To get an idea of the early days of Hungary’s transition from communism to capitalism in the early 1990s, Robb Knuepfer offers a thought experiment: “Just imagine that the United States government owns everything. And imagine also that everyone lives in the same 1,200-square-foot apartment. And everybody has the same gray carpeting and blue walls, the same refrigerator and television.” Everybody has the same employer, too: the government. “And then one day, the government says, 'We are going to sell the ownership of these businesses that you’ve been working for to the highest and best bidder.’”
For five years, starting in 1992, Knuepfer’s job was to represent those bidders. As a lawyer at the firm Baker & McKenzie, he was living his lifelong dream of practicing law—one inspired, as he recalls, by the courtroom drama of Perry Mason and solidified by a meeting he sought out with a neighbor at age 14. (His neighbor, a lawyer, asked him two questions: “Do you like to read?” and “Are you willing to work hard?” He answered affirmatively to both.) After a degree in English and economics at Denison and a dual J.D./M.B.A. at Northwestern University, Knuepfer started at Baker & McKenzie, an international law firm. “Baker seemed exotic,” said Knuepfer, who recently was awarded an Alumni Citation from Denison. “It was an international firm, and in those days, we had one lawyer from every office in the firm working in Chicago, and they typically dressed in native garb. So I felt like I was working at the U.N.”
True to form, the firm was the first American business of any kind to set up shop behind the Iron Curtain, and Knuepfer busied himself with helping U.S. corporations get a foothold in the market. The American appetite was strong: Alcoa bought the national steel company; PepsiCo bought the bottling company; General Electric bought the light bulb company. The process behind the transactions, however, was hampered by Hungary’s lack of business tradition. “It was hard to do deals. There wasn’t a law about how to form a company. There wasn’t a law about going bankrupt, either. From a lawyer’s perspective, it was like colonial America—you just sort of made it up as you went along.” Plus, recruiting workers was tough in an economy with a tradition of guaranteed work. When Knuepfer and a few other foreign law firms teamed up to organize a typical U.S.-style job fair—no one showed up. “It was such a foreign concept,” says Knuepfer.
So Knuepfer decided to give the market a nudge. He started teaching at Eötvös Loránd University as a way to recruit lawyers to his firm—“Not to be Mr. Chips or something like that.” (He would develop an ongoing interest in it, though, and he still teaches courses in both law and business at Northwestern.) Knuepfer and his colleagues also helped launch the National Service League, a kind of business-minded Peace Corps, through which young Americans would spend a few years in Hungary teaching subjects such as finance, communications, and marketing to growing Hungarian businesses. By the time Knuepfer left, $14 billion of American money had been invested in Hungary, $10 billion of which he had handled personally.
Even with this track record, when his cellphone rang last November with a call from someone identifying himself as the Hungarian ambassador to the United States, he thought it was a joke. “He said the parliament had approved my appointment as—in effect—a knight of the Republic of Hungary ... and would I be available for a knighting ceremony?” When Knuepfer received the Order of Merit—Hungary’s highest honor—the foreign ministry referred to Knuepfer’s work as “tireless and selfless.” The Hungarian government has since appointed him Illinois’ counsel general for Hungary—a diplomatic appointment. Honored by the attention and appreciation, Knuepfer is also weighing the practical applications of his new title. “Well,” he says, “now that I have diplomatic immunity, maybe I can get out of some parking tickets.”