Robert M. “Skipp” Orr
U.S. Ambassador, Retired
It was like a scene out of the Oscar-winning epic “Lawrence of Arabia.” But, instead of Peter O’Toole riding on camelback across the Arabian Peninsula, 11 board members of the Asian Development Bank were making their way from Beijing through the Gobi desert to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.
It was June 2015, and the group crossed the largest desert in Asia over four days, sleeping in yurts along the way. They did travel by camel and horse, but mostly by Land Rover, led by Dr. Robert M. “Skipp” Orr, the U.S. ambassador to the ADB and the dean of its board.
Yes, they could have taken the routine 2.5-hour flight to get to their destination, but Orr had another idea.
“I felt that this was what we needed to feel and see. The ADB, as one of the major multilateral development banks, has been dedicated to reducing poverty and promoting prosperity in the Asia-Pacific for 50 years. It was an opportunity to meet the people and experience this remote part of the region firsthand. And when we made it to UB [Ulaanbaatar], it was a nationally televised event that the board of the ADB had come through the Gobi. I’m still getting comments on how amazing it was.”
The Gobi journey illustrates Orr’s personal mantra in action: Never place limits on yourself or what you can do. At 64, he can look back on a diverse career spanning the globe and impacting the worlds of government, higher education and business. Yet very real limitations defined his early years.
Orr had such severe asthma as an infant that upon his doctor’s recommendation his parents pulled up roots and moved from New York to sunny Florida. Then at the age of two, he developed Legg-Calvé-Perthes disease, a rare childhood hip disorder. Until his recovery three years later, he couldn’t walk without leg braces. The asthma was gone by elementary school, and he hasn’t stopped since.
Orr started his career in 1976 as a legislative assistant for U.S. Rep. Paul G. Rogers (D-FL). After serving on the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia and Pacific Affairs, he was appointed to the U.S. Agency for International Development in the Department of State, again with a focus on Asia. He transitioned into higher education in 1985 and held professorships at Stanford and Temple universities as well as serving successively as director of the Stanford Japan Center in Kyoto and Temple’s Institute of Pacific Rim Studies.
His move into the business world began with Motorola in 1993. He opened the cellular phone market in Japan and held several senior-level positions, culminating in the role of vice president and director of European affairs, based in Brussels.
In 2002, he joined Boeing as president of its Japan operation. His years at Boeing coincided with the development of one of the most successful airplanes in history, the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, 35 percent of which was made in Japan. Orr had no background in aeronautics, but his father did. An artist, his father spent most of his career in the industry including a stint at NASA. Orr recalls his paintings of imagined lunar landings and watching the Mercury and Gemini launches from their front yard. “I didn’t know anything about the business really, except what I knew as a kid, and that gave me the excitement for it. I loved working for Boeing.”
Enter President Barack Obama, who when Orr met him, had yet to become a U.S. senator. Orr was visiting Chicago as head of Boeing Japan and had arranged a lunch with local leaders. The auspicious meeting led to Orr being confirmed by the Senate as United States executive director with rank of ambassador to the Asian Development Bank in 2010. He was President Obama’s longest serving appointed ambassador in one post, staying until 2016. Orr was unanimously elected dean of the ADB’s Board of Directors in 2013, the first American chosen for the position. Being a U.S. ambassador was, by far, his most personally rewarding assignment.
“It was the greatest honor of my life to represent my country as a United States ambassador and as dean of the ADB board. The ADB board is really like the United Nations. You have 24 countries around the table, and to lean forward and look at all my wonderful colleagues, who were also my friends, and to say ‘the position of the United States is…’ – you can’t beat that one.”
Orr grew up mostly in Florida and graduated from Atlantic High School in Delray Beach, where he was a champion 800-meter runner. He began focusing more on academics in his senior year and after graduation, spent a year in West Berlin, staying with relatives and attending the 13th year of high school, which was the practice in Germany then. His German got so good that he was hired as an interpreter for the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich.
The next stop was Palm Beach Junior College. Orr still ranks Dr. Lee Butterfield, chairman of the Department of Foreign Languages at PBJC, as one of the best professors he’s ever had. “I studied advanced German with him. He was very famous at that time and spoke 12 languages. He was a bit of a character but a very good teacher, and I remember fondly taking his classes.”
The other PBJC class that stayed with him was Music Appreciation, taught by Irving Gross. “I’ve thought of it off and on over the years. It opened a new world for me, and I developed a lifelong appreciation of classical music.” Miko, Orr’s wife of now 41 years, is a classical pianist and professor. She was a Japanese exchange student when he met her at Florida Atlantic University, and the knowledge gained in Gross’ class gave him some talking points with which to impress her. “I was able to speak a little bit of classical music.”
He earned his bachelor’s degree in history from FAU, a master’s in political science and government from Georgetown University and, after achieving fluency in Japanese, a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Tokyo. He wrote his dissertation in both English and Japanese, and it became the basis of his book, “The Emergence of Japan’s Foreign Aid Power,” which won the 1991 Masayoshi Ohira Memorial Prize for best book on the Asia-Pacific. He received FAU’s Alumni Talon Award in 2016.
Today, Orr serves on various boards, writes, consults and keeps in touch with colleagues. Recently he returned to the ADB for a meeting and was pleasantly reminded of the importance of creating a strong social network that’s not only about doing business.
“I learned that in my days on Capitol Hill 40 years ago when it wasn’t like it is today. There was an atmosphere of trust. I got along great with the Republicans. We would argue in the daytime and go out to the Hawk ‘n’ Dove and drink beer at night. And you know it worked, it worked. And that’s the same attitude I brought to being dean of the ADB board. You play, you argue, but there’s a trust factor that gets built in, and you have this kind of bond. We’ve lost that, and it needs to be restored.”
Suffice it to say Orr never followed a traditional career roadmap. “Most folks think if they’re going to be CEO of a company, they have to have an engineering degree or an MBA. My message is ‘not necessarily.’” It all comes back to his “no-limits” approach to life.
“I came into Motorola from academia. I didn’t know which end of a cell phone to put to my ear. But their interest in me was not what I knew about technology, but what I knew about Japan. The fact that I was a very fluent Japanese speaker was also a big deal. So it’s important to develop that little niche, I think, that will allow you to open those horizons. But never be shy to try to go for something. Even if it doesn’t appear on your résumé, per se. The worst thing that can happen is that they turn you down. You never want to turn yourself down.”