Interviews With Gurus: George Weise
Our featured Guru this month is George Weise!
With more than 44 years of international trade and Customs experience in both the public and private sectors and direct involvement in the drafting, enactment and implementation of the Customs Modernization Act , Mr. Weise is globally recognized as one of the foremost authorities on customs, trade, and supply chain security matters. As the former Commissioner of US Customs, Mr. Weise is currently a Senior Advisor at Integration Point.
How did your International Trade Career begin?
While going to law school in Baltimore in 1972, I applied for a position as an Import Specialist with the U.S. Customs Service in the port of Baltimore and was hired. I knew nothing about Customs at the time, but was interested in getting my career started. I soon fell in love with the Agency and the work, and, after getting my law degree three years later, I applied for a position in the Office of Regulations and Rulings in Customs headquarters in Washington, D.C. Unfortunately, due to a procedural glitch, that didn’t work out. I spent the next 18 years heavily involved in customs and international trade issues, first at the U.S. International Trade Commission (ITC), and later, as Staff Director of the House Ways and Means Trade Subcommittee. In 1993, I was appointed by President Clinton as the Commissioner of the U.S. Customs Service.
If you could time travel back to day one of your career and have 5 minutes with your former self to communicate any lessons you’ve acquired, with the intention of saving yourself mistakes and heart ache, what is the one thing you would tell yourself?
Looking back at the early stages of my career, there really isn’t anything I would change. I was a very lucky man. I fell into a career and an organization that I love to this day. Ironically, although I was heartbroken when things didn’t work out for me to continue my career at Customs after receiving my law degree, things worked out much better than I could have imagined. I stayed heavily involved in Customs and trade issues at the ITC and on the Hill and ultimately was able to return to the Agency I loved as the Commissioner. That would not have been possible had I remained with Customs throughout my career.
What are your non-work habits that help you with your work-life balance?
I am blessed with a beautiful wife, two lovely daughters and six awesome grandchildren. Throughout my career, even when the demands of the job seemed overwhelming, I always felt it was critical to insure that my schedule included quality family time. For example, during my four years as Commissioner, when, due to work demands, I averaged about 5 hours of sleep per night, I made a commitment to join my family for dinner whenever I was in town. Although there were exceptions and I spent a good deal of time on the road, we shared many meals together. The bottom line is work is important, but nothing is more important than family. There should be room in everyone’s life for both.
What is the best advice you received in your career?
This is an easy one for me. In 1992, while serving as Staff Director of the Ways and Means Trade Subcommittee, a friend asked me if I would be interested in going into the Administration if Bill Clinton were elected President that year. I said no, because the only position I would be interested in is Commissioner of Customs and I thought that would be impossible. To my knowledge no Hill staffer had ever made the leap from managing a staff of 10 to become the head of a major agency. The advice my friend gave me was very simple and direct—“well surely if you don’t try, you won’t get it.” I took that advice to heart and went about the difficult task of seeking the position. With the help and support of many, particularly Ways and Means Committee Dan Rostenkowski, I was nominated by President Clinton, confirmed by the Senate and sworn in to my dream position on May 12th , 1993. The obvious lesson is don’t be afraid to pursue your dreams. They just might come true.
What is your favorite “career” memory?
There is no question that my fondest career memory is the time I spent as Commissioner, leading an organization that I loved from my early days as an entry-level staffer. It was an honor to serve with so many dedicated public servants who put their lives on the line every day to carry out their mission and serve their country.
What do you think your greatest accomplishment has been?
I am extremely proud of the work I did to see the Customs Modernization Act (Mod Act) drafted, enacted and implemented. For more than five years when I was on the Hill, I worked diligently with Customs and all elements of the trade community to draft a bill that would be considered non- controversial and widely supported by the trade community and the Government. I believe we accomplished that objective, but when I became Commissioner in 1993, this now non-controversial bill was still languishing in the Congress. Later that year, I persuaded the Congress to amend the NAFTA bill, which was pending at the time, but very controversial, by adding the Mod Act to it. In the fall of 1993, NAFTA and the Mod Act were enacted. It then became my responsibility, as Commissioner, to work with the trade community to see that its provisions were effectively implemented. It warms my heart today to see the impact the Mod Act has had over the years in streamlining the import process so goods can move efficiently and safely across our borders at lower costs.
What were some of the biggest lessons that have impacted the way that you work?
I have been very fortunate in my career to be in positions that required decisions to be made that broadly impacted a wide range of interests. I never considered myself to be one of the smartest people in the room, but I always believed that if I worked hard to understand and appreciate the positions of competing interests, I could be successful in finding solutions to problems and building consensus. I have always operated, in both my personal and professional life, on the premise that if you can put yourself into the shoes of the people you are dealing with, you have a much better chance to resolve even difficult issues. For the most part, as I look back on my career, I believe the wins have exceeded the losses.
If you were to do it all over again, what would you do differently?
As I said earlier, I consider myself very fortunate to have had such a long and rewarding career. After retiring from Government in 1997, I have been engaged in the private sector working with clients to move goods globally in the most efficient, effective and secure manner. Looking back, if I were to change anything, I would have liked to have stayed for an additional four years as Commissioner of Customs. It was the greatest experience of my professional life. But after spending twenty-five years in Government, and with two girls in college at the time, I felt it was time for me to move on.