International business consultant talks Puerto Rico at Rotary Club meeting, about illustrious career in exclusive interview with Business Journal

Charles “Chase” Untermeyer, an international business consultant and former United States ambassador to Qatar, spoke to the Beaumont Rotary Club on Wednesday, Oct. 4.

Untermeyer, who currently serves on the Texas Ethics Commission and is chairman of the Houston Committee on Foreign Relations, has an illustrious résumé, which includes being appointed as Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Manpower and Reserve Affairs by President Ronald Reagan, being named director of presidential personnel by President George H.W. Bush and another appointment as chairman of the Texas State Board of Education by then-Governor George W. Bush. He also was director of public affairs at the Compaq Computer Corporation during the booming ’90s of Silicon Valley and left prior to the company’s merger with Hewlett Packard in 2002.

And although Untermeyer had all intentions of talking about these interesting accomplishments, a terrible event weighed on his mind and caused him to change the topic of his discussion at the Beaumont Rotary Club meeting on the trip over to the MCM Eleganté Hotel — Hurricane Maria, which according to Reuters, had caused the deaths of more 34, as of Tuesday, Oct 3.

“The problems of Puerto Rico were dramatized and magnified by Hurricane Maria … and it’s been my experience over the years that people on the mainland and people in Texas, no less than Oregon or New Hampshire, really don’t know much about Puerto Rico. It’s part of the United States and has been since 1898. People have been citizens for 100 years and yet we really don’t know much about the island. … The reason I talked about it was because one of my subsidiary assignments for the first President Bush when I was handling presidential personnel was to be the liaison for the island of Puerto Rico in the executive branch. … We in the Bush administration made a point of choosing Puerto Ricans for some pretty significant jobs — perhaps the most significant being surgeon general of the United States,” he said.

Untermeyer describes Puerto Rico as a “very political state” with the main parties being the statists and the independents. The statists want to become a state in the United States, and the independents want the island to be a totally free state of its own with no outside connections. Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens with the right to move freely within the United States. Elections are held once every four years for every single elected position on the island. The statists loosely align with the U.S. Republican Party and the commonwealth members with the Democratic Party. They have no say in Congress but are granted one representative to Congress who can attend committee meetings but that person is not eligible to vote on the floor of Congress. There have been no serious considerations by Congress in the last years to bring statehood to Puerto Rico, Untermeyer said. This is probably due to the political leanings of the Senate, which sees the statehood issue as politically charged, he said.

Citizens of the island do not pay federal income tax, but they do pay tax on the island. At the present time, the island government has about $70 million of bond issued debt which, in all probability, is uncollectible, especially after the devastation of Hurricane Maria. With no power and very few resources of its own, Untermeyer said, the island is turning to the federal government for aid as the only viable option to recovery. He said they need the military for delivery of goods, order and strategic setup of disaster commands on the island. They need funding from various federal entities in order to return the island to a place that is desirable to live. With about 2 percent of its citizens leaving each year for the states and a better economic life, the island desperately needs new resources for economic livelihood besides tourism and agriculture, according to Untermeyer.

“Puerto Rico is an island with a vibrant culture, interesting architecture, plantations, beautiful beaches, music and the arts and a splendid culture,” said Untermeyer, who is hopeful that the island can eventually return with tourism and economic well-being.

Beaumont Rotary Club President Tim Sudela said it was a pleasure having someone of Mr. Untermeyer’s illustrious background speak to the Rotary Club.

“As a former member of the advisory council of the Conservation Trust of Puerto Rico, he was able to provide some insight about that U.S. territory which has been in the news lately due to relief efforts as a result of Hurricane Maria,” Sudela said.

Q&A with Chase Untermeyer, Exclusive Business Journal interview

Editor's note: After the Rotary meeting, the Business Journal had a chance to speak with Untermeyer about other topics unrelated to Puerto Rico.

Q. Working as an international business consultant, what would you say are some of the most important things for a U.S. business to consider when conducting a business deal with a foreign business for the first time?

A. The most important thing, and this is true domestically as well, is to know the market. But if you’re working overseas, there’s just more to know. You have to understand the culture. You have to understand the way the government works — the way the society works, as to whether it’s a free market society or closed, whether it’s open or corrupt. All of those types of issues should be learned as much as possible before setting out, just so it’s not an unpleasant surprise or worse — making mistakes that will kill the deal. … Another thing is, in all societies, except maybe certain countries in Western Europe, you need a lot of patience. You need to have more patience than you can imagine because many cultures are just more deliberative. They take their time or maybe there is a hierarchy of decision makers. You can wait a long time sometimes for answers to come down. … Ways people do things should be learned. … If you’re given hospitality by the prospective partner, you’ll not want to make any mistakes — (learn) how they eat, what they eat, the proper way to dress, etc.

