The chairman of the board of Pennzoil-Quaker State Co. used to serve as assistant secretary of commerce under President Ford.
James L. Pate, 65
Present life: Chairman of the board and former CEO of Pennzoil-Quaker State Co., a $3-billion automotive-products company based in Houston
Former life: In 1974, Pate served as assistant secretary of commerce under President Ford, later becoming a special adviser. "My job was trying to preserve the integrity and reliability of the nation's economic statistics," he says.
Lessons learned: "You can't take the individual numbers too seriously. It's the context of all the numbers together," Pate says. That was hardly conventional thinking in the 1970s.
"Back then, with inflation rising, investing in gold or oil or sulfur commodities looked like a smart idea. There were a lot of intelligent and informed people who thought the world was running out of natural resources. So the belief was that all you had to do was own the right commodities, and rising inflation would keep pushing up their values," he says.
When commodities prices plummeted, so did the fortunes of businesses that dealt in them -- including Pennzoil, which Pate joined in 1976. Yet Pennzoil remained commodities driven until 1990, "when I was finally promoted to a level [CEO] where I had the power to do something about it," he recalls.
Pate shifted the company's focus from commodities to consumer products. The decision was based on both his firsthand view of capricious commodities prices and a lesson he had gleaned from his former life: the power of American consumerism. "Consumer spending represents two-thirds of the GDP. Learning that gave me an appreciation for the potential of consumer-products companies and brands," he says.
Since taking over Pennzoil, Pate has sold the company's gold-mining and sulfur-gas divisions, and acquired Quaker State.