Drop Boards Not Bombs

Llewellyn Werner thinks skateparks could get Iraq's economy rolling

Sure enough, Werner is soon deep in conversation with another customer about her injured dog and then, somehow, Los Angeles, a topic he knows well since he grew up in the San Fernando Valley. In his teens, he worked as a reporter for United Press International, covering the Los Angeles Community College board of trustees campaign of a then-unknown young politician named Jerry Brown. When Brown was later elected California Secretary of State, he asked Werner to join his staff. The position paid off when Brown won the governor's seat in 1975; Werner, then 24, was elevated to a cabinet job in the state's department of business, transportation and housing. He left the Brown administration three years later to attend graduate school and co-found Operation California, an aid organization that airlifted medicine and food to Cambodia after the Pol Pot regime. The outfit grew in scope and stature, eventually taking on the name Operation USA, and is now a well-known international disaster-relief group with such high-profile boardmembers as former Colorado senator Gary Hart. In the early '80s, Werner again joined Brown as an advisor before leaving to become president of Crown Coach International, a bus manufacturing company he eventually sold to a division of General Electric.

After that, he went into private equity. But he maintained close ties to the Democratic Party, often donating large sums to candidates. Today he's a supporter of Barack Obama and, like the Democratic presidential nominee, says he was vehemently opposed to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. And the post-invasion performance has been "an American embarrassment," he says. "We won the war and didn't have a Plan B. We basically presided over the chaos."

But unlike Obama, who has frequently called for a timetable for troop withdrawal, Werner doesn't think the U.S. is going anywhere until Iraq is stable, and that could take years. "I am a Democrat," he explains. "I don't like the war. I certainly had nothing to do about getting in there, but I would like to see a way for America to get out. And the only way I know how to get out, having been in a lot of trouble spots around the world myself, is to create employment and economic opportunity."

Portable skateparks in al-Zawra Park.
Portable skateparks in al-Zawra Park.
Llewellyn Werner
Llewellyn Werner

Werner visited Baghdad last year at the behest of Deputy Undersecretary of Defense Paul Brinkley, a former Silicon Valley executive who's heading the U.S. effort to bring economic development to the war-torn country. Brinkley's main goal has been to revive the 200 state-owned factories that were shut down in 2003 by Paul Bremer, then head of the Coalition Provisional Authority. The move, which left more than half a million people unemployed, was one of several drastic decisions Bremer made that year that critics say turned disgruntled and idle Iraqis toward the insurgency.

The Pentagon now sees creating jobs as a key factor in its counter-insurgency strategy and has been desperately trying to attract private investors through Brinkley's Task Force to Improve Business and Stability. Werner is one of a handful of businesspeople who have taken up the cause, searching for Iraqi companies to support or setting up new companies altogether. His fiber-optics company is building Iraq's "fiber-optics backbone" by laying 3,000 kilometers of cable into neighboring Jordan and Syria. Another firm is constructing two 500-megawatt power plants to provide much-needed energy. Still another is reviving a former truck factory.

As one of the only American businessmen doing this type of development work in Iraq, Werner sees himself as a kind of capitalist commando fighting the war through business deals. Sometimes he's searching for Iraqi businesses that have potential but lack proper distribution networks or resources; at other times, he identifies a need and looks to build an industry around it. And at all times, he's looking for Iraqi partners to operate and hold majority stakes in the companies. "First, it's their country," he explains. "Second, it's smart. If it's their country and they own it, they are going to make sure it succeeds."

C3 isn't so much a company as a collection of partners that Werner has assembled for strategic reach into different realms, and its investors are "from other parts of the world," he says. One consultant, David Scantling, is a former Department of Defense expert on telecommunications expansion in Iraq. Retired major general Frank Schober is C3's vice president for military affairs. Other advisors include Iraqi expatriates, high-risk insurance experts and international real-estate developers.

But in the end, C3 is all Werner. He occupies a curious space, working with the American military, the Iraqi government and the citizenry, each with their own business customs and agendas. The Marines provide him with security as he ventures out of the Green Zone to Karbala, where he is investing in date plantations. Iraqi officials provide him with connections and legitimacy as he heads to Iskandariya, south of Baghdad, to use his past experience running Crown Coach to look into investing in a struggling bus factory. He first visited it in the '80s, when he was running Crown Coach.

"I call him an adventure capitalist," Schober says of Werner. "He disappears on these ventures and we have to remind him to stay in touch with us because there is no way to get ahold of him."

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