After a successful career in real estate, Harley Rouda Jr. (EMBA ’02) made a successful run for public office in California and now serves in the U.S. House of Representatives. Recently, Rouda took some time to answer questions about his experiences as a student at Fisher and how his studies have benefitted him throughout his career.
Tell us a little about yourself and your Ohio state background.
I was born and raised in Columbus, Ohio, and attended the Executive MBA program at The Ohio State University Max M. Fisher College of Business. I had a great time, and it was actually a really interesting time for me because I was doing a rollup of 14 companies, including four companies from a publicly traded company, while simultaneously getting my MBA. So it was a pretty frenetic time period.
Literally, after we did the merger of these 14 companies, I was having classes about merger integration. So it was almost as if a lot of what I was dealing with was matching up with what I was being taught — ironically at the exact same time. So, it was a really cool experience to be able to do that rollup and do the post-merger integration while getting my MBA.
Tell us about your career in business.
I practiced law first for Porter, Wright, Morris & Arthur in the areas of securities, intellectual property, real estate and business.
From there I went to work for my dad, who had a real estate company called HER, which is still around. I recognized that the industry was rapidly changing because the internet was coming to fruition. I convinced my dad that the internet could provide a really strong opportunity for us to grow the business and consolidate around the state of Ohio and beyond. He bought in to the idea, so I hired a couple guys from CompuServe in Columbus. We built a really cool technology platform that was state-of-the art, cutting-edge and an industry differentiator that allowed us to have really significant organic growth. We began franchising across the U.S., and eventually we sold the franchise arm to a company called Brookfield, based out of Toronto, Canada; they had previously bought the GMAC Real Estate network the year before and had to change the name — that was part of the deal when they bought it. So we sold them our name, our franchise system called Real Living, and I went on to merge the GMAC franchise system into the Real Living brand and network.
We ended up with almost 10,000 agents across the U.S. and, three years later, we sold that to a subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway, and that triggered my exit. From that time until running for office, I was doing board work — from early-stage companies to publicly traded companies.
Why did you decide to run for public office?
I thought about running for office when I was younger, but the business had all of my attention, especially during the Great Recession. It was difficult to manage through that with how hard the real estate industry was hit. But the 2016 election was a wake-up call — I think to everyone, regardless of where they are on the political spectrum — that we needed to get back to talking about issues instead of personalities. We need to put country first and party second, and for me, that was standing up and running for office.
How do you feel your business studies at Ohio State prepared you for your career and for public office?
I practiced law for a long time, but getting my MBA has been instrumental in my success, because of the breadth and depth of knowledge and understanding you get to operate in the business world — and by the way, the political world is very similar in many ways to the business world —and I’m very appreciative of what I got from my MBA at Ohio State. Also, I really enjoyed it, too. It was just a great group of fellow students, and the teachers were fabulous!
A funny story: Former Dean Joe Alutto was teaching a class on leadership, and one of our assignments was to do a story on Carly Fiorina and her leadership at HP. And, again, I had just done a rollup of 14 companies across the state of Ohio. We were instantly in the top-100 largest companies in Ohio, were trying to integrate these 14 companies representing over 3,000 people, and I did a pretty half-hearted effort on that assignment. And, Dean Alutto calls me out on it and says, “Harley, this is rudimentary at best.” I said, “I know, dean, I’m really sorry, here’s what’s going on.” He laughed and said, “Sounds like you’re getting two MBAs at the same time. Don’t worry about it; keep marching forward.” He did give me a C on it, but he didn’t beat me up too bad. He’s a good guy.
What challenges do you anticipate in transitioning from business to public service?
I talked about this a lot on the campaign trail, and I’ll tell you the commonality between running for office and running a business, and then what’s different. What’s the same is that to be successful in business or in politics, you have to have a good brand or product, you have to have a good infrastructure behind you, and you have to be properly capitalized.
The big difference is, in business, you could be the third-best law firm in a small town and make a lot of money, and have a successful time. But in politics, you’re playing for a singular event — a primary, and if you are successful then you get to play for another singular event four or five months later. And then you repeat that singular event every two years in the case of Congress. So, very different. The winner takes all or the loser goes home, which is very different than the business world.
Now that you are serving in Congress, what skills from your Fisher Executive MBA experience have helped you transfer into this newest chapter of your career?
I can honestly say everything that was taught to me in the business school has application to both the campaign and now being in office — strategy, marketing, managerial behavior, organizational development, leadership, statistics, accounting, financial markets, ethics, etc.
Any personal or family information you want to share?
My wife Kaira and I have been married for 28 years and have four incredible kids who are 27, 25, 24 and 22.
Periodically, the Max M. Fisher College of Business features members of our alumni community who have applied their degrees to career paths outside of traditional business roles. In this feature, we profile one alumnus who applied his business acumen to his foray into politics. This story is not a college or university endorsement of the alumnus’ past or future political aspirations.