Sitting across from me with the cheery disposition of a veteran corporate dealmaker with an aura of strength and knowledge clearly honed by experience was United States Senator David Perdue. Elected to the Senate from Georgia in 2014 he bears the distinction of being currently the only member of Congress to have been a Fortune 500 CEO.
Our interview covered how he now brings his business background to his work in Congress, how sees our current economic and international climate and the most pressing fiscal issues our country faces, as well as the advice he has for young people hoping to make an impact on the country.
A CEO In The Senate
Reminiscing to his times as the chief executive of Dollar General and Reebok, amid executive roles at numerous other companies over his decades-long work in the business world, he compared his current role as “humbling” and one of “not a peacemaker but a bridge-maker.”
In describing his current approach in the Senate he states how “in business you have to get people rallied around a mission and a direction, and that's the role I have here in the Senate, trying to get through to these different factions to find common so we can get something done.”
A Georgia-native before his career took him around the world, it also was apparent he has held close to his roots. A soft-accent hummed as he admired the women and men who served in his United States Senate seat before him. He even served peanuts and cold drinks of the Atlanta-headquartered Coca-Cola Company.
When asked what from his prior career as a businessman and CEO he now finds beneficial as a Senator, he states, “I think the sense of urgency is the number one thing that I bring to this conversation here. Washington gets so used to talking about an issue...but they really don't hold themselves accountable to getting something done so I try to bring that sense of urgency”
Perdue’s sense of urgency is getting results. The former CEO is passionate about getting the government funded on-time and recently led the charge to extend the Senate’s work calendar by cancelling the chamber’s August recess, a time where members of Congress work in their states or travel internationally to meet with foreign leaders.
Senator Perdue also said his business background was particularly useful when working on the recent tax reform bill enacted back in late 2017. “I knew that our corporate tax rate was not competitive, and yet we a lot of people in Washington who had no experience with any of that. So I had to explain to the damaging impact a border adjustment tax would have on our economy.”
“We need more people with real business backgrounds...and I think we need more outsider perspectives too.”
Indeed, Senator Perdue believes that career politicians-of which he most clearly is not one as being now 68-years old and only in the Senate for about three and a half years so far-are a major cause of the current problems in Washington. “Well they think this job is a career...and that just didn't happen till the latter part of the 20th century.” He said. “I don't know what caused it, but that didn't exist before.”
He joked that maybe it was because air-conditioning didn’t exist back in our republic’s earlier days, but either way he said “I think there's a growing need for people that have an outside perspective.”
Going against the traditional ways of the politician, he talks about how “I'm not up here to just get my name on a bill. That's what so many politicians hold their own self-value to and they lose perspective. I always ask, ‘What did the bill do? Did it change America? Did it protect our republic?’ Those should be the objectives, and that’s the perspective of someone from the outside not trying to make this a career.”
Going From Business to Public Service
One of the ways Senator Perdue stands out amid a sea of politicians in D.C. is precisely because he is one of the few business leaders who have made the jump into public service.
He describes his motivations in making the switch as having seen what he describes as two crises, “a global security crisis…and a debt crisis which underpins the global security crisis, and this debt crisis is the worst we’ve had in the history of this country and really does threaten the republic.”
“I saw those two things so clearly and how intermeshed they were so I wanted to help by lending both my international perspective and business perspective,” as he mentioned how in his business-career he had lived on several continents and worked in about all of them.
On The Issues – National Security, Debt, Trade, And Entitlements
Senator Perdue firmly knew the kinds of policy priorities he is focused on in Washington and described the diverse array of problems he’s contributing his efforts to tackling. With a wide policy portfolio from our military policy to fiscal reform, we talked about which areas he is most focused as a Senator.
Speaking first of our international position, he states how “the world is really rejoicing at our reengagement. I travel a lot as a member of the Armed Services Committee, I was on Foreign Relations before that, so I've talked to a lot of heads of states around the world… they need America and they want America to lead.”
“That doesn't mean putting 100,000 troops in Syria, that just means they need America to coalesce around what it is we're trying to do…I think the battle is now between self-determination and state control. There are two countries dominating on state control and that's Russia and China.”
Yet Senator Perdue’s business-mind also has naturally led him to focus too on our national debt, spending, and the federal budget. He even hangs a debt clock in his Senate office’s lobby, every second jumping up more and more.
