For Commerce Pick Wilbur Ross, ‘Inherently Bad’ Deals Paid Off

But a spokesman for Mr. Ross described his experience as an asset, not a contradiction.

“As a private businessman, Mr. Ross made pragmatic decisions based on law available at the time, and it is precisely his knowledge of how trade deals work that will allow him to be successful in renegotiating bad deals like Nafta,” said the spokesman, James Rockas.

The Senate is scheduled to vote on Mr. Ross’s confirmation on Monday.

Mr. Ross’s flexible approach to trade is characteristic of many private equity barons focused on the bottom line, his former associates say. After taking over two bankrupt American textile makers more than a decade ago, for instance, Mr. Ross paid a visit to an executive of J. C. Penney Company.

The industry was in turmoil, and Mr. Ross needed advice. Fellow mill owners, largely concentrated in the American Southeast, were blaming free trade for destroying their livelihoods. Many felt that sending jobs overseas, even for survival, was tantamount to treason.

But for Mr. Ross, who made his name fixing bankrupt companies across a variety of American industries, hiring workers abroad made sense, former associates say. So Mr. Ross inquired about opening a mill with hundreds of workers — not in the United States, but in Vietnam.

“He struck me as very practical about trade,” recounted Peter McGrath, the former head of product development for J. C. Penney, who offered Mr. Ross advice. “He was on a different…

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