When the Political Is Personal

An immigrant’s journey from corporate America to the Bush administration to the front lines of immigration reform

Carlos Gutierrez can still remember the hot sun beating down over Mexico City in the mid hours of a workday. In 1975, a young Gutierrez—the son of a Cuban pineapple exporter—was delivering Frosted Flakes, just thankful to have a job.

Photo by Ralph Alswang.

Fast-forward to 2005. President Bush stands before a gaggle of reporters at a news conference, calling Gutierrez “a visionary executive,” before nominating him as the 35th Secretary of Commerce of the United States. A lot has happened in three decades.

Now, at age 60, Gutierrez serves on corporate and nonprofit boards including those of Time Warner, MetLife, and Occidental Petroleum. He cochairs Albright Stonebridge Group, a global commercial diplomacy firm founded by Madeleine Albright, Sandy Berger, and Warren Rudman, providing strategic analysis and guidance on emerging markets around the world for businesses and institutions. He is also chairman of Republicans for Immigration Reform, a political action committee he cofounded in 2012.

An international executive, Gutierrez has conducted business around the world. Because he had to overcome adversity to scale the corporate mountain, he has always maintained a passion for one topic­; immigration reform.

Gutierrez was born in Cuba and left with his family at age six. As political refugees, the family had to surrender their Cuban passports. However, they were not issued US documents for more than five years. “We didn’t belong to any country,” Gutierrez recalls. “When people talk about the angst and stress and pressure the immigrant feels every day, I can relate.”

When it finally looked like they would receive citizenship, the process was again delayed. Another man with his father’s name had committed a serious crime in Cuba. The red tape grew thicker.

His family became US citizens at last, but the process left an indelible mark on a young Gutierrez, who has spent his adult life advocating for immigrants. After living two years in the United States, Gutierrez’s father moved the family to Mexico, where they would have to start over as immigrants for a second time.

Gutierrez now considers Mexico his second home. “I learned about business there, and I learned how to lead. Starting my career in Mexico was the catapult that put me on a fast track with a good company and changed my life forever,” he says. The journey, however, was not smooth. Gutierrez had working papers but lacked Mexican citizenship. That made getting a job difficult, but he found a training program that supported his situation through Kellogg. He committed to a year spent in sales where he would drive a truck, interact in stores, and learn the business from the ground up. Eventually, Gutierrez would drop out of college to focus on his job at Kellogg. “Back then, I bet on my career over my education, and it’s a choice I regret to this day.” Although it ultimately led to dramatic success, the future CEO had to endure the stress of having none of the credentials his peers had. “It haunted me,” he admits.

Despite the challenges, Gutierrez managed to compete. During his five-year tenure, Kellogg’s Mexican operations shot from last place to first. He led it by earning the trust of workers at all levels.

“I went to the shop floors during third shift and talked to them,” says Gutierrez. “People in Latin America are skeptical of their leaders, and I wanted to change that.”

In just three years, the division topped worldwide counterparts in productivity rankings and had become the company’s most sanitary facility. The process revealed something that stayed with Gutierrez: “Immigration is just one issue I’ve never been able to outrun,” he says. “My days in Mexico have convinced me that Mexican workers can do anything. When people look down on an immigrant, I think they are crazy because I know what those people are capable of.”

It was a major turning point for Gutierrez, who became the president and CEO of Kellogg in 1999, after 30 years with the company. With Gutierrez at the helm, Kellogg shifted its focus to higher-margin products that, in turn, fund marketing and development. He acquired Keebler, won shelf space in giants such as Walmart, and took revenues and stock prices to new heights.

“Some have forgotten that we are a nation of immigrants. We mustn’t forget our true distinguishing feature.”

His success caught the attention of the White House. Gutierrez had met President George W. Bush during a campaign event in 1998 and saw him again at an event in Battle Creek, Michigan.

“He asked me if I was going to join his team, and I joked that I hadn’t received the offer,” Gutierrez recalls. “When he walked away, my friends assured me he says that to everybody.”

A few weeks later he was sitting in the Oval Office receiving a job offer from the President of the United States. Again, the thriving CEO had to make a tough decision; keep his high salary and annual bonuses he enjoyed with Kellogg or resign to serve political office in the Bush administration. He accepted the President’s offer.

In one term, from 2005 to 2009, Gutierrez managed a $6.5 billion budget and helped pass the Central America Free Trade Agreement. The deal made it through the House by just two votes. He then set his sights on similar deals in Colombia, Korea, and Panama. Exports during the four-year span grew at double-digit rates.

Gutierrez was even charged to work with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on matters relating to Cuban foreign policy and advised the President on immigration reform. “It was the best period of my life. I used to check my stock price 50 times a day at Kellogg; after a few days at the Commerce Department, I couldn’t tell you what the stock price was,” says Gutierrez.

Although inroads were made, the administration was never able to pass major immigration legislation, which Gutierrez says was “a disappointment that left me with a feeling of having unfinished business.”

While he works with other leaders at Albright Stonebridge to advise companies on international deals, Gutierrez remains dedicated to improving the plight of the immigrant. He’s working with Republicans on immigration reform and is involved in an organization called TheDream.US, which provides scholarships for students eligible to attend college under the DREAM Act. Any meaningful reform, he says, must deal with three key areas: boarder security, undocumented workers, and the legal system.

When he reflects on his career so far, Gutierrez feels a sense of gratitude. “When I was seven years old, I felt welcomed. I felt that my community wanted me to succeed. Then, I lived in a country where people wanted immigrants to be successful because they appreciated what we could contribute,” he says. “Some Americans have lost that today. Some have forgotten that we are a nation of immigrants. We mustn’t forget our true distinguishing feature.”