Northern Rhode Island Chamber’s Gregory heads into relaxed retirement, reflects on career

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John Gregory doesn’t have any extravagant retirement plans now that his 27 years at the helm of the Northern Rhode Island Chamber of Commerce are over, and he offered concise reasoning for leaving his post.

“I’ll be 70 in November,” Gregory said with a laugh. “It’s that simple.”

Gregory spoke to the Sun Rise during a phone interview last Friday, exploring his history with the organization, ties to Johnston and more over the course of the discussion.

Gregory couldn’t pick out a favorite memory from his nearly three decades leading the Chamber, but he noted that he enjoyed advocating at the State House and the “countless stories” of helping entrepreneurs grow their businesses with whatever resources are available.

“I think you almost have to look at it from a 50,000-foot level,” he said. “One of the things that I’ve been talking about, one of my mentors once said the Chamber executive has one of the coolest and hardest jobs in America, and one of the coolest things we’ve ever done is helping our emerging businesses grow.”

Gregory said the Chamber was in “dire financial straits” when he took over 27 years ago. In fact, he added that if they were like one of their member businesses, they might have needed to consider bankruptcy. Fortunately, though, the Chamber is now on a more solid foundation as new head executive Liz Catucci steps in to take over.

“We have a much better reputation that we did 27 years ago,” he said. “Instead of being someone who was on the sidelines when we got here, we’ve certainly become a major player when it comes to helping businesses throughout the state of Rhode Island … Without a supportive staff with a supportive board of directors, none of this could have happened.”

“One of the coolest things” over which Gregory has presided is the annual AppleFest in Johnston, which the Chamber has hosted for the past several years. He specifically thanked Lesley Palagi for taking on the leadership role for the event.

“Vendors and attendees think it’s a great festival,” he said. “Working with the town has been great, too.”

The feeling is mutual, as Mayor Joseph Polisena offered parting remarks to Gregory during an interview with the Sun Rise on Tuesday.

Polisena said Gregory’s departure is a “big loss” and that he leaves “big shoes to fill,” but he is confident Catucci will fit in seamlessly.

“John was a friendly guy,” the mayor said. “He would come and visit me and probably every month come in just to check on what’s going on, because we have a lot of development going on in the town, which obviously helps him. John’s going to be missed. He’s really a decent guy. I have not met his replacement, but I think they’re coming in this week or next week, so I’ll get to meet them.”

Gregory mentioned the idea of there being “big shoes to fill” as well, but he doesn’t subscribe to it. He said he had big shoes to fill when he first started as well – “I was the new kid on the block.”

When asked what advice he had for Catucci as she begins her tenure, he quoted one of his favorites from Mark Twain: “If you do the right thing, you please your friends and amaze others.” An interview with Catucci discussing her new role will appear in an edition of the Sun Rise later this month.

“I guess that would be the biggest thing – do the right thing,” Gregory said. “I’ll still be on as a consultant with the Chamber through the end of the year. I’ll be working closely with Liz Catucci. I’m excited about her passion. It’s the same passion that I had when I first got here and still have today here on my last day in the office. You just know. You just know what that right thing is and do it.”

Gregory said his last day was a melancholy occasion, allowing him to reflect on his time at the Chamber before breaking from his usual schedule on Monday. Several colleagues asked him how it felt to enter his final Friday on the job, and he summed it up in what he said seems like a very simple answer.

“It’s just different,” he said. “There’s so many different emotions going your head at the end of the day.”

As far as retirement goes, his industry friends told him not to make any plans the first 90 days. So folks should expect Gregory to take some much deserved time off.

“Just kicking back a little bit and seeing what happens,” he said.

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