In this episode of Be EPIC, Matt is joined by Bob Nash, a nonprofit and political consultant, and former Assistant to the President and Director of Presidential Personnel under President Clinton. Nash recounts how networking allowed him to come home to Arkansas during a time of need and how it shaped his path to the White House.
0:00:08.3 Matt Waller: Hi, I'm Matt Waller, dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business. Welcome to Be EPIC, the podcast where we explore excellence, professionalism, innovation, and collegiality, and what those values mean in business, education, and in your life today. I have with me today, Bob Nash, who has more than 30 years of executive level experience in the areas of public and private service, development, finance, economic development, policy, human resources, and diversity recruitment. Bob has served as a senior Economic Advisor to Governor Bill Clinton, president of the Arkansas Development Finance Authority, and Vice President of the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation. He also served as undersecretary for Rural Development at the US Department of Agriculture. His focus was on housing, business community development, and energy distribution and production. Bob also served in the Clinton White House as assistant to the president and director of presidential personnel. In these roles, he led efforts to recruit and place political appointees, which resulted in the most diverse government in the US history. Bob, thank you so much for taking time to visit with me today. I really appreciate it.
0:01:36.2 Bob Nash: Thank you. I'm very happy to be here, Dean. Thank you very much.
0:01:39.7 Matt Waller: Bob, are you an Arkansan originally? Were you born in Arkansas?
0:01:44.7 Bob Nash: Yes, I was born in Texarkana, Arkansas, on a farm that my great-grandfather bought for about $9.90 an acre.
0:01:54.7 Bob Nash: A 300-acre farm, and I grew up on that farm, I worked on that farm, I learned hard work, the benefit of applying myself in a positive way. And that's where I grew up. I went to school, segregated schools in Texarkana, Arkansas. I graduated from high school in 1965, and then I went to the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, then it was called AM&N College, undergraduate degree in sociology. And then later on, I went to Howard University where I got a master's in urban studies. That's a whole another story, which I'll talk about in a few minutes.
0:02:34.9 Matt Waller: So, what kind of a farm did you have?
0:02:39.0 Bob Nash: Basically, we had a few cows, a few hogs, and cotton, too much cotton. The cotton is what made me go to college, very frankly.
0:02:49.8 Bob Nash: I got tired of that cotton farm and I never got paid anything because... I asked my grandfather and father one day why didn't they pay me, they said, "Well, we feed, we clothe you, and that's what you get paid."
0:03:04.6 Bob Nash: We did have a few farmers that we paid $2 a day to chop cotton, and 4 cents a pound to pick cotton, but I never got that money.
0:03:15.1 Matt Waller: So that must have been just a huge amount of physical work. So do you feel like that hard work at a young age helped prepare you for your future? 'Cause you clearly... You've achieved a great deal in your career. Do you feel like that was a key part?
0:03:36.5 Bob Nash: It was a key part. It taught me the importance of hard work, following directions to help produce a crop, and to try to help contribute to the livelihood of the family. It absolutely did. But the other thing it did, and my father finished probably eighth or ninth grade, my grandfather probably the fifth grade, my mother went to about the 10th grade, and I just knew that that's not, wasn't the kind of life I wanted. So I decided early on that I was going to go to college. My mother wanted me to go to college, but my father and my grandfather did not want me to go to college 'cause they wanted me to stay around and help on the farm. So my mother won out, and that's why I went to college in Pine Bluff in the mid-60s.
0:04:27.4 Matt Waller: So, you had mentioned too that you studied urban planning later?
0:04:33.5 Bob Nash: Yes, in Washington DC at Howard University. The story there is, I was... After I finished undergraduate school, I went back and I worked for the Arkansas Employment Security Division. My job was to go out and find unemployed and underemployed individuals, put them in a training program and find them a job. And it was okay, except one day when our supervisor left and I applied for the supervisor's job, they told me I wasn't gonna get the job because I just... "You cannot supervise these other guys," even though I had the best record of the other three employment counselors there. So I decided that I wasn't gonna stay there long.
0:05:16.3 Bob Nash: And at the same time, I was a volunteer in the community. There's a program which a lot of students here won't remember because of their age called the Model Cities Program. It was one of Lyndon Baines Johnson's early great society programs, where they put money and technical assistance into primarily urban communities, and I was a volunteer. And what I learned from some of my mentors who were moderate community leaders, is do your homework, do your research. If you're trying to get something changed in the community, that's a better route than going out and raising cain, and marching, and all that. I never really get in any marching and sitting-ins in the lunch counters in Texarkana because, if I did that, my father would have gotten fired from his job, my mother would have lost her job as a... I ain't sure if it's in cooking for large white families. And so I didn't do that for that reason, and my moderate mentor said, "Do your homework," and I did. And I got to know the city manager in Texarkana, his name was Paul Shriver, and Paul seemed to be impressed with the fact that I did my homework when I was trying to advocate something, paving streets in our neighborhoods, or putting stop signs where we wanted to have stop signs. And one day he told me about the a program where they were training African-Americans to be city managers. This was 1970.
