Export-Import chief played the long game

Fred Hochberg isn’t among the well-known members of the Obama administration, but when it comes to trade, few have more clout. 

The chairman and president of the Export-Import Bank (Ex-Im) of the United States is a key player in the Obama administration’s push to grow U.S. trade and double exports by 2015. Fresh off a new, three-year reauthorization that boosted Ex-Im’s lending power to $140 billion, Hochberg’s agency is expanding its reach, opening four new offices this summer. 

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Long considered a non-controversial agency, the battle this year over Ex-Im’s reauthorization took many in Washington by surprise. Some Republicans argued the bank’s lending practices amounted to corporate welfare, and they were joined by outside groups in a ferocious push against a renewal of the bank’s charter. 

Hochberg said the fight didn’t surprise him, noting the several averted government shutdowns since last year.

“As a country, we are somewhat wrestling with ‘What’s the role of government?’ ” Hochberg said. “President Obama believes there is a role for government. It does help trade. Ex-Im Bank is a cornerstone of how we make sure that American companies can compete globally.”

Hochberg, a former businessman and Clinton administration official, said the road to reauthorization was a long one for the bank. Ex-Im officials held more than 40 events with members of Congress over the past two years to explain the bank’s benefits and build support.

Hochberg said one of the pluses of doing the events “was we built a real relationship with members because we were actually in their districts, and they saw for themselves first-hand the companies and the small businesses that were using Ex-Im services to build employment and to build exports.”

The chairman is a staunch advocate for his agency and pushed back aggressively when it came under attack this spring. He has repeatedly noted that client fees, not taxpayer money, fund Ex-Im and pointed out the bank racked up $1.9 billion in revenue surpluses over the past five years.

Ex-Im’s output has more than doubled with Hochberg in charge, going from $14.4 billion in financing in fiscal 2008 to $32.7 billion in 2011. That translates into support for American jobs, according to the bank.

“Part of it is we stepped in as the financial markets pulled out. That’s still very fragile,” Hochberg said. “There is a greater need for us to make sure that international trade keeps flowing than, I think, even three years ago.”

While several of Ex-Im’s loans are marked for corporate giants such as Boeing and Caterpillar, Ex-Im has made an effort to include small businesses among its customers. More than 4,000 small businesses have worked with the bank over the past three years.

Hochberg, a former acting head of the Small Business Administration during the Clinton administration, has won praise for his tenure so far.

Rep. Robert Dold (R-Ill.) said Hochberg worked with lawmakers during the reauthorization battle to highlight how small businesses are helped by Ex-Im.

“Through his leadership, he was able to demonstrate that the reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank is about jobs and empowering small businesses by opening up more markets across the globe,” Dold said in a statement.

Michael Froman, deputy national security adviser for international economic affairs in the Obama White House, said he has seen Hochberg’s management prowess in action.

“He has the skills to get things done in government, but has also a keen understanding of the private sector, how to get deals done,” Froman said. “I think he created a good dialogue on all sides of the spectrum of the issue.” 

Referring to Ex-Im’s reauthorization, Froman said: “The result speaks for itself.”

Hochberg was a fundraiser for Obama’s 2008 campaign and a member of the transition team. He said he first met Obama in January 2004, when he helped organize a New York fundraiser for the then-Illinois state senator, who was vying for a U.S. Senate seat. They went out to dinner afterwards.

“I asked him about his name as being a challenge for Americans. And we laughed about it at dinner,” Hochberg recalled. “He laughed it off. He [had] obviously heard that comment before.”

Hochberg is a child of immigrants and helped run the family business, transforming it into a major corporation.

His mother left Germany in 1933 with her family as the Nazis came to power, and after a stay in Holland, arrived in New York City by 1937. She was pregnant with Hochberg when she developed the idea to sell the family’s leather goods through mail order, which became the Lillian Vernon Corp.

“She placed her first ad in September 1951 in Seventeen magazine. It was the best ad we ever ran,” Hochberg said. “It had a pocketbook and belt with your initials on it. It had a couple of things unique to it. One, it was leather goods, which had been scarce after World War II because there were quotas on them. And she had the idea of putting your initials on it, personalizing it.”

Hochberg joined the company in 1975. During his roughly 20 years there, he grew the business, eventually taking it public and moving it to Virginia.

The bank chief is also one of the higher-profile gay officials in the Obama administration. He said he was “obviously pleased” when the president recently came out in support of same-sex marriage, calling it “a personal decision” by Obama.

Hochberg had helped with the 2008 campaign’s outreach to the lesbian and gay community but said he hadn’t discussed same-sex marriage in detail with the president.

“[President Obama] will always ask about my partner, Tom Healy. Tom and I have been together for 19 years,” Hochberg said. “He asks about that, I think, in the same way that he asks other colleagues about how’s your spouse or how your children are doing.”

Asked if he himself was considering marriage, Hochberg laughed and said his relationship was fine as is.

“It’s working just great. I have a great relationship, but I don’t like to rock the boat,” Hochberg said.

Hochberg didn’t share his plans for what he’ll do after Ex-Im; his term ends in January 2013. Asked whether he might stay on if Obama wins reelection, he demurred.

“I will leave that up to the president on where I could be of the most value,” Hochberg said.