by Michelle Baron Long
For Virginia Business
Bucharest is a long way from Roanoke and a lot more crowded. For nearly three years, the Eastern European capital of 2.5 million has been home to Nicholas F. Taubman, the U.S. ambassador to Romania. The former chairman and CEO of Roanoke-based Advance Auto Parts Inc. was appointed by President Bush in 2005.
As a high-ranking diplomat, Taubman has witnessed history, dined in palaces and hosted heads of state from around the world. As the personal representative of the president in Romania, 73-year-old Taubman has responsibility for all U.S. government activities there. It’s a job he refers to as “a privilege … and probably, of all the things I’ve ever done, the most interesting.”
For instance, within days after arriving in December 2005 he witnessed Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Romanian Foreign Minster Razvan Ungureanu sign an agreement that will allow U.S. forces to use Romanian military facilities for joint training and exercises.
More recently, Taubman attended a ceremony commemorating Ford Motor Co.’s takeover of a Romanian auto plant. Ford plans to invest about $1 billion to expand production at the factory, Automobile Craiova, which formerly was owned by the Romanian government and, before that, South Korea’s Daewoo Motor Co.
Another significant event was a summit held in Bucharest in April that marked NATO’s 59th anniversary. Taubman watched as NATO members invited Albania and Croatia to join the international military alliance.
Looking back, Taubman says the seed for his diplomatic career most likely was planted 10 years ago when he was invited to attend a series of luncheons with George W. Bush, then governor of Texas. “I was invited to go there on the possibility that he might stand for president of the U.S,” recalls Taubman. “Typically the lunches were two hours long with a group of 20 people. [Bush] never even got anything to eat. He just stood up and answered questions all afternoon.”
Taubman had no idea the meetings would later lead to his appointment. About 40 percent of U.S. ambassadors are appointed by the president while the remaining 60 percent are career State Department diplomats.
After attending a few of the luncheons, Taubman was impressed by Bush’s style. “I liked his philosophy. I liked the way that if he didn’t know something, he’d say, ‘I don’t know anything about that, but I’ll find out.’ ”
After his re-election in 2004, Bush nominated Taubman for the Romanian post the next year. What followed was a grueling, nine-month vetting process. Taubman was approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and confirmed by the Senate in October 2005. Rice swore Taubman into office on Nov. 29, 2005. “It’s a busy job,” he says. “It’s all consuming … It’s State Department procedure and a little diplomacy thrown in and a lot of long days and hard work.”
Taubman’s corporate experience proved helpful. Putting a team in a place and instilling a shared vision were skills he developed at Advance Auto where he successively served as president, CEO and chairman of the board of directors. He resigned as a director in 2003.
Taubman is credited with helping the company grow into the country’s second largest auto parts and accessories retailer. His late father, Arthur Taubman, founded Advance Auto in 1932. Today, it ranks 476th on the Fortune 500 with revenues of $4.8 billion, 3,261 stores in 40 states and more than 30,000 employees.
Though not on the board, Taubman remains a company shareholder. “I keep a connection there because it has sentimental value.”
Another project close to his heart is Roanoke’s new bold art museum. The Art Museum of Western Virginia will move from downtown’s Center in the Square into a new building designed by Los Angeles architect Randall Stout. It’s scheduled to open to the public on Nov. 8. The museum will be renamed the Taubman Museum of Art in appreciation of the generosity of Taubman and his wife, Jenny. The couple donated $15.2 million of the $68 million needed for the downtown project. It quadruples the museum’s original size, adding more space for exhibits and education. Stout’s futuristic design of glass and steel is unlike anything else in the mountain city and has sparked controversy.
“What we thought we needed was a transformational project; one that would be an attraction to many, many people; something that was not present on the East Coast,” says Taubman.
The 81,000-square-foot museum was inspired by a visit the Taubmans made to Bilbao, Spain, years ago. Bilbao had just built an art museum designed by Canadian-American architect Frank Gehry. The New York-based Guggenheim lent the Bilbao museum its name and some of its collection. “It simply transformed the city,” says Taubman. He hopes the Taubman Museum will have a similar effect on Roanoke, boosting its economy and raising its profile as a cultural destination.
Because Taubman is a political appointee, his term as ambassador will end on Jan. 21 when a new president is sworn in. By the end of this year, the Taubmans plan to return to Roanoke with their cocker spaniel, Macho. They have more philanthropic projects in mind, says Taubman.
While the couple looks forward to returning home, Taubman says he will leave Romania with mixed emotions. He has made many friends, there. “We’ve done a lot of things together that we hope will be fruitful as time goes on.”