Paul W. Hobby, chairman of the Greater Houston Partnership, discusses his family’s political legacy, his own career path, and the future of Houston’s economic development.
Q | Tell us a bit about your formative years.
A | I’m a Houston guy. I was born on Southgate, over by Rice Village. We moved to South Blvd. when I was a year old and my parents still live in that house. We lack imagination, geographically. We tend to stay where we are.
Q |So what led you to eventually head off to the University of Virginia?
A | Well, it’s hard to apply logic to teenage decisions, but it was a pretty good decision. I wanted to get away. I was not rebellious and I didn’t have any anxiety about my family, but Houston was a small town and everybody knew who I was. The idea of going to create my own space in a place where I was anonymous was pretty exciting. As soon as I walked onto the University of Virginia campus, I just felt that warm, fuzzy thing. And I trusted my gut, and it was a good decision. A lot of my family members, including my sister, her two girls and my three children, have gone to UVA. So be careful about your teenage decisions, because much can come from them.
Q | What led you back to the University of Texas and into law?
A | I took a year off and campaigned for my father. He was in a campaign cycle, so I did the small towns. There are lots of those in Texas, and he needed family members to help cover a space this big. So I did a lot of public speaking on behalf of my dad for nine months, and then he won. I had applied to law school and gotten in to UT and deferred my admission for a year, and the decision was whether to pursue the waiting list at Stanford, where I was, or to go to Texas. And probably an offhand comment by my father broke the tie. He said, ‘Well, that’s going to be your professional network for the rest of your life. Why wouldn’t you be classmates with the people that are otherwise going to be around you in the professional world in Texas?’ And that’s probably good advice. Austin is where I met my wife, so that sort of settles the matter.
Q | Your grandfather served as the governor of Texas, and your father served as lieutenant governor for 18 years. How has that shaped you as an individual?
A | Well, I don’t know. Not trying to be glib, but people always asked me things like that growing up and they would say, ‘What’s it like having an airport named after you?’ And I would say, ‘What’s it like not?’ The point is, I have always been me, and so I don’t really know what it was like to be someone else. But I was keenly aware of the fact that if I got in trouble, it was in the newspaper. Maybe that had some salutary affect on my conduct. In any event, I think it gave me tremen- dous exposure. I got to go to a lot of small towns and run a lot of parades, and meet a lot of people that were nominally very powerful on the outside, who were just regular small, vulnerable folks on the inside. In those days, campaigns weren’t so expensive. So candidates would stay at our house when they were in Houston. They would show up after their last event, they would have breakfast and help me with my homework, and they would go on with their Senate campaign or their gubernatorial campaign. It was a different world back then. And I think that experience compelled me to use that exposure and offer myself in public service. Which I hope I have done in some ways.
Q | You mentioned once that your father had intellectual independence. How important was that to him in his illustrious 18 years in office?
A | I think it was very important. If you know my father, he is not easy to know. He is transcendent in whatever his sense of accountability is. He is not a deeply religious person, but he doesn’t care about money either. He has a long-term perspective and he doesn’t much care for what people say this afternoon or tomorrow. So I think that gave him great stability as a public servant. People knew that you couldn’t knock him off his game and that you couldn’t scare him, and so I think that was a great asset. I suppose that was my example to say and do the things that need to be said. I also have the blessing of some financial independence, and politically I died a long time ago, so you can’t scare me that way. So you try and speak the truth, but you want to do that in a loving way, not an arrogant way because there is a temptation to become arrogant when you suspect that’s your job—to go tell the truth to the world every day. So you try and make sure you keep that in perspective.
Q | Congratulations you on your recent appointment as chairman of the Greater Houston Partnership. What do you hope to do with it as you take this on?
A | The Greater Houston Partnership is a mash-up of the business advocacy group of the Chamber of Commerce function and of the economic development function. So it has been interesting to try to reshape the organization around the new President and CEO Bob Harvey, who is incredibly capable. The Greater Houston Partnership can do the gripping and grinning part, the trade mission part that goes with economic development, but also be purposeful, to say we have some goals on the public policy side, on the economic side. We are going to have metrics, we are going to be accountable. We are going to have CEO access, not because they need another meeting every month, but because we need them to do certain things and we are going to have well thought-through strategies, and we will succeed or fail at those certain things. That doesn’t mean we won’t swap paint on certain things, but we will swap paint with our eyes wide open. We will be civil in our disagreement and be fact-based in our argument. I think the Greater Houston Partnership needs to be relevant, so my place has been to say that criticism is okay. If they are shooting at you, that just means you are over the target. But the difference is in how you fight. We fight civilly, we understand that we have to get along on the next issue, so we don’t cross lines. We are here to be an objective voice for the business community.
