Al Zapanta’s accomplishments could fill several résumés: Special Forces major general; the first Hispanic Cabinet member; presidential campaign strategist; confidant to world leaders.
Yet you’ve probably never heard of Zapanta, the 74-year-old CEO of the United States-Mexico Chamber of Commerce. For the last two decades, he’s forged alliances between U.S. corporations and Mexican businesses and officials.
“We’re a business association driven by our 1,500 members, and we play at the highest levels,” says Zapanta, sitting in his offices along the Mandalay Canal. “These companies don’t need advice. They need solid, intelligent information and the ability to have the right doors open to them. That’s really our role.”
On Aug. 24, for example, the U.S.-Mexico chamber will host a North American economic summit at the Four Seasons Resort & Club Dallas at Las Colinas, where more than 100 U.S., Panamanian, Mexican and Canadian business and government leaders will explore ways to make the Panama-to-the-Arctic trading region more dynamic.
Zapanta has a long history of opening formidable doors.
He worked directly for the last five Republican presidents and helped Bill Clinton pass the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993.
As a top executive with Arco in the 1980s, he ironed out refinery agreements with Mexico.
And he introduced Mexico’s last four presidents to the Washington, D.C., scene and U.S. government and corporate leaders.
His relationship with Vicente Fox began 25 years ago, when Fox was running for governor of the state of Guanajuato, a decade before he was elected president of Mexico.
“Al’s been an extremely good friend and great builder of Mexico and U.S. relationships,” Fox says from his presidential center in Guanajuato. “He’s been incansable — tireless — in this activity. Fortunately, it’s activity that we share together.”
Dallas investment adviser Chris Maxtone-Graham recently saw his friend get misty-eyed while listening to a mariachi band playing with the Irving Symphony Orchestra. “Al is an American patriot, an astute businessman and humanitarian with deep roots in the Mexican culture. He’s uniquely qualified to create an important bridge between our countries.”
Bridging two nations
Zapanta, who grew up in East Los Angeles, straddles the two countries naturally.
The fifth-generation American likes to point out that his family crossed the Mexican border before there was one. His great-great uncle was the leading general of Pancho Villa’s northern army during the Mexican Revolution.
“I’ve been fortunate to land at the right place at the right time,” Zapanta says. “A lot of it is being willing to take the challenge and make the leap. ‘Loco, si, pero pendejo, no!’ Translated: ‘Crazy, yes, but stupid, no!’”
He isn’t being totally figurative.
Zapanta was a Special Forces paratrooper and company commander of the Airborne Ranger Company in the Mekong Delta in Vietnam. Four helicopters were shot down with him and his unit on board. He earned a Purple Heart, a Silver Star and four Bronze Stars for Valor.
His battle experience reshaped his mind-set.
“There was an adjustment period when I came out of Vietnam,” Zapanta says. “I really couldn’t understand why people made mountains out of molehills when it wasn’t a matter of life and death. That’s what I’d been living with for 13 months.
“Things are very clear with me. You go in and get things done. There are no shades of gray.”
After Vietnam, Zapanta became a White House Fellow in the final months of the Nixon administration.
Zapanta was in the Oval Office with Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney and a handful of others when Gerald Ford walked into it for the first time as president on Aug. 9, 1974. “There was nobody else left in the White House after Nixon boarded that helicopter and left,” Zapanta says. “That’s where my personal relationship with Ford blossomed.”
In 1976, Ford appointed Zapanta assistant secretary of the interior in charge of the nation’s bicentennial celebration.
Zapanta was also a senior adviser to Ronald Reagan’s 1980 presidential campaign, developing the strategy to deliver Hispanic votes.
Zapanta is unassuming, affable and proud but not braggadocious.
When Rumsfeld appointed him to a part-time post at the Defense Department in 2002, Zapanta told his boss to keep the $60,000 salary. He didn’t need the money and wanted to be able to speak his mind. “Rumsfeld laughed and said, ‘Al, I’ve known you 20 years, and you’d do that anyway.’”
Arco founder Robert O. Anderson took an early liking to Zapanta in 1975 when they worked together on the Ford campaign. In 1979, Anderson hired the 38-year-old as an executive in government relations, allowing Zapanta enough time away to maintain his military career and presidential campaign work.
“Al always operated at the highest echelon of the company,” says Dallas attorney Steve Molina, who was general counsel of the oil and gas company. “He heard the brainiacs strategizing, so he had a really great background.”
But their relationship was more personal than professional, Molina says. “I’d be friends with Al if he was the fire chief.”
Zapanta spent three of his Arco years — 1986 to 1989 — in Dallas, where he was active in local politics.
In late 1989, he moved to Washington as chief lobbyist for Arco. “I can guarantee you there was nobody with a last name like mine up there,” Zapanta says.
Zapanta retired at 50 in 1993 and took over the U.S.-Mexico chamber, which was drawing interest from major corporations, thanks to NAFTA. He committed to a five-year, no-salary stint.
That was 21 years ago, and he’s still never drawn a penny. Instead he’s used the $150,000 annual salary to expand from one chapter in each country to eight each today and mold it into a unified bicultural organization.
That hasn’t come without issues. Sponsorship tanked after 9/11. Zapanta took a two-year detour to the Defense Department. When he stepped back into the chamber five years ago, the organization was in a $450,000 financial hole.
He moved the chamber out of downtown D.C. into shared space with his energy company Paz Resources LLC in Las Colinas to reduce costs and become more centralized to all of North America.
“Al’s an innate leader and has an incredible way to network around influential people,” says Maximo Hernandez, CEO of Rome Drilling Services in Houston.
Zapanta’s goal these days is to find his replacement. He’s looking for a chief operating officer as the first step. This is his fourth attempt. Three other seconds-in-command didn’t work out for various reasons, he says.
Is he a tough boss to please?
“Yes and no,” Zapanta says. “Yes, because I expect excellence, loyalty and accountability. No, because if you show that, I’ll go to the end to help, support and develop you. My role is to spell it out and then you go do it.”
Title: President and CEO, United States-Mexico Chamber of Commerce
Born and raised: East Los Angeles
Resides: Hackberry Creek, Irving
Education: Bachelor of arts in industrial psychology, master of arts in public administration, University of Southern California; Advanced Management Program, Harvard Business School; graduated from the Inter-American Defense College at the National War College in Washington, D.C.
Military: Retired major general with 36 years of continuous service — active, reserve and National Guard during Vietnam, Desert Storm, Grenada, Panama, Somalia and Haiti
Key appointments: Assistant secretary of the interior, 1976-77; chairman of the Reserve Forces Policy Board. Department of Defense, 2002-04; led a peacekeeping mission to the United Nations Referendum on the Western Sahara
Career: Senior executive of Arco for 14 years, retiring as director of governmental affairs in 1993
Personal: Married to Rochelle for 45 years. They have two daughters, a son and three grandchildren.
United States-Mexico Chamber of Commerce
Headquarters: Along the Mandalay Canal, Las Colinas
Annual budget: $2 million
Chapters: Eight in the U.S., eight in Mexico
Membership: 1,500, mostly Fortune 1,000 corporations and multinational professional firms