SALT LAKE CITY — Lew Cramer has been traveling the world for 40 years, running errands for the Reagan and Bush administrations, selling telecommunications to former Eastern Bloc countries after the fall of the Iron Curtain or conducting business for World Trade Center Utah, but even he didn’t realize the scale of it all until his wife brought him up short one day.
On the occasion of a milestone anniversary, he told Barbara, “It’s been a great 40 years.” Barbara corrected him: “No it’s been a great 30.” She had added up the days and nights he had been away from home, all meticulously recorded in his own journals, and it totaled 10 years. That’s one-fourth of his professional life that he was gone from home. He has traveled about 3 million airline miles — 120 laps around the equator — and visited about 100 countries.
In the latest iteration of his career, the 67-year-old Cramer is CEO of Coldwell Banker’s commercial real estate office in Salt Lake City. His night job, as he calls it, is serving as an LDS stake president. Before all of that, he was a businessman and ambassador for international commerce who seemed to have a knack for brushes with powerful people and big events.
He was arriving in New York City just as the second plane stuck the Twin Towers. As a young Mormon missionary, he helped host President Richard Nixon, future LDS Church President Thomas S. Monson and candy bomber Gail Halverson during official visits to Berlin. He was a presidential appointee under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. He was part of the first White House delegation to visit the Soviet Union after Mikhail Gorbachev became general secretary. As a teenager, he happened to be in Jackson, Mississippi, the day three civil rights workers were abducted and later found murdered in what turned out to be one of the watershed events in the civil rights movement.
“You live a Forrest Gump life,” Barbara once told him.
So it seems. The son of a career Army officer, he was living in Okinawa as a 7-year-old when his family hosted future LDS Church President Joseph Fielding Smith. “I was asked to present him with a set of USAF pilot’s wings to honor his love of planes,” he recalls.
Cramer graduated from Westwood High in Mesa, Arizona, and was named class valedictorian. He placed first in a statewide essay contest and third nationally, which earned him a trip to Washington, D.C., where he received the award from Vice President Hubert Humphrey.
He enrolled at Stanford in 1967 when the campus was a hotbed for Vietnam protests and the hippy movement. His LDS bishop was an associate professor in the Stanford Graduate School of Business named Henry B. Eyring, who is now first counselor in the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It was Eyring who persuaded Cramer to serve a church mission.
He was sent to Berlin, based just a few blocks from the Berlin Wall at the height of the Cold War. His daily travels took him through the Soviet sector, past dogs, machine guns and menacing guards. He proselyted in apartment buildings that still bore pockmarks from World War II bullets and routinely heard stories of Nazi and Soviet atrocities. During his two-year mission, he served as a translator for Halverson, the man who famously dropped candy to the children of Berlin from his airplane during the Berlin Airlift of the late 1940s, and he was among those who were asked to host Elder Thomas S. Monson as he passed through Checkpoint Charlie.
Cramer never returned to Stanford. During his mission, Cramer’s birthday was selected No. 2 in the newly instituted Vietnam War draft lottery. The draft board advised him to enroll in college and apply for ROTC or he would be drafted. Stanford’s ROTC building had been burned, so he enrolled at BYU, where he took ROTC classes and served as a student body officer, working closely with BYU President Dallin H. Oaks and the then-dean of religious studies, Jeffrey R. Holland, both of whom became apostles in the LDS Church. Cramer graduated from BYU Law School’s charter class in 1976, then served 10 years in the Army, mostly in reserve duty, before retiring as a captain.
He practiced law for several years with firms in San Francisco and Los Angeles, where he worked closely with Olympic officials in preparation for the 1984 Summer Games. He says the visibility of his work at the games led to his next job. In 1984, he was named a White House Fellow, which meant working for senior White House staffers, Cabinet members and other government officials. During his five years in Washington, he held a variety of titles with long names, but essentially he was an international trade negotiator, and his timing, once again, couldn’t have been better. America was winning the Cold War and the Berlin Wall would soon collapse, opening the way for a free market and new business opportunities, and Cramer was there to facilitate it. He participated in the first White House delegation to visit the USSR after Gorbachev became general secretary, along with other White House delegations to Poland, Hungary and Ukraine.
“The CIA briefed us before that visit to Moscow in 1985,” says Cramer. “They told us: ‘Keep your eyes open. We don’t know anything about (Gorbachev).’ They also told us, ‘He’s the first Soviet leader in years who weighs more than his wife.’”
As U.S. deputy assistant secretary of commerce for science and electronics, he formulated international trade policy for America’s high-tech businesses, which led to his testifying before Congress, leading inaugural trade missions to China and negotiating with political and business leaders throughout Europe.
During his last year in Washington, Cramer served as director general of the U.S. and Foreign Commercial Service, and assistant secretary of commerce for international trade. He was the primary sub-Cabinet officer responsible for expanding U.S. exports and services abroad under Presidents Reagan and Bush, leading a staff of about 1,400 commercial officers in 68 U.S. offices and 125 embassies and consulates in 66 countries. His deputy assistant was future Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.
Those were heady years for Cramer, who still relishes the supporting role he played in the Reagan-Bush years and the fall of the Iron Curtain, which collapsed in 1989. “On my tombstone, I want ‘Lew Cramer, Reagan trade official,’” says Cramer. “Our motto in those days was ‘make history, not money.’ The Reagan administration won the Cold War, cut taxes, reduced the size of government. It was a Camelot time.”
After he left Washington, Cramer was hired by U.S. West as an international vice president charged with paving the way for establishing phone systems in the emerging markets of Russia and the Eastern Bloc countries as they moved toward capitalism. “My job was to get the authority to put phones in these new countries,” he says. But first he had to convince the Pentagon, which didn’t want his company to sell such technology to their old enemies.
“They thought the wall was going to come back up,” says Cramer. “I had to go to the Pentagon and say we need this technology. When people talk, dictators walk. That was our mantra. It took almost two years to convince them.”
He traveled more than a million miles to 20 countries in Europe, Asia and the former Soviet Union trying to convince government officials and investors to usher in the new technology. Along the way he met with Ambassador Shirley Temple Black and President Bush and high Soviet officials. “Our mantra was a little different now,” he says. “We said, ‘If we don’t make money, we’re history.”
A decade later he left the phone business and partnered with former Sen. Jake Garn to create Summit Ventures, a consulting firm that helped companies find international business opportunities. In 2006, he received a call from Huntsman, who by then was Utah’s governor, asking him to start World Trade Center Utah. The WTC’s mission was to motivate, facilitate and grow international business opportunities through public and private partnerships, getting American products and services into cities around the world.
“We started out in a closet at the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce, and with the help of just about everyone, built one of the leading WTCs in the world,” says Cramer, who served as CEO until 2013. “Utah has tripled its exports since 2006, which has created more than 100,000 new jobs.”
In 2013, he went to work for Coldwell and continued his charmed career, expanding his business from four offices to 29, with offices in 11 states.
Looking back on his career, he says, “Any success I’ve enjoyed in life has basically been on the shoulders of incredible mentors, friends and colleagues. And I am not shy in thanking them for what they’ve done for me.”
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