Peter Hoekstra, MBA '77, Running (and Biking) for Governor's Seat
Former Herman Miller executive will retire from Congress to run for Michigan governor.
ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Rep. Peter Hoekstra, MBA '77, is no stranger to a challenge. When he decided to leave office furniture giant Herman Miller Inc. to run for Congress in a western Michigan district, he did so on a shoestring budget against a 26-year incumbent. Biking across the district and meeting people face to face, he won that election in 1992. In Congress, Hoekstra became chairman of the House Select Committee on Intelligence and now is the ranking Republican. But Hoekstra decided not to run again when his term expires in 2010, and instead wants to lead the state of Michigan. He may not have the statewide name recognition of some of the other Republican challengers for the open seat (the current governor is term-limited) but he still has a bike.
Dividend: Why did you decide to leave Congress and run for governor?
Rep. Hoekstra: I had never come to Congress to make it my last career. By the time I'm done, it will have been 18 years of getting on a plane, being gone for two, three, or four nights a week. In December, my wife and I decided I would not run for re-election. Then we took the next three months evaluating what the next opportunity might be, and that's when we made the decision to run for governor. I have a passion for the state of Michigan. I think it's an underperforming state. I think that a person of my background -- with an MBA from the University of Michigan, 15 years of experience at a Fortune 500 company, 18 years in a public body working on business issues, education issues, and the whole world of intelligence -- has a good resume to put in front of the people of Michigan.
Dividend: Why did you decide to run for public office in the first place back in 1992?
Rep. Hoekstra: I had a great career at a great company: Herman Miller. But in 1992 I kind of looked at it and said, 'I don't like what's going on in Washington and I think a person with my kind of background and experience could make a difference and beat the incumbent.' So I gave it a shot and beat a 26-year incumbent.
Dividend: Did any of your experiences in business help your career in politics?
Rep. Hoekstra: Yes. Herman Miller was an organization that was based on participative management. It also was based on the concept of servant leadership. You serve the people that you lead. If there's one lesson you need to learn in politics it's servant leadership. You serve the people who elect you. Also, the whole realm of problem solving came into play. At Herman Miller, I was able to develop and refine the skills I learned at U-M. So the technical skills I had could be used in politics. They are transferrable. It's two very, very different worlds, but once you get the hang of it, the skills are transferrable.
Dividend: What kinds of new skills did you acquire in Congress?
Rep. Hoekstra: It's all how the political process works. Participative management at Herman Miller was one thing. There, they allowed everyone to participate in a new product or strategy or business model. The company provided you with the opportunity to participate, but ultimately someone would need to make the decision and lead. It wasn't always consensus. At the end of the day it is leadership's responsibility to lead and make a decision. Politics is a little bit different. I represent and serve 660,000 people in western Michigan. Newt Gingrich or John Boehner can't tell me what to do. They can try to convince me, but if at the end of the day I don't agree with them, I can go in a different direction. You just recognize and learn the skills that are transferrable, but the world of politics is just very, very different than the world of business.
Dividend: Is there anything you remember from your MBA experience at Ross that's been helpful in politics?
Rep. Hoekstra: Yes and it came from LaRue Hosmer, my small business professor. When I took his class, he said that when you start out, you have to meet 500 people in your first year after you get your MBA. And he gave us a little system on how to do it. Every time you meet somebody, at end of the day or some time later, you write down their name, title, and something memorable about them on an index card. Then you go through all the cards you collected over the last month and over the last six months. The objective is that at the end of the year you have 500 cards. It's a discipline I've put into my campaign. Business is all about relationships, and politics is no different. It's about content and all those other things, but it's also about relationships.
Dividend: What kind of advice would you give to people in private industry contemplating a run for public office?