Q | When your name comes up, the question is always whether you are going to follow in the family footsteps. How does that question strike you?
A | It’s flattering, so thank you to the people who have suggested that. I did run for statewide office; in fact I lost the closest race in statewide history. Not the footnote I intended to have, but you live in the age that you live in and I just try to use my gifts constructively. I think I would be a good governor. I would love to be governor, but one of my favorite expressions is, ‘If you want to hear God laugh, tell him your plan.’ And I’ve heard God laugh. I live in a state that will not elect a radically moderate white male in statewide office, and I have to accept that.
Q | There has been a change in focus of the Texas Medical Center, from what was largely about physical infrastructure to now more programmatic leadership under Dr. Bobby Robbins. How does that resonate with you, knowing the future plan for the Texas Medical Center?
A | I’m so excited about what Dr. Robbins is doing, it’s not even healthy. I mean that. This is a long game, and this is about human resources. Yes, we need wet lab space, we need more venture capital, but mostly we need the commercialization. And we get those people one by one, and the Texas Medical Center role is tremendously important. There have always been opportunities in health care and biotech here in Houston. People always want to say that if we have research, then we have all sorts of low-hanging fruit. It’s not low-hanging, its hard work. It takes a lot of time. But the biotech/med cluster here now has an opportunity, because it now has a sponsor, and that is the Texas Medical Center under Dr. Bobby Robbins. I’ve offered to get him his own Pope mobile, and that offer stands.
Q | The Texas Medical Center is building a comprehensive innovation center that will incubate young entrepreneurs and companies to commercialization, and allow them to flow into the surrounding community. What advice do you have for the Texas Medical Center in this effort?
A | I think we approach it with a shamelessly commercial mindset. People can argue about how the food chain works and all of this. Again, I’m on record saying it is the human element. It is the commercialization class. People have colorful arguments, but the thing that you guys are doing over there is the big ‘c’ and that’s commitment. Whether it’s capital or whether it’s people, or research, it’s about showing commitment. We are going to do the difficult triage, even if it is a star researcher’s project that has to hit the floor. You know, we are creating a business here.
Q | Some say that the medical center was built on competition, and that competition really raised the value of these programs. Others would argue that competition has given way to collaboration. How well prepared do you think the Texas Medical Center is, given that history of competition, to really embrace collaboration?
A | I think, in Houston right now, all things are possible. That’s what gets me out of bed in the morning. Everybody is geeked about something. Whether it is about the medical center or bio projects, or something at the University of Houston, or something at Rice. When I talk to breakfast clubs, that’s basically my pitch in a nutshell. If you’re not geeked about some- thing, find it, do it, now. The Texas Medical Center had that great retreat, but the looming question that was in the room was, ‘Competition got us here, now we are going to collaborate? We are going to change the nature of what’s been so successful here?’ Well, economic development in Houston has to change now also. But we are a city that has thrived on a lack of central planning. What we need to do is steer a bit. We are not telling anybody. This is not a compulsory society. This is a relational society. If I tell you to do something, in Houston, likely you will give me a finger salute. If I ask you to, and do it in the right way and tell you why, you will do it. And we are trying to steer economic development here because we do want some things more than others. Houston’s economic development has to change. And the Texas Medical Center has to change because it’s now about all of this interdisciplinary stuff that has to work together. So you have to take some great individual musicians and turn them into a symphony. I think that’s the model. It has to be done in the right way.
Q | You are running a private entity firm, you sit as chairman of several boards, and participate in many others. How do you find a balance between work and your personal life?
A | Not very well. We are recently empty nesters, so it has become much harder. Because when you have kids at home, you don’t miss a lacrosse game. That’s rule number one, two and three. Fortunately, we live in a generation where you can call somebody and say ‘Sorry, I’m going to the lacrosse game.’ I have lost that primary scheduling discipline in my life. I am public property this year, so I am trying to take the meetings and do the speaking engagements, and take a deep breath when I feel overwhelmed, because it’s not forever. You just try and spin all of the plates.
Q | Any closing thoughts?
A | I’ve been here long enough to know that when the bad times come, the bumper sticker comes out. ‘Lord give me this one more oil boom and I promise not to blow it.’ And everybody needs to think about what that means in the context of their own lives. I encourage people, this is the time to use your time and talents, and do not mistake your good luck for high intelligence. Find the project you are excited about, and pitch in.
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