Q. Any advice, when conducting business in a foreign country, when it comes time to present the numbers of the business proposal?

A. I’ve always said anyone who is making a (business) proposal to have low, medium and high (proposals). That way you give the other side a chance to choose, and it’s also another way of saying you’re not out to gouge them.

Q. Talk about your role as director of presidential personnel to President George H.W. Bush. You were responsible for advising him in appointing 3,500 federal positions. What did this entail and how did you research each position and person to try to find the best for each job?

A. That experience is a major one because it is very important, very interesting, but also very difficult given all the pressures that apply to anybody that’s in that role in any administration because there’s always more people seeking those jobs than there are vacancies and they usually have very powerful sponsors like U.S. Senators or major donors to the president’s campaign or even members of the president’s own family. … All those pressures are brought to bear on the director, and you can only make one person the winner, and that requires great fortitude on the part of the director. My salvation was that I managed to remember that it wasn’t about me; it was about giving the president the kind of administration that he would choose.

Q. Working with both George H.W. and George W. Bush, do you have any memorable or funny stories that you can share that people may not have heard before?

A. I have a memory of going to London for then-Vice President (H.W.) Bush in 1981. This was when Margaret Thatcher was prime minister and she gave a dinner at 10 Downing Street and that by itself was a great thrill. … But the vice president wasn’t the only guest of honor. The other guest of honor was Princess Alexandra, who is the first cousin of Queen Elizabeth. When the princess arrived, Prime Minister Thatcher took her around to meet all of us and vice president Bush’s staff. … The Prime Minister introduced a woman who was the vice president’s national security advisor. (Princess Alexandra) ... was very surprised to find a woman in a job like national security advisor to the vice president of the United States and she asked, ‘Whoa, how did you get that job?’ and the woman began with what I would call a Washington answer that she had been a graduate student of a particular professor and the professor knew someone who was in the Pentagon who introduced her and she got an assignment and at that point Margaret Thatcher interrupted and said to Princess Alexandra, ‘You know, Your Royal Highness, we shouldn’t be too surprised to find women in responsible positions these days.’

Q. Any advice that President Reagan offered?

A. Although I didn’t work directly with President Reagan, I was in the same room with him on many occasions. He did say something at a rally of all of his political appointees … this was on the eve of the 1984 presidential campaign. … He said that we should all do our jobs and that it would be a surprise to many people that the best politics is good government. That is to say if you do your job and do it well, the people will recognize and reward that. That is definitely a correct philosophy.

Q. You worked for Compaq as director of public affairs during the booming ‘90s of Silicon Valley. What do you remember about this time in the computer industry?

A. All of us of a certain age remember how revolutionizing it was to be in a world where all information and all communication were at your fingertips. … The tech boom has never really stopped. Maybe there was the so-called tech bust of 2000-2001 but I think that was because there were excessive hopes about the Internet and these so-called dot-com Web-based companies that really didn’t have a business model but sounded good or had a lot of pizzazz. But as you know the industry has magnified and multiplied thanks to a gentleman named Steve Jobs, who not only revolutionized computers but used computers to revolutionize telephones and movies and music and photography. All of those impacts in our time were just now getting starting. …
My job was government relations. … The name of the game for me and my colleagues … was to keep the government away from regulating the high-tech industry, which has been pretty much the story since and is one of the reasons why high-tech has been able to be so successful and achieve as much as it has. It isn’t regulated the same way as almost every other industry is from transportation to energy to pharmaceuticals to agriculture, banking, you name it.

Q. What led to the downfall of Compaq and its eventual merger with Hewlett-Packard?

A. Compaq was losing its edge. It began to become dragged down after it merged with DEC, the Digital Equipment Corporation of Boston. No doubt people of the time thought this would grow the company by this merger, but it had a reverse effect. The very negative corporate culture at DEC affected Compaq. … There is just something about a negative culture that drives out a good culture, and that’s what I saw there.

Check out Chase Untermeyer’s books “Zenith: In the White House with George H. W. Bush,” “Inside Reagan’s Navy: The Pentagon Journals,” and “When Things Went Right: The Dawn of the Reagan Bush Administration.” You may also enjoy the less political “How Important People Act: Behaving Yourself in Public.”

Photo by Kevin King - Chase Untermeyer speaks at the Wednesday, Oct. 4 Rotary Club meeting, as Rotary President Tim Sudela listens in.