Upon discussing his prolific career in business, infrastructure and media, a recurring theme emerged: Sam Vale enjoys a challenge for the same reason people love climbing mountains — because they’re there.
Though holding no previous TV experience, Vale at one time founded a television network because there was a license available. He also purchased a railroad because it was up for sale.
“It was there and they wanted to sell it,” he said.
But these ventures appear more like side projects compared to his day job as the president of the Starr-Camargo Bridge Company.
The company owns the bridge between Rio Grande City and Camargo and is one of the few privately-owned bridges along the Texas border.
His father was among the founders of the bridge built in 1964. When he graduated from the University of Texas at Austin, Vale returned to the Rio Grande Valley and became president of the company in 1980.
Prior to his takeover, he said the bridge didn’t have a lot of commercial traffic. This is now his central focus.
“I focus, almost 100 percent now, on commercial traffic because local traffic, the lighter traffic, is basically a factor of the local population,” he said. “When I figured that out, I started saying, ‘Then the only thing that I can really influence is commercial traffic.’”
That traffic varies on any given day, he said. One day they can see anywhere between two and 300 trucks a day and then they can have 100 on other days.
“We have had a steady growth since 2012 even though most bridges are suffering because of the lack of cars and pickups,” he said.
An international bridge between the United States and Mexico has likely enjoyed the benefits of the North American Free Trade Agreement over the years.
As President Donald Trump seeks to renegotiate the deal, Vale, along with others in the business community, have given their input to officials involved in the negotiations.
“I think NAFTA has been good; it’s not a perfect document,” Vale said, rejecting the idea that NAFTA has caused job losses. “Those jobs were going somewhere, and the primary reason they went somewhere else, from where they were at, was technology.”
He likened the change to Henry Ford’s development of the production line.
“All of that industry was put out of business because, all of a sudden, they could build 50 or 100 cars, or whatever the number was, in one day and people could drive it whenever they wanted,” he said.
He also explained that one of the biggest changes throughout American history was that people were more mobile and moved to where the jobs were.
“They didn’t expect the jobs to be brought to them, so people sometimes say, ‘Well, we’ve been five generations working at this factory and now the factory’s going to Mexico,’” he said. “Well, when the factory went to Mexico, they put in more modern technology too. They didn’t do it the same way they did it back in the original factory and there were savings there but it created other jobs in the United States supplying that business.”
He said that while NAFTA may have caused the loss of about 2 million jobs, it created between 15 and 20 million jobs.
“From the beginning to the end of NAFTA there has been a huge growth of jobs in the United States; there’s not been less,” he said. “Sectors have been affected; it’s a sectorial damage.”
And that damage, he said, is being utilized by Trump for his political agenda, adding that he found it surprising both Democrats and Republicans had ignored “the low-income white guys.”
“Some of his arguments are very good when it comes to certain economic activities,” he said of Trump, “but he’s using (NAFTA) more as a political weapon and less as an economic development weapon.”
In speaking with the U.S. negotiators, he warned that Mexico would be resilient negotiators.
“Mexicans are used to suffering and we’re not, so guess who’s going to scream first?” he said. “And if you characterize this as a national issue in Mexico, they will … follow the government even though they don’t like their own government.”
“They will follow it because all of a sudden, you’ve insulted the culture,” Vale said. “The president doesn’t understand that. He’s doing it like a white guy from New York deals with another white guy from New York. It’s just not the way you deal in international arenas.”
Vale is no stranger to international affairs considering his hectic business travels. On one mid-December morning, Vale was planning to depart to Shanghai just a few days after returning from Mexico City. Though intended for leisure, he also planned to learn more about China.
While he has few vacations and hobbies, Vale said he takes pleasure in his work.
“I like it; I enjoy it,” he said. “What I do is spend my time doing things that I like to do.”