Mike Ortiz, left, retired president of Cal-Poly Pomona and president of the L.A. County Fair Association Board, is interim leader after James Henwood, right, 20-plus year president and CEO, resigns.

J. Michael Ortiz has stepped in as interim president and CEO of the Los Angeles County Fair Association, Pomona, in the wake of James Henwood’s late March resignation. The search was already underway for a new president, Ortiz said, with plans to rejigger the job somewhat to one of maintaining the expanded operation. Pay will be in the $400,000 range, he said, adding that figure is still flexible.

Henwood made considerably more, but mostly in performance bonuses, Ortiz said. His salary. plus in excess of $1 million as leader of a nonprofit organization had become a front-page story in L.A.-area media, particularly the L.A. Times, and audits and appeals did not lessen the onslaught.

Ortiz, who is president of the 11-member L.A. County Fair Association Board and had just retired from his job as president of Cal-Poly Pomona, stepped in to take over the day-to-day, dealing with both community and staff inquiries and working to set the record straight and restore momentum going into the September fair. Ortiz told Venues Today that Henwood and the board mutually agreed it was best if he left prior to contract renewal time because the ongoing coverage of internal affairs had become a distraction to the job at hand.

“I have never seen someone attacked like this for doing his job,” Ortiz said. “Jim didn’t sit there and write the checks.”

Henwood has since formed his own firm, Henwood Consulting Solutions, for nonprofit organization management. He can be found on LinkedIn. He was president and CEO of the Los Angeles County Fair for 20 years and five months, during which time he transformed the fair per the board’s vision, Ortiz said.

“He was most proud of The Learning Centers here at Fairplex,” Ortiz said. There are currently 584 students enrolled at the Career and Technical Education Center where they study technology, design and agriculture, among other skills.

Henwood’s charge the past few years went well beyond fair manager, Ortiz said. He was asked to grow the association and he was incentivized with performance bonuses. Before undertaking that exercise, the board had an independent firm do a compensation review and the proposed pay for Henwood was in the 75-percentile range for the job he was expected to do.

Fairplex has grown to include a conference center, a Sheraton Hotel and The Learning Centers, besides being one of the Top 50 fairs in North America. Venues Today ranked it 9th in 2015, with an attendance of 1,276,817, up nearly 10 percent from the year prior. The 500-acre Fairplex also has a catering company, equipment rental firm and trailer and RV parks.

Ortiz said the operating budget for fiscal 2015 was $85 million and that the fair association returned $7 million into the community and maintenance. The reported financial losses are debt service, he said, proud that the fair has expanded so significantly. To do that you take on debt, but the fair has an operating profit and is fiscally responsible, he said.

Though the new president’s compensation will look considerably different, Ortiz said it is a different job description. There will be no performance compensation because the new president will be charged with “expanding what we have vertically.”

The fair does have a master plan called Vision 2025, which “expands on our agricultural and educational heritage,” he said. “Being a leader in environmental sustainability is a priority.” He also sees continuance of a culture of lifelong learning, engaging everyone in the community, and not just during the September fair.

He expects to end his tenure as interim president inside five months. The search for a new executive began last June, pending Henwood’s plans to retire at the end of 2016. 

Ortiz was a member of the association for 12 years and on the board for five. The rule is that the 60 association members become emeritus at the age of 70, which for Ortiz is two years away. He has spent more than a decade overseeing the vision and big-picture administration for the L.A. County Fair Association, but this is his first immersion in the day-to-day. He said the association is well run with very qualified people in place.

To keep morale up during the media scrutiny and resulting transition, he has spent a lot of time in meetings with staff. “It’s very disheartening when an organization has to spend so much time addressing issues that take away from normal activities.”

Add that the L.A. County Fair is truly a year-round operation and “it’s been a challenge. That’s part of the reason for asking me to step into this role. I just retired from Cal-Poly Pomona where we suffered significant budget reductions. That’s not good for morale either.”

“In our minds, we’ve turned the corner,” Ortiz said of ongoing activities and preparations for the annual fair. “People are optimistic. It was Jim’s decision that it was better to leave, but we in no way felt he should leave because of his performance.”

Fairplex also made headlines last year because it hosted EDM concerts, promoted by Live Nation, which have been suspended for now. Two young girls died prior to, or at such an event there last year. There were also 300 arrests at one event, which Ortiz said was “security doing its job.”

EDM concerts at large sport and entertainment venues are the new normal, what people want to attend, Ortiz said, adding the book is not closed on that chapter yet. “I am confident we are prepared to address the issue,” he said. “I think Live Nation is still interested.”

Ortiz said the fair association is moving forward again now and he’s optimistic as is the staff. He ended by repeating his earlier quandary: “This is the first time I’ve ever heard of someone being assaulted for doing a good job and earning their salary.”

Interviewed for this story: J. Michael Ortiz, (909) 865-4210