“What we believe is economic opportunity for everybody, no guarantees, fiscal responsibility, limited government, and individual liberty.” He says after describing how as Senator he has focused on trying to fix health care, taxes, regulation, energy, Dodd-Frank and more.
“We’ve got a situation where the federal government is bloated up to such a big size…we’re spending trillions of dollars on things that don't work.”
He even described a particularly impressive fiscal accomplishment for those aware of the immense inertia of our country’s largest agency expenditure-the Department of Defense. He spoke of how for about 20 years the Department of Defense had been required to conduct an audit but had also declined, saying it was too difficult.
“I said ‘wait, you’re the same size as Wal-Mart’ so go and get me that audit.” Senator Perdue described. “And so this November we’re going to have our first audit.”
Tariffs have also been prominently in the news as well as a former CEO Senator Perdue had a very developed perspective on that. He described how much of the current back-and-forth are in fact negotiations to get us on a level-playing field with those who have had advantageous agreements since the post-World War II era.
He is confident that the current trade conflicts will not hurt our long-term relationships with our allies, stating “The need for [our alliances] to be close has never been greater. The President realizes we need to continually reinforce [that]… That doesn't mean we can't talk about trade and the other things we need to talk about.”
“At the end of the day we are still allies and they are getting reassured of that every day. I've been part of those conversations. “
Lastly, it is also apparent that Senator Perdue also had a zeal for fixing the problems in Social Security and Medicare, which he sees as a key part of our larger national debt problem.
“You will never solve the debt crisis until you save Social Security and Medicare… The opportunity to fix those without hurting anybody who needs it are readily available to us.”
Advice For Young People
Senator Perdue’s big piece of advice to young people was “develop the ability to add value, no matter where you are.”
“That means you are learning life skills… being involved in local politics, being knowledgeable about the issues and the facts.” He described, having just spoken to hundreds of politically active high school students that morning at the Turning Point USA High School Leadership Summit in DC. “So they gotta read.”
The four books he suggested were “The Hundred-Year Marathon” (Michael Pillsbury), “On China” (Henry Kissinger), Hank Paulson’s new book (seemingly “Dealing with China”), and the over half-century old “The Gulag Archipelago” (Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn).
“I think young people need to be self-aware, they need to be purposed...to be knowledgeable about the issues, not just listen to one side or the other…and if you come down on one side, I would be very diligent about finding whether you can trust the source of the data.”
“An 18-year old's vote is just as important as President Donald J. Trump's vote, and you kind of have to think about the responsibility of that—what it means. You can't just have an opinion, you have to be able to know why you have an opinion.”
He particularly warned young people against the call of socialism. “It’s shocking to see young people think socialism is actually a better alternative to capitalism. I've lived under a single-payer health plan, and I do not want that for my kids, grandkids, or myself. I don't want some committee telling me I can't have a knee or hip surgery.”
The Good Aspects Of Technology
Despite the generation gap, Senator Perdue also clearly understood well the impact and nature of social media too. When asked his favorite app or platform he quickly and confidently said “Well you got to love Twitter right? When the President of the United States can put a Tweet out and get more than 50 million people reading it? Oh my goodness.”
Back To Work
And with that our interview concluded, as Senator Perdue had to rush off to another event on the floor of Congress that he had just come from before our meeting. There are hundreds of members of Congress but only one with as prominent a contrasting business-to-policy background as Senator David Perdue, who clearly still utilizes the business senses he developed in his many-decades career now in serving the people of Georgia and the United States.
This originally was originally published on July 27, 2018.
I recently had the chance this week to sit down with Congressman Trey Hollingsworth (R-IN) of Indiana’s 9th Congressional District. In his first term in Congress, having taken office in 2017 at age 33, at now age 34 he is one of Congress’ youngest members.
Prior to coming to Congress he was a successful businessman, founding a company that bought and revived former manufacturing locations as well as an aluminum remanufacturing company. In Congress he sits on the Committee on Financial Services.
He holds a Bachelor of Science from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and a Masters of Public Policy from Georgetown University. Indiana’s 9th Congressional District is primarily in south-central Indiana and includes the city of Bloomington.