0:06:47.5 Bob Nash: There was only one black city manager in the United States of America. So the International City Management Association, National Association of Counties, US Conference of Mayors. Department of Housing and Urban Development, put together a internship and a scholarship or fellowship program to help increase the number of African-Americans who were city managers. I won one of the 12 fellowships, and I chose to go to... There were two schools, University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and Howard University at Washington DC. I applied to both schools. I was accepted at both schools, but I decided to go to Howard, and that's how I got to go to Washington to get my Master's in urban studies.
0:07:30.2 Matt Waller: So how long did you stay in Washington DC?
0:07:34.0 Bob Nash: Well, I was there for... The program was two years, 48 hours in a master's thesis. And so, after that two years... Oh incidentally they paid me, like $5000 a year, and then I also had this internship. My first internship was in the city of Washington DC, where I was an assistant to the deputy mayor. My second internship during the second year was in Fairfax City, Virginia, where I worked with the city manager, and then after I graduated, I stayed in Washington to work for a national nonprofit called the National Training and Development Service. And I did that because I met someone, a city manager who was running that organization, and he asked me to come and be his administrative assistant and I did. So I stayed there for about another year and a half before moving back to Arkansas. My father got sick, my grandfather died, and I wanted to get back home.
0:08:33.1 Matt Waller: And so when you came back to Arkansas, what did you do?
0:08:36.9 Bob Nash: Well, in Texarkana, I met a guy named Tom McRae. Tom McRae was the head of the Model Cities program in Texarkana. By the time I got ready to... I wanted to come back home, he was the Chief of Staff to Governor Dale Bumpers, so I called him and I kept up with him over the years. This is one of the things I wanna say to students. One of the things that you should do in your route of life is to always keep up with people that you meet need who have been helpful to you, that you think can offer of some value to you, who care about young people. So I kept up with him, so I called Tom McRae, and said, "Tom, I would like to come back to Arkansas. My father's sick, I've got my master's degree, and do you have any jobs there?" He said, "Well, I might have. The Arkansas Department of Planning has a vacancy there. So I'll introduce you to this guy named Charlie Crow and I'll set up an appointment. If he likes you and wants you, fine. If he doesn't, I'll just have to keep looking." So he introduced me, I flew down and met Charlie Crow. He liked me and hired me. I was Director of State and Local Planning, basically working with cities and counties primarily the local folks on things like water, sewer, housing, and small business.
0:10:02.8 Matt Waller: Your point about keeping in contact with people and meeting people is so important and I think you're right, you know. Sometimes students don't realize how critical it really is, because many years later, you may want to move somewhere or get a job with a company and the more of a network you have and the closer the network, the higher the probability you'll be able to have someone that can help you.
0:10:31.4 Bob Nash: I'm a big advocate of that. Today, I have about 9000 people in my database. And these are all people that I have known, or worked with, or had some relationship with, and again, take the Tom McRae example. He hired me, he recommended me to Charlie Crow, and Charlie Crow hired me because he liked me and Tom's recommendation carried some weight. But you think about it, if you're a graduate student, MBA student, and you go and you're gonna run a company, you're going to look for people who you know or you've had some relationship with first. Not that that's the only somebody you will hire, but that's why it's so important for you to keep up, and I would advise all these students to keep up with people that you meet along the way.
0:11:19.5 Matt Waller: Boy, it's so true. And in addition, as you're helping people in your network, when they need help, it really creates a virtuous cycle with those relationships.
0:11:33.1 Bob Nash: It does.
0:11:33.9 Matt Waller: So after you came back, you were working with the Arkansas Department of Planning, but then...
0:11:40.3 Bob Nash: Yes.
0:11:41.1 Matt Waller: You eventually became a Vice President of the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation, I believe. Is that correct?
0:11:47.2 Bob Nash: Yes. It is correct. And here you go again with these contacts. Tom McRae, who was Governor Bumpers Chief of staff, I think at that time they called it Executive Secretary, but it he was the Chief of Staff. He went to be President of the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation here. Now, I was still at the Arkansas Department of Planning, the administration changed. Now, he was at a level where he had to leave, but I was told that I could stay at the Department of Planning, even though the administration changed from Bumpers to Pryor. Now the reason I was able to stay is because the new Director of Planning that they had is someone I also knew in Texarkana, Arkansas. His name was Ron Copeland, and he was a Deputy Director of The Model Cities Program, and I was at a level where they could have fired me because I was viewed... I forget the exact technical term back then but it means political appointee. You didn't have the protection of civil service. He said, "You can stay." Well, you know, I was happy about that because I needed the job.
