As a top executive for a major defense contractor in El Paso, Chuck Harre has had a front row seat to the transformation of Fort Bliss. Serving as chair of the Armed Forces Division of the Greater El Paso Chamber of Commerce didn't hurt either.
Now Harre is chairman of the Greater El Paso Chamber of Commerce, succeeding outgoing chair Gary Hedrick last month.
Harre - rhymes with "berry" - was born in New York City, but has lived in El Paso since 1983. That's when the West Point graduate with a degree in aerospace engineering was stationed at Fort Bliss.
In high school, he was a competitive swimmer, ranked nationally in the 500-yard freestyle and 200-yard butterfly. He was recruited by West Point for its swim team.
"I didn't even know what West Point was. I had no military background," Harre says.
But it changed his life, he says.
"I met my wife, Patti, there; she was my roommate's sister. Something I said I'd never do is marry my roommate's sister, and that is exactly what I did. And I got married on graduation day, something else I said I would never do," Harre says.
Harre, 50, is now vice president of CAS Group, a division of Wyle Corporation, a $1.2 billion company headquartered in El Segundo, Calif., with locations all over the country. He is involved with teaching soldiers how to fire Patriot missiles and developing future air defense weapons systems, but he may put in even more hours volunteering.
He has chaired the chamber's Armed Forces Division, Business Development Division and has served as finance chair. He has also served as president of the West Point Society for the El Paso area.
He serves on the Southwest Character Council, National Contract Management Association and helped start One for Life church on the Westside and Oasis church in Central El Paso. He also helped start a local relationship outreach called 2Love1.
Harre has a master's in business from Webster University, and a master's and a doctorate in electrical engineering from Century University. Daughter Nicole is a forensic chemist for Maricopa County; son Michael is working on a master's at West Texas A&M.
Harre sat down with El Paso Inc. and talked about Fort Bliss and base closures, marketing the chamber better and partnering up with the Hispanic chamber.
Q: How are contractors in El Paso, including Wyle, reacting to the news that the Defense Department plans to cut weapons programs and personnel?
It is going to be a tough couple years. A few weeks ago, when Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta was here at an event hosted by the Greater Chamber of Commerce, I got the opportunity to sit right next to him and talk a little bit about the cuts. He's Italian, I'm Italian, so we were telling Italian jokes (laughs). But, you know, he is in a precarious position. The government is so far in debt now that there has to be some sort of pull back, and the Department of Defense is taking one of the biggest pullbacks.
So what does that mean? It means that people are going to lose their jobs. I don't know the future - we just don't know - but I can say it's going to be very tough times.
Q: What are defense contractors doing to prepare for the cuts?
What I am personally trying to do is look out of my core competencies: "Okay, I'm used to doing this type of stuff, but now I've got to change my colors." When the world shifts, if you don't change with it, you lose. And what is happening now is a shift, so what we've got to do is figure out how to do things we never did before.
Q: The Pentagon has announced it will seek a new round of military base closures, or BRAC, in military jargon. The 2005 base consolidation was a big boon for this region. How might this round impact Fort Bliss and El Paso?
In my opinion, this BRAC will focus on operational efficiencies. What do I mean by that? It will look at posts around the nation, and say do I need that function and, if I need that function, can it be done somewhere else?
If it can be done somewhere else and the post can be closed down, the military can save on all the costs associated with operating the post. The focus is going to be on saving money, whereas this last one focused on realigning the force to best meet its needs.
Fort Bliss was ranked No. 1 in military value - remember that. Because of the landmass, the air space, we can accept a lot of different functions here. So if they need to shift their priorities in the Army, Fort Bliss is in a great place to say "here I am."
One thing we learned is we can't become complacent. In 1995, it was announced that the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment would be relocated to Fort Carson, Col., and we were asleep at the wheel. At the time, there was a question mark if Fort Bliss was even going to remain as a post; it could have been shut down.
We got our act together, made our case during the 2005 BRAC, and came from almost the worst to the best. But we can't just sit back and say life is good. That's why the chamber is going to Washington, D.C., to prep and start getting that thing moving.
Q: As the new chair, what are your top three goals for the year?
I've written a 34-page strategic plan (laughs). If you want to go to sleep, I'll give it to you.
Q: In a nutshell?
The chamber does a great job. I am amazed at how much they do with the staff they have, but some people don't realize what we do.
I think because we are so busy, we just don't market ourselves real well and show people the value of the chamber.
The other area is working closer with the El Paso Hispanic Chamber. I've already talked to the chair of the Hispanic chamber and have offered to work with them. Why not integrate and synchronize or efforts rather than be on two different sides of the road?
For example, when I was in charge of the chamber's Business Development Division, we did an industry day for Texas Tech. A week later, the Hispanic chamber did an industry day for Texas Tech. That's wasteful and we could have easily coordinated the events.
Q: I'm kind of surprised the two chambers don't do that already.
On the outside looking in, I hear you. But, for whatever reason, they aren't as integrated as they should be.
Q: Do you have some specific ideas for better integrating the two chambers of commerce?
Yeah, I do. I've asked their new chair, Antonio Rico, if we could start a breakfast or lunch to get together and just start sharing things so we at least know what each organization is doing.
Q: Would you also like to work closer with the Mexican business group La Red?
Absolutely. Listen, we are a community and everybody has their niche - the Hispanic chamber, La Red, REDCo, the Paso del Norte Group - they all have a place. What I don't like is division.