Rep. Hoekstra: I think the thing you really have to recognize is that politics is a different world. I think most people would say I made that transition from the business world to the political world very effectively. When I got chosen to be chair of the House Select Committee on Intelligence, I was chosen over four others. There are other business people who step into the political world and they think it should be more like the business world. They'll say, 'I made a decision and I think this is the way we should go, but nobody is following me.' Yeah, because they don't work for you. You have to convince them. It is night and day from the business world. So pay a lot of attention to that. Before you decide to jump, make sure you know what the differences are and that you're equipped to deal with and handle them.
Another thing to consider: Herman Miller is one of the biggest companies in western Michigan, a Fortune 500 company. I was a vice president, but I was obscure. I mean, I could spend months on a product launch, and six to seven months later it becomes a dismal failure. Nobody really knows. The people at Herman Miller know it. But the people you sit next to in church, they don't know it. The people you spend your free time with don't know it . . . But in Washington, you can cast a vote on what you think may be an insignificant piece of legislation and you come home and you find it's on the front page of the paper. Or somebody has written a letter to the editor saying, 'How can Hoekstra be so stupid? Look how he voted on this.' You go to church and people know what you did that week. You are in the public eye, under public scrutiny and criticism day in and day out.
Dividend: In a nutshell, what are the core themes of your campaign?
Rep. Hoekstra: I think this election will be about leadership. We really can go into that office, set a vision, collect the talent around the governor's office, and then get out of the way and let these people do their jobs. Obviously, this is going to be a turnaround situation and you need to have a plan in place to turn the state around. I came out of a company that believed in participative management. I was part of the Contract with America in '93 and '94. I think the future of Michigan begins with its people. It doesn't come out of Washington. It doesn't come out of Lansing. It's creating the framework for the people in the state to be successful and then get out of the way. I run into too many people who have great ideas and resources who want to grow a business and invest, and all I see is the state getting in the way. They just say Michigan is one of the most expensive and most difficult places to do business in the country. This is about getting government right-sized, focused, and working on the right things so that we can create the right environment for all the bright entrepreneurs and the people we're educating at the University of Michigan and the other great schools in the state. The bad thing happening with the automotive industry is all these bright, talented people are losing their jobs. The positive thing is there is tremendous potential there for people creating and starting a new business. The problem is that, for a lot of these people, they're realizing that to commercialize their ideas, they have to go to another state. I want them to commercialize their ideas in Michigan.
Dividend: One of your challenges seems to be getting wider recognition, especially since you might be facing opponents who hold statewide offices. What's your plan for that?
Rep. Hoekstra: Well, number one, I have a job I have to keep doing in Washington. But I'm quite amazed and pleasantly surprised with the number of people who know me already. I've been front and center talking about national security issues and border issues for the last three-and-a-half years. People see me as a national security expert, a border security expert. And since Michigan is a border state, many of the business folks in Detroit know me. The second thing is we're just going to spend a tremendous amount of time criss-crossing the state talking to people. In my first race, I committed to biking across my district. For the governor's race I'm committed to biking 1,000 miles across the state and I'm going to work in 100 different jobs. It's about seeing people where they are and building a grassroots movement. I'm actually very excited.
Dividend: Do you have to take a different approach to fundraising due to the economy?
Rep. Hoekstra: Yes, but I've never been a great fundraiser. And I'm okay with that. There are some people nervous about that. I don't worry about that. I just have to have enough to get critical mass. If I come out with a dynamic platform, I don't need to be sold like soap. There are enough people in a primary and a general election who care about ideas and care about content.
After my first campaign against (Guy) VanderJagt, I asked (pollster) Frank Luntz, 'If I told you I was going to campaign for five weeks and I had $45,000, would you have worked on my campaign?' He said, 'I would have said no. With five weeks and $45,000 your best idea would be to take a trip around the world because there's no way you would ever get elected to Congress.' And we just kind of caught a magic moment in a bottle. I don't know whether I can catch that magic in a bottle again. But that's directionally where we are going. We're not going to be the best-funded campaign, but we're going to be the smartest and the most innovative. And the most creative.
For more information, contact:
Bernie DeGroat, (734) 936-1015 or 647-1847, firstname.lastname@example.org