0:12:54.7 Bob Nash: Well, Tom McRae called me and said, "Bob, I've been named President of the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation, and I'm looking for someone to be my Vice President. And I know you, I know you can do this job, do you wanna come over here?" Well, I said, "Yes." And that's how I got from the Department of Planning to the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation. And I was there for seven years doing community development, cooperative development, agriculture development, those kinds of programs. And I enjoyed it.
0:13:27.9 Matt Waller: And that really built on your education, but also your experience with the Arkansas Department of Planning, and then you eventually went to work for Governor Bill Clinton's administration, is that right?
0:13:41.5 Bob Nash: Yes, I did. And it's interesting, the Rockefeller Foundation was involved in some pretty creative and innovative programs, and Governor Clinton was always reading about new programs. And he called me one day and said, "I want you to come work for me, to be my Economic Advisor." And my comment was, "Well, I'm happy where I am, and I appreciate that." I said something like, "I know it's not gonna pay as much as I'm making here now." I mean, at the Foundation I worked about 40 hours a week, and I made, at that time, I guess it was about 38, $39,000 a year. Going to the Governor's office I knew the position would pay about $5000 less, and rather than working 40 hours a week I'd be working 80 hours a week. To make a long story short...
0:14:33.2 Bob Nash: I went to see him, and you don't say no to him, so I decided to leave the Rockefeller Foundation to go to work for Bill Clinton, to be his Economic Advisor. Now, one of the things that I had a concern about was, I did not wanna be pigeonholed into being the minority Economic Advisor. I wanted to be involved in economic development statewide, for everybody. He said, "That's what I want. I want you to do it for everybody." He said, "And I have some theories about economic development and let me tell you... " He said, "What do you think about economic development? What should happen?" I said, "Well, it's changing. It used to be that in the South, you'd say we're in the South, we have cheap energy, cheap land, cheap water, cheap labor, and to try to convince those low-wage, low-skilled industries to come to Arkansas and locate." I said, "That's a flawed strategy, and it cannot help us grow and develop in the future.
0:15:28.3 Bob Nash: We've gotta spend more time on higher technology industry and business, we gotta be more targeted, we gotta have a workforce that we say has strong work ethic and is trainable, and we have to focus more on smaller business." One of the things that I know is that most people in Arkansas, if you say, are more jobs created from large businesses or small to medium-sized businesses? They would say large businesses. And the reason they would say that is because if a large business locates in Arkansas with 250 jobs, it makes the front page in the a newspaper, but the small business that adds five here, seven here, nine there, 10 there, 11 there, they don't get that kind of attention, but those business have the potential to one day be gigantic and impactful, just like Walmart. Walmart started off as a very small business. Now, not everybody can be a Walmart, but we thank God in Arkansas we have Walmart.
0:16:24.6 Matt Waller: [chuckle] Yeah.
0:16:25.1 Bob Nash: And they grew to the largest business in many ways in the country and the world. So we had that conversation, and I went to work for him, and I stayed there throughout his governorship. And we were very successful and we changed the strategy for economic development in Arkansas.
0:16:42.2 Matt Waller: Well, I'm glad you did. You know, it is funny because so many politicians want to create incentives for the big companies to move, and you're right, the statistics show very clearly that it's young, early stage companies that create most of the growth and employment and wealth.
0:17:03.6 Bob Nash: And it doesn't mean that you exclude spending some time on large businesses, it just means that you don't spend 100% of your time and resources on Fortune 500 type businesses.
0:17:16.0 Matt Waller: Yeah, that makes sense. Which part of the organization were you working for during that time?
0:17:22.8 Bob Nash: Well, I was actually in the Governor's Office. My office was one door down from the Governor. So my responsibility, in addition to policy development, was to oversee the economic development agencies in the state. That included the Arkansas Industrial Development Commission, the Arkansas Employment Security Division, the Arkansas Labor Department. So I oversaw those, sort of a dotted line responsibility to them. Now, the Arkansas Development Finance Authority was not in existence when I went to work for the Governor. That's one of the things, and I took responsibility for, to help create the Arkansas Development Finance Authority. Now, we did have an Arkansas Housing Development Authority already in place, so we might have had the housing authority to be a broader financing vehicle. So instead of just financing housing and apartments, we started to financing manufacturing plants, water, sewer, state buildings, and then other public facilities.
0:18:26.0 Matt Waller: And I know eventually, when President Clinton appointed you to serve as Undersecretary in the US Department of Agriculture, but before we talk about that, I'm curious, what was it like to work with President Clinton?
