Paul Oreffice has lived the American dream. Rising from immigrant to CEO of Dow Chemical, he worked his way to the top with hard work and strong family values. Now retired, Oreffice has written a book, “Only in America: From Immigrant to CEO,” about his life.
The book, published by Stroud & Hall, has won widespread praise from notable politicians and businessmen such as Vice President Cheney, former President Gerald Ford, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, retired General Electic CEO Jack Welch and former Major League Baseball Commissioner Peter Ueberroth.
This week I asked Oreffice about his experience as an immigrant coming to America, how he turned his life into a success story and what he thinks about the current debate about immigration in the United States.
You attribute much of your success to your father? Was it your family’s strong bond that helped you succeed in life?
No question that a strong family bond helped us overcome adversity and helped me greatly succeed in life.
How did your family manage to escape from fascist Italy?
We were able to obtain an exit visa and passage on the last ship to leave Italy, one week before it entered World War II.
Once your family arrived in Ecuador, how were you able to start a new life? Did your family have money saved or a job lined up?
My father was a true entrepreneur and he found a way to spot needs and create small new enterprises to fill those needs. The first one was to make pharmaceutical grade castor oil that could no longer be imported because of the war. Money was very scarce and my father had to borrow all the required capital.
You said your father had deep respect for America, even before he had visited the country. Why do you think this was the case?
My father loved freedom and free enterprise. The U.S. was the beacon he always looked up to. He was in awe of America’s ability to get things done and the work ethic of Americans.
What steps did you take in order to transform Dow Chemical from a tiny organization to the second largest chemical company in Brazil?
During my stay in Brazil inflation was very high and the local currency called Cruzeiro was losing value at a 30% to 40% a year average. It was obvious to me that borrowing capital in local currency was essential but the banks had none to lend. By asking a lot of questions I essentially created a new form of borrowing that came to be known as "Swap Loans." In these, Dow loaned the Brazilian Government’s Bank certain amounts in U.S. dollars while they loaned us local currency for the same period of time. At the end, they repaid us U.S. dollars while we repaid the Cruzeiros. We thus avoiding devaluation. Suddenly Dow had cash available to finance its business while competitors did not.
You said you only knew 50 English words when you enrolled at Purdue University. How were you able to become a successful student despite the initial language barrier?
The biggest challenge of my life was to study Chemical Engineering starting with 50 words of English. It took enormous dedication the first two months, staying up till 3 a.m. or 4 a.m. with a dictionary and the textbooks trying to figure out what had been said in the classroom in the daytime.
What were some of your original feelings about coming to America from Ecuador?
Coming to America was a dream fulfilled. At the same time it was a period of high anxiety, the future was unknown.
You are clearly an exception, but it is pretty safe to say that many Americans feel that most of the illegal aliens who gain entry into the U.S., especially from the Southern border, do so with no intent of striving for the success you had, learning English, or even assimilating into the American culture and simply just take advantage of the welfare system. You said you were concerned that the recent debate over illegal aliens had given rise to an anti-immigrant sentiment. Can you understand, in a way, where this sentiment stems from?
Every immigrant should make learning English their first priority, otherwise they close the door to a lot of opportunities. Those that come illegally are not immigrants, they are illegal aliens. Unfortunately we have blurred the line between the two in such a way that the general public is confused.
Are you in favor of amnesty for all people wishing to live in the United States?
I am definitely against amnesty but we need to find a way to allow some of these people to "cleanse" their record and work legally in this country. We could put them on probation by giving them a work permit for up to five years and make it a condition of their stay that they be model citizens, pay their fair share of taxes, etc.
What do you think about some business in the U.S. posting signs, having menus, directions, etc., that contain both English and Spanish? Would you like to see this everywhere?
I am in favor of people learning English and right now we are making it too easy for those who speak Spanish to live without English.
How do you feel about Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and other welfare programs?
Some welfare programs are needed but what we have now are programs whose costs are running away and will bankrupt the country unless they are brought in check. As people live longer, we need, as a first step, to raise the age at which people are eligible for Social Security, Medicare, etc. It could be done gradually, grandfathering current generations but, we need to get started
Were your efforts to succeed in college or in business ever met with hostility because you were not an American?
I never met any hostility because I was not born in the U.S., to the contrary everyone went out of their way to make me feel welcome.
What steps do you feel should be required of an immigrant before he/she becomes an American citizen?
The steps required to become a U.S. citizen are clearly spelled out and include five years of residence, learning about our form of government and the constitution, and passing a test in English. Nothing should be done to change any of this.
Have you ever considered getting involved in politics to promote your value of hard work and determination instead of dependence on the government?
I definitely considered going into government for the right job at the end of my Dow career but changed my mind when I saw that in Washington everything was a compromise. As a businessman I am used to making decisions, a very difficult thing indeed in our nation’s capital.
Why do you thank Mussolini for your success in life and say that “[your] life would not have been so wonderful had [he] not created the crisis from which [you] came through?”
If it had not been for Mussolini and his nefarious ways I probably would not have left Italy. Would I have done as well there as here? I don’t really think so.