Trekking up to his 6th floor Washington, D.C. Congressional office and met by a staff of Hoosiers from America’s heartland, we chatted about how his prior business career informs his current work in Congress and the kind of change he hopes to bring to D.C. with his youthful and eclectic background.
Q: Thank you so much, Congressman Hollingsworth, for meeting with me today for Forbes. To start off, what is it like being the youngest member of Congress?
A: I try to convey to young people across the District and the country that really that no matter where the problem started or how long ago it did that we have to work to find solutions. We have to take the mantle and carry it forward so that we and all Americans get a better future.
What I’m excited about is bringing innovative, new and different ideas and solutions to the table so that we can begin to work on building the next American century and really ensuring that every American has the opportunity to live the American dream—that America, overall, continues to enjoy the safety and security but also the economic opportunity it has for the last 240 years.
Q: It’s certainly an exciting time in the country. And so, what inspired you to pursue public service and brought you to here in D.C.?
A: I feel like a lot of politicians have this inspiration story but mine was a frustration story: a deep frustration that America should be doing better than it was three to four years ago when the economy was growing at an anemic pace and when people were feeling unsafe from a world in which more and more threats were arising.
That deep feeling that we can do better as a country, that we should be doing better, and frankly that Americans from sea to shining sea deserved better than what we were getting is what pushed me to run for Congress—that feeling that we should protect and enable more Americans to create a better future for themselves.
We do that by building policies that create better economic outcomes. We need real and genuine business experience—I started my first business after college when I was 21 years old and built that into a multi-state enterprise. It culminated into a manufacturing business and that experience taught me that we need to have policies emanating from Washington that enable employees and employers to make better futures.
This country leads the world in innovation and it leads the world in new thinking. I want to make sure we apply that new thinking to Washington.
Q: About your business background–how does it inform your current work in Congress? How do you still use those perspectives and skills today as a Congressperson?
A: Great question. So I think two really important aspects—one, certainly in business there is an urgency to solve problems. Every day that you are not solving a problem is a day that you’re not keeping that customer, you’re not retaining that customer, you’re not getting that customer, and so we have to solve more problems here in D.C. We can’t just sit idly by, we can’t just bicker all the time, we can’t just pass political messaging bills…we have to solve problems for Americans and get government out of the way so Americans can push forward in their lives and make progress on their better futures.
That sense of urgency in genuinely working towards better solutions is the first thing. I think the second thing that informs me is…that there are people who haven’t been in business and have only been in public policy, or politicians who don’t understand how challenging it is to create opportunities.
For example, they just see the regulatory burden as something necessary instead of recognizing it in many cases as too burdensome on businesses. I think the Chamber estimates the regulatory burden in this country is over $1.8 trillion a year – and that’s $1.8 trillion in lost opportunity to be able to innovate, develop new products that make people’s lives better, for businesses to be able to serve customers in new and different ways, for the economy to be able to grow, for people to be able to start small businesses in their garages that become the “Apples” 20 years from now.
I mean that’s what America is really about—that anyone can start anywhere and go anywhere they want to go. I think having policy that is deeply rooted in genuine business experience can help us get to that better economy, more dynamic economy, and ultimately better opportunities for all Americans.
Q: Makes sense. And so in Congress what have been the policies that you’ve focused on?
A: Two big areas I’m focused on–number one, generating economic growth. How do we unleash the entrepreneurial spirit that has been in the bones of Americans for the last 240 years? How do we enable and empower that? How do we help people start those businesses? How do we help grow those businesses? How do we help existing businesses keep their competitive edge against global competitors?
I want to make sure our economy grows faster and more robustly and more fully for all Americans so we get to a brighter future for each American. We do that by unleashing capital, and I sit on Financial Services so I get the opportunity to help right-size the regulatory burden so that more people can get loans, more people can go public, more opportunities are created for new financial products.
And so the second piece of that economic growth category is generally ensuring that we are promoting our small and medium enterprises, that we are right-sizing the regulatory burden from all other aspects so that they are able to grow so they can focus on their customers, so they can focus on their employees and not have to focus on changing government policy and additional forms and paperwork for the bureaucracy.
I think it’s really about ensuring that they can do more of what they love to do and more of they want to do rather than what government tells them to do.
The second big piece is that we’ve had a Washington for a long-time that hasn’t served Americans very well, that’s been focused on its own priorities inside the beltway, and that certainly hasn’t solved problems.
