Wes Mathews was happy in his role as Deputy Economic Counselor at the US Embassy in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Six months into the mission, the much-loved foreign service officer and his wife, Jaime Mathews, were already hoping the two-year mission would turn into three.
As the person responsible for overseeing energy affairs – clearly the most important economic link between the United States and Saudi Arabia – the professional opportunities for Mathews were enormous.
“I was comfortable in my role here,” he said.
So, it only made sense that when Choose New Jersey officials reached out to gauge his interest in returning to their highest position, he…immediately jumped at the chance.
Mathews laughs at the script. He knows it sounds weird. Knows that this is not the normal career path for a diplomat – especially one that got a little closer to the point where he could enjoy the benefits of his service.
“As soon as I was asked, it was a no-brainer,” he said. “It’s probably the easiest professional decision I’ve made in my life. It was just really convincing.
It was a fork in the road type career decision that everyone has to face at least once in their life. For Mathews, a host of professional and personal reasons made it easy – despite the fact that the native Texan had only spent 18 months of his professional career here, when he helped the New Jersey Economic Development Authority to open the state’s first international affairs office. Trade in 2018.
Mathews quickly explains the “whys”:
Professionally: “I really enjoyed my time with EDA, working with this group and being able to start an international trade office from scratch,” he said. “It was a lot of fun. And, frankly, moving from the federal government to the state government, you’re usually a fish out of water in a lot of ways. So being able to focus on something that I had a bit of expertise was awesome.
Personally: “My wife was able to work in New Jersey,” he said. “Often when we are overseas as diplomats, there is only one set of jobs for spouses in embassies. There are very few countries where they can actually work on the local economy. So it’s a bit restrictive.
And then came the money quote.
“My wife and I really enjoyed our time in New Jersey,” he said. “We really enjoyed the hospitality and all the state had to offer.”
It’s a sentiment that comes up when he works to convince other companies to “choose” New Jersey when looking to relocate or open an office in North America.
Mathews, who will begin his role as CEO of Choose in the first week of February – after making a visit to his home state of Texas – spoke with Saudi Arabia’s ROI-NJ last week at about his decision to accept the position and what he hopes to accomplish.
Here’s a preview of the conversation, edited for more space and clarity.
ROI-NJ: There are so many places to start, but let’s start here: you’re not from New Jersey, but you’re in charge of selling the state. Talk about the challenges and opportunities that come with it.
Wes Mathews: I will never tell you that I know New Jersey. The first time we went, we lived in Hamilton and I worked in Trenton. We’ve traveled the breadth of the state. It was a fun experience, but temporary and really superficial. This time, we’re moving in, we plan to live there for a long time. We will get to know the state on a deeper level. I have a lot to understand.
When it comes to the business community, some characteristics are universal. I’m not saying that I know the needs of businesses or their expectations before meeting them, but, at the end of the day, the purpose of businesses is uniform no matter where you are in the world. So I feel like having been able to work with companies, especially to advance American business interests overseas, will stand me in good stead.
But, I am truly a stranger entering a state that I hope will accept me as a friend. I don’t come into this role thinking I know the state or the community. You will never hear me say that. I’m in learning mode and listening mode — and I’ve already learned one thing.
KING: What is that?
MW: I was told that I had to stop saying “You all” if I want to fit in (he says laughing). I don’t speak a lot of Texan, except “all of you”, because it’s just easier and more logical. But I will do what I have to do.
Wes Mathews was instrumental in helping the state establish offices and partnerships in Germany, Israel and India during his brief stint at the New Jersey Economic Development Authority. As he takes over leadership of Choose New Jersey, he said he intends to help the state do the same in Central and South America and East Asia.
Here he details the possibilities.
KING: Fair enough. Let’s talk a little more about life in New Jersey. You indicated that it would be best for your wife and 18 month old daughter. Talk about that?
MW: New Jersey was the first time in our marriage that my wife was able to seek the job she wanted. She worked for a small fashion startup. And it was something that interested and fascinated her. So it worked really well for us. And we hope she’ll be able to do something like that again.
And Leya was born during the pandemic. She’s doing great, but life can be a bit isolating here. Every time we started some kind of playgroup or community, someone got COVID or the flu, and they had to shut it down. So we never really had a rhythm here for her. We hope to be able to do a little more.
KING: Family and personal reasons are a big part of this move. I know there will be a stop in Texas to see your parents before coming here. Do you talk about that aspect of being back in the United States?
MW: My parents are in Texas, they are getting old and they are not very healthy. It is much easier to be only 3 hours away by plane than 13 hours away by plane on the other side of the world. When you start a family, you think about the time your parents can spend with their grandchild. It is something that is truly valuable.
So there is a combination of professional reasons for this. But there’s also a set of personal reasons why it made perfect sense to do so. Jaime and I thought: When do you make decisions about your family rather than your career? Is it worth waiting seven more years? For us, that was not the case.
KING: After seven more years, you’re referring to when you would become a 20-year veteran of the foreign service, which would net you a lot of retirement benefits. Talk about giving it up – and can you ever get it back?
MW: I can go back within five years of my resignation if I wanted to. So I have this option. But I don’t know if I would take it. I can’t wait to leave the federal system.
KING: What do you want to say?
MW: There is something at the state level that is much more engaging for me at this point in my career. At the federal level, you often advise Washington on policy – and then, as that policy turns into action, you are several levels removed from business and its real impact on local communities.
Being able to see that when I was at EDA was really exciting. And I think there’s a part of me now, in my 40s and with a family, that being able to impact business and the community that you’re in is extremely valuable to me. It’s a place where I find some meaning.
There are also aspects of working at Choose, relative to inside state government, that are appealing. As CEO, you have some freedom and flexibility to guide the organization.
KING: Are you talking about doing all this in New Jersey?
MW: I’m incredibly lucky to come to Choose on the heels of three years under Jose Lozano. He had a lot of work to do when he took the helm. And I think he rearranged and rearranged the entity to get it ready for that next jump, wherever.
And then there is the EDA. Tim Sullivan was my boss at EDA; it gave me a lot of space and flexibility to start the desktop. He had very good tips and advice. I look forward to working very closely with him.
KING: It’s only been a few years. Did you ever imagine that you would come back so soon?
MW: When we last left New Jersey, it was because (the State Department) asked me to come back. They were unwilling to extend my leave.
We were sad, but we thought we were going to go through another decade and have a series of interesting experiences. But the idea of coming back was also there.
It’s funny. My wife said to me when we were leaving, ‘Maybe you could do something like what Jose does when you retire.’
I thought it would be nice somewhere down the line, but I never really thought this job or opportunity would find me so quickly.