Wes Mathews was happy in his role of deputy economic counselor at the U.S. embassy in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Six months into the assignment, the well-regarded foreign service officer and his wife, Jaime Mathews, already were hoping that the two-year assignment would turn into three.
As the person charged with overseeing energy affairs — clearly the most important economic tie between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia — the professional opportunities for Mathews were enormous.
“I was comfortably ensconced in my role over here,” he said.
So, it only made sense that, when officials from Choose New Jersey reached out to gauge his interest in taking over their top job, he … immediately jumped at the chance.
Mathews laughs at the scenario. He knows it sounds odd. Knows it is not the normal career path for a diplomat — especially one that was getting somewhat close 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 compelling.”
It was a fork-in-the-road-type career decision everyone faces at least once in their life. For Mathews, a host of professional and personal reasons made it an easy one — 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 open the state’s first Office of International Trade in 2018.
Mathews quickly rattles off the “whys”:
Professionally: “I really enjoyed my time with the EDA, working with that group and being able to start an Office of International Trade from the ground up,” he said. “That was a lot of fun. And, frankly, going from federal government to state government, you’re usually a fish out of water in many ways. So, being able to focus on something that I had a bit of expertise in was great.
Personally: “My wife was able to work in New Jersey,” he said. “Oftentimes, when we’re overseas as diplomats, there’s only a set of jobs for spouses at the 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 both really enjoyed our time in New Jersey,” he said. “We really enjoyed the hospitality and everything the state had to offer.”
It’s a sentiment that figures to come up when he’s working to convince other companies to “choose” New Jersey when they are looking to relocate or open a North American office.
Mathews, who will begin his role as the CEO of Choose in the first week of February — after making a visit to his home state of Texas — spoke with ROI-NJ from Saudi Arabia last week about his decision to take the job and what he hopes to accomplish.
Here’s a look at the conversation, edited for space and clarity.
ROI-NJ: There are so many places to start, but let’s start here: You are not from New Jersey, but you are in a role tasked with selling the state. Talk about the challenges and opportunities that come with that.
Wes Mathews: I will never tell you that I know New Jersey. The first time we were there, we lived in Hamilton, and I worked in Trenton. We traveled the breadth of the state. It was a fun experience, but a temporary one and really a surface one. This time, we’re moving there, we’re planning to live there for a long time. We’ll get to know the state on a deeper level. I have a lot to figure out.
In terms of the business community, there are some attributes that are universal. I’m not saying I know what businesses need or their expectations before meeting them, but, at the end of the day, the purpose of businesses is uniform wherever you are in the world. So, I feel like having been able to work with businesses, particularly with furthering U.S. business interests overseas, will serve me well.
But, I am very much an outsider that’s coming into a state that I hope will embrace me as a friend. I do not go into this role thinking that I know the state or the community. You will never hear me say that. I am in learning mode and listen mode — and I’ve already learned one thing.
ROI: What’s that?
WM: I was told I have to stop saying, ‘Y’all’ if I want to fit in (he says with a laugh). There’s not much Texan I speak, except ‘Y’all,’ because it’s just easier and makes sense. But I’ll do what I have to do.
Wes Mathews was instrumental in helping the state set up offices and partnerships in Germany, Israel and India during his brief stint at the New Jersey Economic Development Authority. As he takes over as CEO at Choose New Jersey, he said he intends to help the state do the same in Central and South America and East Asia.
ROI: Fair enough. Let’s talk more about life in New Jersey. You have indicated it will be better for your wife and your 18-month-old daughter. Talk about that?
WM: New Jersey was the first time in our marriage where my wife was able to seek out whatever employment she wanted. She worked for a small fashion startup. And that was something that she’d been interested in and passionate about. So, it really worked quite nicely for us. And we’re hopeful 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 that we started some sort of playgroup or community thing, somebody either got COVID or the flu, and they had to shut it down. So, we’ve never really got into a rhythm here for her. We’re hoping to be able to do a little bit more of that.
ROI: 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. Talk about that aspect of being back in the States?
WM: My parents are in Texas, they’re getting older, and they’re not in the best health. It is far easier to just be a 3-hour plane ride away than a 13-hour plane ride on the other side of the globe. When you start a family, you think about how much time your parents can spend with their grandchild. That’s something that’s really precious.
So, there’s a set of professional reasons for this. But there’s also a set of personal reasons where it made absolute sense to do this. Jaime and I thought: When do you make decisions around family instead of career? Is it worth that sacrifice to wait seven more years? To us, it wasn’t.
ROI: By seven more years, you are referring to when you would become a 20-year veteran of the foreign service, which would bring a lot of retirement benefits. Talk about giving that up — and can you ever get it back?
WM: I can go back within five years of resigning if I wanted to. So, I do have that option. But I don’t know if I would take it. I’m looking forward to transitioning away from the federal system.
ROI: How do you mean?
WM: There’s something at the state level that’s far more engaging for me at this point in my career. At the federal level, you’re often advising Washington on policy — and then, by the time that policy turns into action, you’re several rungs removed from the business community and how it actually impacts local communities.
Being able to see that when I was at the 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 you’re in is extremely valuable to me. That’s a place I find a bit of meaning.
There also are aspects of working at Choose, versus inside state government, that are appealing. As the CEO, you do have a bit of freedom and flexibility to guide the organization.
ROI: Talk about doing all of this in New Jersey?
WM: I am incredibly fortunate to be coming to Choose on the heels of the three years under Jose Lozano. He had quite a bit of work to do when he took the helm. And I think that he has retooled and reorganized the entity to make it ready for this this next leap, wherever that may be.
And then, there’s the EDA. Tim Sullivan was my boss at the EDA; he gave me a lot of room and flexibility to start the office. He had great advice and counsel. I’m looking forward to working very closely with him.
ROI: It’s been just a few years. Did you ever imagine you would return so soon?
WM: When we left New Jersey the last time, it was because (the State Department) asked for me to come back. They were not willing to extend my leave of absence.
We were sad, but we thought we’d ride out another decade and have a set of interesting experiences. But the thought of returning also was there.
It’s funny. My wife told me when we were leaving, ‘Maybe you could do something like what Jose does when you go into retirement.’
I thought, that would be nice somewhere down the line, but I never really thought that that this job or this opportunity would find me so quickly again.