0:18:41.1 Bob Nash: Well, it was a learning experience every day. He would inspire you to work 50, 60, 70 hours a week and enjoy it. He always had an idea. And maybe five of them were worth pursuing, the others were not, and you had to figure out which ones to work on, but I was always impressed with his ability. One day I was there to make a presentation about a new idea for financing state buildings in Arkansas, as I was talking to him, he was reading, and writing, and signing letters, so I thought he had tuned me out. After I finished this presentation of about 15 minutes, he stopped and he said, "That's pretty good, but let me tell you, there are two other points that you missed, and here are two programs you ought to add to that." And I was amazed by the fact that he was reading letters, signing letters, listening to me, heard me, and made some very good suggestions to me. That's an example of the kind of person he is. He also was the kind of person who viewed you as not just a number, but a person who had value to add if you had the capability and commitment to do it.
0:19:54.0 Bob Nash: And he was always like that. And plus, he was personable. I mean, I remember my mother was sick and was gonna have surgery, he called her in the hospital to wish her well. Now, I didn't know that he knew. I didn't say anything to him, so somebody did, that she was sick and she was in the hospital. He called her, and I'm convinced that because of that call, she lived. She had pancreatic cancer. I'm convinced she lived a year and a half longer because of that call. That's another example. Here's another example, we were driving to Pine Bluff one day to a meeting of the Arkansas Bankers Association, and I was with him, and a state trooper was with him who was the driver. And along the way, there were farmers over on the side of the road, and he said, "Mark," that was the state trooper, "Stop, I wanna talk to those farmers." I said, "Governor, we don't have time to stop. We're gonna be late for the bankers meeting." He said, "Do you know what I'm gonna say to those bankers?" I said, "Yeah." He said, "Do you know what they're gonna say to me?" I said, "Oh yeah, their lobbyists have already been up." He said, "What are those farmers thinking over there?" I said, "I don't know." He said, "That's why we're stopping." And I got it. And we stopped over there for about 20 minutes and learned more from those farmers than we would have being on time for the bankers meeting. That's just the way he was.
0:21:16.4 Matt Waller: Well, you know, it seems like there's so many really successful politicians and business people who use that method of really just stopping and talking to people. Of course, Sam Walton was great at this.
0:21:32.3 Bob Nash: Yes.
0:21:33.7 Matt Waller: He was really known for managing by walking around and JB Hunt did that as well.
0:21:40.7 Bob Nash: Yes. And I would advise students, too, don't ever put yourself up where you think you know everything and somebody who doesn't have a Bachelor's degree couldn't teach you something, you couldn't learn something from them. That's one of the things that I learned from him, and I have practiced that throughout my career.
0:22:02.2 Matt Waller: Well, that's so true. You learn more when you're humble because you're listening to others and trying to understand what they know.
0:22:10.6 Bob Nash: Yes. My mother told me once that you have two ears and one mouth for a reason, you should listen more than you talk. And even though I'm talking a lot now [chuckle] I've tried to use it over the years. And I've always had a lot of respect for the people who work for me. When I was at the US Department of Agriculture, there were 12,000 people who worked for me all over the country, and I had a 8 billion dollar a year budget for rural telephone, rural electric, rural housing, rural apartment, rural business. But I made it my point to listen to career people, people who had been there. And I had some people, some other political appointees who said to me, "You know, Bob, you shouldn't listen to those career people because they worked very hard for the last president who was a Republican." And I said, "Well, they were supposed to do that, because that's what they're gonna do for us. Career appointees are there to carry out the policies developed by the President and his or her political appointees." I made that point and it got me a lot of credit with career employees because they knew how I respected their commitment to professionalism.
0:23:22.7 Matt Waller: Wow, that's impressive. So, Bob, what advice do you have for undergraduate and MBA students that are getting out in this new environment? So based on what you've observed in your life and the changes you see coming up, what do they need to be thinking about?
0:23:43.3 Bob Nash: First of all, they need to realize that the private sector is changing and will continue to change, in my opinion, for a lot of reasons. One is because there's a lot of energy out in the community on the part of consumers, and a lot of change demographically. And business people are very smart, they're not just emotional. They operate off of data and facts and information, and the fact is, in order to be successful in private business today, you gotta have a broader, more diverse view of how you serve the public and how you employ people who work for you. And I would say that those students that recognize that that change is occurring will be more successful than those who don't know anything about that, and I am convinced that that approach is going to continue to happen and change. And so, understand the issue of diversity, inclusion, capability and competence, and understand that corporations now understand they can do well making money, but also do good by being very responsive to the changing dynamics in the community and the changing demographics. Because it will help you do well and good.
0:25:03.4 Matt Waller: Thanks for listening to today's episode of The Be EPIC Podcast from the Walton College. You can find us on Google, SoundCloud, iTunes, or look for us wherever you find your podcast. Be sure to subscribe and rate us. You can find current and past episodes by searching, BeEPIC Podcast, one word, that's B-E-E-P-I-C podcast, and now, Be Epic.