I used to own this large aluminum remanufacturing business in Fort Wayne-among many things what that really taught me was that the process matters and the process is how you get the right outcomes or the wrong outcomes. You can have a great process and still a few bad widgets, while you could have a terrible process and still occasionally get a few good widgets.
But a great process over time will lead to a great number of great outcomes. I want to make sure that we have better process in Washington—a process where representatives truly focus on serving the needs of their constituents and are truly focused on solving problems. I push things like term limits, limiting the number of terms that a congressperson can run for office, because I want to make sure that they know that they'll have to get a new job again sometime because then they'll support creating a regulatory and tax environment that promotes job creation-because they know they’ll have to eventually get a new one.
I also have the strongest lobbying ban bill in Congress because I believe that we need to align our interests and make sure that members of Congress are not using their position to get a better career afterwards but instead are focused on doing what the American people want.
So those are the two big things—economic growth and changing the culture in Washington. We didn't come here for the small problems.
Q: A lot of young people nowadays are hoping to make an impact in their communities and on national policy. What kind of advice would you have for them as one of the youngest members of Congress?
A: There was an article a few months ago that I felt really encapsulated advice that I would want to give young people that want to get involved…it was really about helping them understand the desire to achieve scale in everything they do.
I think that it’s obvious that every business owner’s desire is to get results. We should think the same way about our personal lives, philanthropy and nonprofit work, etc. I love it when people want to get involved and they want to go volunteer for a few hours but I really want people to be able to think bigger and to try to help more people—in helping more people, by focusing on the crux of the problem.
It's great to volunteer. But wouldn’t it be more amazing if you were able to work to develop lower cost building materials so that all homes became cheaper and you could build homes at lower cost all the way around the globe? People are out there making this happen all over the place. For example, people are turning shipping containers into modular homes for those in the Third World.
I think there's just this deep misunderstanding that just doing something will help alleviate these problems, whereas focusing on what the right issues are and trying to ‘scale up’ in solving those problems is really important.
I'll give you an example: Alzheimer's is a very challenging disease and costly chronic disease, not only for the federal government but for families who are dealing with it. And I love the fact that so many young people are motivated to go provide care for those that are dealing with Alzheimer's and we should never malign that. At the same time I want to see more people go into STEM so they can research cures for Alzheimer's and research things that will push back the onset of Alzheimer's so fewer people have to deal with the disease overall because that's how you make the difference, not just for one person but for millions of people and literally trillions of dollars in the federal budget.
I think this is a really important aspect that young people occasionally miss. I want to see us go right to the crux of these problems and to genuinely work on things that will move the needle. What did Archimedes say? “Give me a lever long enough and I can move the Earth?” I think that's very true if you work on the leverage and find the right point you can truly move the lives of billions.
Q: What is an interesting fact about yourself or something people might find surprising?
A: My wife and I got married in 2014 and instead of taking a honeymoon I cycled from coast-to-coast—from the Santa Monica Pier to the pier in Charleston, South Carolina. It took me about 44 days.
It was just such a profound experience to see parts of this country that are off the interstate. If you drive from coast-to-coast, or certainly if you fly from coast-to-coast, you don't get a feel for just how very different people are, how varied and different the climates and environments are. It's really amazing to me to look back on some of those areas and think about some of the people that I've met, some of the businesses and landmarks that I've visited.
I just encourage people all the way across the country to go visit places that they normally wouldn't, that aren't the tourist destinations or aren't frequently flown to, or aren’t frequently traveled to by interstate. This country has so many great people who are doing so many interesting things. It truly gives you a deep appreciation for how different we all are but how we together build that community that is a country.
Q: And lastly, in our modern internet age there's a lot of websites and media platforms out there now. What's your favorite website, social media platform or app?
A: So prior to running for Congress I never had a Facebook page or Instagram account—before running I've never had a Twitter, but I have been really amazed at what great opportunities these platforms have provided to really connect with people and hear what they are worried about, what they're hoping for, what they think we should be working on, and what they think we should stop working on it.
It's been great to see how many people want to engage, how many people want to talk about these issues and how many people want to discuss these issues. And I love that kind of public comment and that we can all engage in discussing the direction of government in our future.
This interview was originally published on Forbes.com.