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On Friday, March 27, 2009 an amazing tenure at DHS will conclude.  Al Martinez-Fonts’ services as the Assistant Secretary for the Private Sector will end and he will return to where he came from, the private sector.

A number of things distinguish Al’s six-plus years of service at DHS:

•    He will have been the longest serving political appointee of the Department;
•    He will have served three different DHS Secretaries (Ridge, Chertoff & Napolitano); five Deputy Secretaries (England, Loy, Jackson, Schneider and Beers (Acting)); six Department Chiefs of Staff (Lawlor, Campbell, Wood, Sweet, Lesher & Kroloff); and any number of reorganizations;
•    He will have travelled to just about every corner of the country speaking to audiences large and small; and,
•    He will have met with just about every type of private sector member ranging from the corporate titan to the sole proprietor of a corner store.

While some may see these items as trivial (or even notorious), they are part of a story of a man who embodies the very metric of the genuine American success story.

A Cuban by birth, Al and his family came to America fleeing the Castro regime, settling in the most of American of “melting pots,” New York.   From there he went to Villanova and after graduation entered the banking profession where he literally lived and worked around the world (e.g., Philippines, Mexico, South America, etc.) as well as several other spots around the US.

A long the way he built a track record of performance and success doing what he did best – meeting people; listening to their issues and concerns; working problems into solutions; and establishing a reputation as an honest broker who worked WITH people to get the job done.

Those are the same qualities he brought to a fledgling upstart over six years ago with over 180,000 employees, a $24 billion dollar budget and a damned if you do, damned if you don’t mission.  I should know. I was one of the people fortunate… excuse me, BLESSED to call him my boss for three years in DHS’ Private Sector Office (PSO).

When it was established, the PSO was a small office whose job was to connect the Department to the private sector and vice versa.  It was a first of its kind office that had never existed anywhere in the federal sphere.  Prior to the PSO, the prevailing federal government attitude for engaging the private sector was on matters solely related to sales and procurements, imposing new rules and regulations, issuing indictments, imposing fines and so forth.

That was not the prevailing attitude of those involved in the Department’s creation or its subsequent operations.  To us, the private sector was a front line partner to the Department’s mission and as a partner, relationships needed to be established to work issues large and small.

For all of the criticism of DHS’ creation about what went into the Department and why, one thing they got right was creating an office dedicated to giving voice, perspective and relationships with the private sector.  What they also got right was finding the right man for the job of leading it.

If I had a dollar for every time someone told me when I was at the Department, or even after I left it in September 2006, “I love working with your boss,” or “You are so lucky to work for him,” I’d be underwriting the on-going Federal bailouts and recent spending sprees.

Many times I was asked what it was like to work for him and I described it this way:

“Working for Al is great. He gives you just enough rope to swing to the next tree so you can explore, work what’s next and make something happen.  In case you forget, that’s also the same amount of rope that you need to hang yourself too.  What you did with that rope was entirely up to you and what you made of the opportunity he gave you.”

Fortunately I never hung myself while working for him but you knew that he respected and supported you as well as others who worked for him and worked with him.

Al’s leadership and demeanor empowered those around him to get smarter on issues, explore solutions and make opportunities happen where they never existed before.

He was what you always hoped your boss would always be like… and for me he was.

In looking at his legacy at DHS, it should be noted that on numerous occasions Al was the only voice in a room full of senior government types who talked about the private sector but by virtue of their backgrounds and experiences knew little or nothing about it and its diverse challenges.

Several times that voice and its counsel were embraced; other times it was not but it was Al’s voice and presence that gave perspective and insight that would have otherwise been unavailable in some of the most demanding and unprecedented of circumstances.

Truth be told, Al Martinez-Fonts was the best friend the private sector could ever have had in post 9/11 world.  His path finding leadership has made a tremendous difference to the on-going security and success of the homeland’s greatest innovators, the private sector.

As Assistant Secretary for the Private Sector and soon as private citizen, Al was, and still is the embodiment of the spirit of American innovation and entrepreneurship.

On occasions such as this the words, “thank you” don’t ever say enough but they never do when you consider the people like Al.  They are selfless leaders who make the world a better place for their imparted service and limitless gifts but you would expect nothing less of an American success story.

Rich Cooper blog primarily on emergency preparedness and response, management issues related to the Department of Homeland Security, and the private sector’s role in homeland security. Read More