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Baker Institute Update: McNair offers career advice to enterprising Rice students, young professionals

September 6, 2016: In this edition
McNair offers career advice to enterprising Rice students, young professionals

Reflecting on his decades of business experience, Houston billionaire and philanthropist Robert C. McNair offered Rice University students and young professionals a key piece of advice: Don’t worry about your salary.
“That’s not the most important thing,” the Houston Texans owner said last week during an event hosted by the Baker Institute’s McNair Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation. “The most important thing is putting yourself in position where you can add the most value, and when you add the most value, the compensation will come to you.
“By learning how to add that value, you’re creating something that’s in great demand.”
After an introduction by Baker Institute director Ambassador Edward Djerejian, McNair participated in a moderated conversation with McNair Center director Edward J. Egan. He discussed major events that led to his business success, such as his decision in the 1960s to transition out of advertising and move his young family from South Carolina to Houston to start a car leasing company — with just $700 to his name.
"By virtue of having the experience of selling advertising space, which could be difficult, I gained an element of confidence to where I really wasn’t fazed by the question of, ‘Can you do this?’” McNair said. “Fortunately, I didn’t have anybody creating any negative thoughts in my head, so it worked out.”
McNair later established a trucking company that grossed more than $20 million in annual revenue at its peak, but he sold it as the deregulation of the trucking industry threatened to force him into bankruptcy.
However, he was able to capitalize on his contacts with chemical and refining clients to eventually establish Cogen Technologies, brokering deals with companies like Shell and ExxonMobil to exclusively provide the power they needed as deregulation forced them to cut costs.  
“I saw what happened to us by deregulation,” McNair said. “So I said, ‘Why can’t I use my experience in going through this to my advantage? What industries are going to be transformed, thereby creating opportunities?’”
McNair sold Cogen Technologies in 1999 for $1.5 billion. That same year, the NFL approved his bid to start the league’s 32nd franchise — what would become the Houston Texans. Whether it's football or power generating plants, McNair said his management approach is the same: “The way I’ve always worked is, I try to hire people to do a job, make sure they understand what the job is, monitor what they’re doing and let them go out and do the job,” McNair said. “That still applies.”

The McNair Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation launched last fall at the Baker Institute with an $8 million endowed gift from the Robert and Janice McNair Foundation. The McNairs since have established five entrepreneurship teaching centers at universities across the country, a continuation of the couple’s philanthropic outreach in business and education.

“This is an opportunity for us to make a real contribution to society and to help create an environment that empowers ingenuity and creativity, unleashes the productivity of private enterprise and builds sustainable economic growth," he has said. 

Before the event, McNair met privately with a group of McNair Center student interns, past and present. Egan recruited more than 40 interns to work on various research and technology projects during the 2015-16 school year. To accommodate these and other interns, as well as visiting scholars for various Baker Institute centers and programs, the third-floor storage room was renovated to create a 1,100-square-foot research lab. The space, pictured below, features a contemporary design and functional features like 14 movable intern workstations, four stationary desks, glass whiteboards along the walls for research collaboration and a conference room.

Bob McNair with McNair Center interns. [back to top]

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Rice University's Baker Institute for Public Policy is a nonpartisan, independent think tank in Houston, Texas. The institute's fellows and scholars conduct research and collaborate with experts from academia, government, the media, business and private organizations on domestic and foreign policy issues with the goal of bridging the gap between the theory and practice of public policy.
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