By Avis Thomas-Lester
Monday, May 3, 2010; 35
Avis Thomas-Lester talks to achievers in the fields of business, government, law, education, entertainment and public service about their path to success. Her blog, Rapid Reinvention, and this feature, What It Takes, can be found at http://washingtonpost.com/on-success/.
Communications consultant Peter Schechter has had a varied career.
One of his first jobs was working for an information-gathering company that planned to charge clients $500,000 a year to subscribe to information. In 1993, he helped found Chlopak, Leonard, Schechter & Associates, an international strategic communications firm that serves clients from small companies to Fortune 500 corporations to foreign governments. One client included the interim government of Honduras, which stirred controversy last year when it contracted with CLS to publicize last fall's election after staging a coup d'etat.
He owns a goat farm in Virginia, is co-owner of Agur Winery in Israel, is a partner with celebrity chef Jose Andres in five of Washington's most prominent restaurants and has written two critically-acclaimed novels. He speaks English, Spanish, Italian, French, Portugese and German and has traveled extensively, including 20 trips to Nigeria while working for the Social Democratic Party there and courting his wife, Rosa Peuch, during stopovers in Madrid. Schechter, 50, lives in Georgetown with Peuch, a World Bank education consultant, and daughters Alia, 13, and Marina, 11.
Why he's successful: He's always learning. "For me, my job is not enough. Diversity of interests, range of abilities to learn completely new things has always been my view of what success is all about ... I'm really trying to catapult what I've been privileged to have, which is relationships with presidents and heads of state and being an adviser to very important people, but also to lay on a whole different set of things beyond my job and try to learn about many other aspects."
First job: Schechter is the only child of a foreign service officer father who emigrated to the United States before World War II and a mother who was a physical therapist. He was born in Rome and lived there until he was 6. The family moved to Bolivia, then Venezuela before settling when he was 15 in the District, where he attended the Maret School. "My first job was babysitting ... for a number of people in my building where I lived with my mom and dad ... By sheer coincidence, all of the kids were little boys. I was the high school guy, and they all wanted me as their babysitter rather than a girl. We would go down to the front yard and play soccer, then we would go upstairs and I would heat up the dinner that their moms had left."
Best job: Schechter earned bachelor's and master's degrees in international relations at Johns Hopkins. "After I graduated, I ... was hired by National Public Radio to co-produce a show called 'Understanding Western European Politics.' They sent me to four European capitals to interview politicians ... I had a budget to invite four well-known and interesting people to restaurants ... It doesn't get any better than that. I did that for [four] months. Everything since then has been downhill."
Worst job: Schechter quit his job at New York-based Sawyer Miller Group, a political consulting firm, to work for presidential candidate H. Ross Perot. "Everybody gets one incredibly stupid move in a lifetime. I got mine in 1992 when I left my previous job ... along with [CLS partner] Charlie Leonard, and we both became deputy campaign managers for Ross Perot. I was only in Dallas for 11 days ... I got picked up [at the airport] by some kid who took me to a furnished house on a golf course. He handed me some keys and said, 'And this is your car. I have to take a cab. Here's a map that will get you to the office.' That was on July 6. On July 17, we all resigned en masse."
Why he quit the campaign: "If you think back to the 1992 Perot campaign, one of the things that was absolutely the most horrifying was the speech that he gave to the Nashville-based annual convention of the NAACP, in which he used words like 'you all' and 'you people.' Two days after I got to the office, we turned on the TV and learn the man we worked for was making this speech. None of us had any ... clue that he was considering doing this ... It was 11 days of agony, and then it was over. It did allow me to be free to talk to Charlie and Bob [Chlopak] about joining forces to start the firm, so there was a silver lining in the incredibly silly move to go to Dallas."
Lesson he learned: "To temper my deep attraction for adventure with some forethought."
Smartest move: After the Perot debacle, Schechter joined forces with Leonard and Chlopak, who had also worked at Sawyer, to form CLS. "To find out that I was good enough to give advice to people and they would pay for it and keep asking for more advice has been one of the most fulfilling things in my life. ... I have been privileged to be in the room where ... I got to see how men of great power actually make decisions ... men in politics and heads of state, but also men who run businesses and their businesses were under great threat and the decisions they were making at that very moment could have revived or sunk their businesses."
What inspires him: "Being able to take something I know nothing about and ... become knowledgeable enough to hold my own in a conversation or to have an opinion on the subject. ... Also, to see my kids doing the same thing, picking up subjects they are interested in and getting into it with some level of detail, is a wonderful thing."
What's next: Traveling with his family to Tel Aviv in June so that he can help manage the winery and a third novel. "I have a job that affords me a lot of good stories, so all I had to do was be a good storyteller."
Advice to the aspiring: "I offer two things. First, quality is the most important thing ... being able to offer thoughtful, smart advice ... The other is don't try to remain at a level that you are. Always strive to get to the next level."