jason) and eight grandchildren ages 2-17.

Patrick is in the cement contracting business, Jeff owns his own construction company, Julie is a social worker and Jason owns his own real estate company.

“There’s always a balance you need to strike between family and work and it looks different for everyone,” he said. With the three boys active in sports or outdoor activities including camping and hunting, and Julie busy with dance and pom squad, they were on the fly, he recalled.

And then there were the other youngsters in his life, as a youth hockey coach for 25 years. It didn’t come without some sacrifice. The hockey season lasted six months, with two practices a week and games throughout the weekends – many of which required flying to other communities to play against kids of comparable skill.

“I still look back and think about what a privilege it was to affect the lives of so many young people,” he said.

For Varney, hockey was a microcosm of life. “You work hard, get better and succeed – but it’s also true that along the way you will fail at some point. You will need to learn to deal with adversity and failure and coming up short – and how to work through that and get back out there. And you need to know that when you work hard and play well as a team, there are rewards for that. It’s life.”

It might just as well define the path to economic development – particularly that part about the importance of teamwork and the value of patience.

At a recent meeting with emerging business leaders under 40, the discussion turned to community dynamics. “Everybody felt that with the economic energy here, this is a very good time to be in Tucson. That’s not reflective of where we were at when I got here six years ago. Whatever has happened, it hasn’t happened because of one person, but a lot of people making a lot of contributions.”

His kids taught him, he said, that there’s value in dialogue and listening. And they are a reminder of why he does the work he does: “I am a fervent believer in free enterprise and the role it plays in creating a robust economy. If you have employment and you earn a decent salary and can take care of your family, life is better. And that’s what we all deserve.”

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