Why did you decide to accept the appointment to the Department of Commerce?
I was very distressed by the high level of unemployment and the increasing housing foreclosures that were going on in the country. I also had been in manufacturing for over 40 years. I just felt that the country would benefit from a refocus on manufacturing. I felt that my role was one of representing the real world of manufacturing inside the beltway in D.C.
When you first started this appointment, you made it a point to say that you were not going to Washington as a partisan. Explain that.
I felt very strongly that I didn’t take this presidential appointment as a Democrat or as a Republican. I was there to serve as a representative of manufacturing. Yes, I served at the pleasure of the president. Yes, it was for a Democratic administration, but I thought my mission was one that needed to keep my focus all the time on manufacturing.
Exports really became a central part of your focus, right?
Doubling exports over five years through the end of 2014 and putting more people back to work … became the focus of my work. Particularly because I was in the International Trade Administration, we were the agency that was tapped by the president to spearhead and work toward that doubling of exports.
What progress did manufacturers make toward that goal?
Our exports increased 33.5 percent over a two-year period.
Why is that important?
For many businesses, for decades, (North America) was enough market to keep you busy. Our country grew robustly in past decades … but the world is different today. Ninety-five percent of the world’s consumers live outside the United States. The International Monetary Fund says that about 85 percent of the world’s economy will be driven by countries other than the United States. The opportunity is just huge.
But haven’t manufacturers relied on exports for years?
A lot of the big, multinational companies understand this. But for small and medium manufacturers, it can be a daunting process. One of our important roles in the Department of Commerce was to facilitate that process.
Does Carter Products have an export strategy?
Yes, we do. We export to 33 countries, but we always need to export more. We just increased our distribution in Japan, Australia and Austria based on a new product we just introduced in June of this year.
How did you know you would be able to step away from the company for two years?
I’m blessed to have very capable people here at Carter. Without the leadership of my team … I would never have been able to accept this offer. I also am at the stage in life when I wanted to see how the company would perform without me. It would give others in management the opportunity to spread their wings a little further. They ran the company very successfully.
You wanted to come back to town in time to serve at the Grand Rapids Symphony. What do you look to do with that organization?
It’s going to be a major part of my life in the next few years as I finish my final year as chair-elect and assume the leadership of the symphony in 2013 through 2015. I’m very honored to be asked to serve in a leadership position at the Grand Rapids Symphony, which puts on more than 400 concerts and performances a year and serves over 100,000 children. We have a phenomenal series of programs.
Back to your time in Washington: I’m sure you had to have met some interesting people. Can you share any stories?
I had an apartment in Watergate South. On the 10th floor, where I resided, two doors down was Karl Rove, and three doors to the left was Ken Salazar, the Secretary of the Interior. On the first floor was Elizabeth and Bob Dole, and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg lived in the building, too. So I was able to interact with some very senior people. Occasionally, we found ourselves doing our laundry together. It was always a big laugh that we were in flip-flops and casual clothes because when we left the building every morning we were always in suits and ties. I thoroughly enjoyed living there.
Looking back, how would you rate the experience you had?
I would call it a great chapter in my incredible life experiences. I was really honored to serve. I found it really exciting and demanding. But I believe I contributed value to our country and hopefully increased the spotlight on the importance of manufacturing to our country and to our economy.