I understand that the chamber of commerce is not meant to do it all and other people have good capabilities and qualifications. We should bring those together and work together instead of working against each other.
Q: Another goal?
Fort Bliss was a major focus for us for a long time - that still needs to be a focus for us - but also remember we are the voice for businesses in the region.
We need to make sure the chamber remains relevant and continues to advocate for businesses. That's what we do. We go to the state capital, we go to D.C. and talk about legislative issues - whatever needs to be done to help prosperity in the region.
That's the focus of this chamber and one of the things we want to do better.
Q: What are the chamber's policy priorities this year?
There are several of them. When we go to Washington, D.C., we are meeting with the Secretary of the Army and one of his priorities is renewable energy. Fort Bliss is hoping to be net zero by 2015, so we are going to talk to him about how we can help them achieve that.
Another priority will probably be immigration. That needs to be tackled. It has been on the shelf nationally for a long time. They talk about it but nothing has happened. We've also got to make sure that small businesses, large businesses, have the flexibility to do what they need to do without being regulated to death.
Locally, issues will probably include things like the building codes, smart code, stuff like that - making sure we are doing things right but also that the codes are equitable for businesses. You can't place everything on the taxpayers' or businesses' shoulders.
Q: Is the chamber going to get involved in the city's proposed quality-of-life bond election?
Yup. As a matter of fact, the city is going to give a presentation at our next board meeting so we can take appropriate action on it. I will know more about it then to comment on it.
Q: How are chamber members weathering the economic downturn?
If you look across the United States, El Paso has weathered things fairly well. My daughter lives in Arizona, she's a forensic chemist, and she just bought a house. When we helped her get this house, we didn't talk to one homeowner. We talked to a bank every time we looked at a house to buy. The economy there was really in trouble, but El Paso didn't go through that. We still have some issues, but overall we didn't take a hit compared to other cities.
Q: How many members does the chamber have?
Q: How does that compare to past years?
We've been holding at about that number for the past couple of years. We are doing some new marketing strategies this year. The focus is, if you are a business we want to help you get started, maybe get you certified to work with the government and help you grow. We want to help you on the regulatory side and the advocacy side.
Q: How many of those 1,800 members are small businesses?
About 60-something percent. I think some people look at the chamber as a large business chamber. The truth of the matter is most of our membership is small business.
Q: Where does the chamber's revenue stand?
The chamber is doing well considering the way the economy has been the last couple of years. The chamber's annual budget is about $2.1 million. You asked about my goals, one of my goals is revenue diversification. You don't take all your investment and put it in one area so, if one area gets hit, you can still survive.
Right now, a lot of our revenue comes from member dues. If a lot of revenue comes just from member dues and the market goes down and businesses hurt, that is a big hit. So what we need to do is diversify our revenue stream, and that is what we are going to do this year.
One way is grants. The good news is they bring in money, the bad news is they are a one-time shot. We are also looking at programs. For instance, events like the state of the military address and state of education bring in revenue for the chamber.
We also have yearly trips. We went to China in 2010 and were supposed to go to New Zealand last year but then that earthquake hit.
Q: Where is the chamber going this year?
Machu Picchu, Peru. June 5, if you want to go.
Q: What do you do for Wyle here in El Paso?
I have this office in El Paso and an office in Oklahoma. I have people spread throughout the nation, and I have nine people overseas in the Middle East and Germany.
We contract with the government. We look at the future and design their weapons. We do some work with the Brigade Modernization Command at Fort Bliss, and the office in Oklahoma does a lot of the future thinking for the Air Defense Artillery School. We worked a lot with the air defense school when it was at Fort Bliss, and when they moved, it hurt us a bit. Our mainstay is we train all the Patriot forces all over the world.
Q: You mean training soldiers to shoot Patriot missiles?
We use simulations. They can sit here in El Paso, for example, and be positioned in the "Middle East;" they don't know the difference in the simulation. They will have their scope and see the threats come at them and do all their battle engagements. Afterwards, the system tells them what they did right and what they did wrong. We do that here locally, across the United States, and now overseas.
Q: With $5 billion being spent to expand Fort Bliss, have many local businesses been able to take advantage of contracting opportunities at Bliss?
The answer is yes, there have been many. The question is what is equitable. Has every contract been given to local businesses? The answer is no. Remember these are federal contracts and typically they go out as a nationwide call. There are a whole lot of criteria. Could El Paso businesses have gotten more work? Yes. Part of it is I don't think the government knows what El Paso does. I mean, the director of contracting at Fort Bliss should know the businesses in El Paso and their qualifications. I'm not sure that all businesses relay that information to him. One of the chamber's roles, though, is to help break down that unknown so that they see that El Paso businesses can do this.
Q: Have high bonding requirements impacted the ability of local businesses to get involved?
If you're talking about construction, yes. And that's why you see a lot of these things go to large businesses. I will say this. One problem is that there is no way to keep large businesses accountable for small business contracts. Remember, a small business is a small business, and if you have a large effort, they may not be able to pull it off for whatever reason.
So a large business will take the contract and subcontract to small businesses. Say a large defense contractor has a contract that says 30 percent of the work must go to small businesses. It's changing now, but talking about the 2005 BRAC, the repercussions weren't very great if the contractor wanted to keep more of the money and not follow the rule. The government has to do a better job enforcing subcontracting requirements.
E-mail El Paso Inc. reporter Robert Gray at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (915) 534-4422 ext. 105.