John E. Robson, the president and chairman of the Export-Import Bank of the United States, a government-held corporation that helps U.S. businesses compete abroad as they export goods and services, died of cancer Wednesday at his home in Washington, D.C. He was 71.
Robson, a former chief executive at major corporations, had held top government positions intermittently since the late 1960s in agencies covering transportation and banking.
He was known for a strict attitude toward streamlining operations in the public and private sectors. Part of his role at Export-Import was to make it more firmly aligned with the current administration's trade policy team.
It helped that Robson had strong connections to the Bush administration. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was a high school classmate, and the two worked closely together as executives at the pharmaceutical giant G.D. Searle & Co. in the 1970s and '80s.
Bush said in a statement Wednesday that Robson was "a man of true character and integrity" and "set an example of distinguished public service."
Robson took over the Export-Import Bank's top position in May 2001, replacing James A. Harmon, who resigned.
The bank, started during the Depression in 1934, encourages commercial lenders to make loans to U.S. businesses that export their wares and provides loans to foreign buyers of American goods.
John Edwin Robson, a New York native, grew up in Chicago, where his father owned a paint manufacturing company. With Rumsfeld, he went to New Trier High School in Winnetka, Ill. He was a 1952 graduate of Yale University and a cum laude 1955 graduate of Harvard University law school.
He served two years in the Army after law school and then returned to Chicago to practice corporate law.
Although active in Republican politics in Illinois, Robson was recruited to work for President Johnson by Joseph A. Califano Jr., a Harvard roommate who later became secretary of health, education and welfare. He joined the new Transportation Department in 1967 and was undersecretary when he returned to private practice in 1969.
He was asked back into government service as chairman of the Civil Aeronautics Board under President Ford. He played a role in crafting what became the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978, ending decades of federal control over airlines.
In 1977, he joined Illinois-based G.D. Searle & Co., then run by Rumsfeld. Robson became president and later chief executive of the firm, which cut expenses and began marketing its popular NutraSweet sugar substitute.
In Atlanta from 1986 to 1988, he was dean and professor of management at Emory University's business administration school, where he changed its tenure policy and hired new instructors.
Robson again came back to public service under the first President Bush in 1989 as deputy secretary of the Treasury Department. He worked on savings and loan rescue legislation and Eastern European economic reform after the fall of communist rule.
He was an investment banker and senior advisor at Robertson Stephens Co. in San Francisco when President Bush nominated him for the Export-Import Bank last year.
Survivors include his wife of 41 years, Margaret, of Washington; a son, Douglas, of San Francisco; and his mother, Elizabeth, of Chicago.