When Robert Knuepfer Jr. saw the Washington, D.C., area code pop up on his cell phone screen one day last fall, he figured one of his colleagues from the Washington office of the law firm Baker & McKenzie was calling. So Knuepfer, a partner in the firm’s Chicago flagship office, answered casually. “Hi, Eddie,” he said.
But it wasn’t Eddie calling. It was the Republic of Hungary’s ambassador to the United States, and he had important news: Knuepfer was to be honored with Hungary’s Order of Merit with Officer’s Cross, the government’s highest honor. It was, Knuepfer was told, the closest thing to a knighthood that Hungary bestows.
“I was stunned and honored,” said Knuepfer, an Elmhurst College trustee. “It was a complete surprise.”
The award recognized the work Knuepfer had begun in 1992, when he moved to Budapest to run Baker & McKenzie’s office there. The move came at a time when Hungary, like other former Soviet-bloc countries, was making the post–Cold War transition from a state-controlled economy to capitalism and democracy. State-run businesses were being privatized, and foreign companies, including Knuepfer's clients like Ford, General Motors, Pepsi and General Electric, were rushing in to invest in Hungary. Hungary’s foreign ministry, in announcing Knuepfer’s honor, said that he “assisted a number of American companies in establishing themselves in Hungary throughout the 1990s” and “continued to promote business ties between our countries” in the years after that.
Knuepfer accepted the award from Zsolt Németh, Hungary’s minister of state for foreign affairs, in a ceremony in Chicago on November 22. The medal is based on the ancient Royal Order of St. Stephen of Hungary and features the Hungarian coat of arms. Knuepfer also accepted a certificate signed by János Áder, the president of Hungary.
As astonished as he was by the honor, Knuepfer said he was no less surprised 21 years ago, when he was asked to relocate to Hungary to run his firm’s office there.
“I had never been to Hungary. I didn’t even speak the language,” said Knuepfer. “I was an unlikely candidate for the job.”
What Knuepfer did offer was an expertise in mergers, acquisitions and international business. Over the next several years, he not only helped companies establish themselves in Hungary, he also oversaw the opening of 13 new Baker & McKenzie offices with 1,800 employees in the emerging capitals of central and eastern Europe and even central Asia: Prague, Warsaw, Moscow, St. Petersburg, Kiev, Almaty and Tashkent, among others.
In many of these locations, the basic physical infrastructure for doing business was at first lacking. Under state control, residents of Budapest were accustomed to waiting years for the installation of telephone lines. Legal foundations were often similarly rudimentary.
“There had been no private companies. There were no personal-injury laws,” Knuepfer said. “So we kind of made it up as we went along. It was a little like what I imagined the legal system was in the early years of the United States of America.”
Knuepfer’s wife, Nancy, and their four children—all grade-school aged at the time—made the move to Budapest with him. He became president of Hungary’s American Chamber of Commerce and founded the Budapest City Rotary Club of Rotary International. Knuepfer also took on perhaps his most daunting task in Budapest—learning Hungarian.
“It has been called an impenetrable language,” Knuepfer said. “It’s easy to make a mistake of really embarrassing consequences. And I certainly made my share of ‘foot-in-the-mouth’ mistakes trying to communicate in it.”
The comment is typically self-effacing. When he accepted his Order of Merit award, Knuepfer delivered remarks in both English and Hungarian. Hungary’s foreign ministry praised him as “tireless and selfless” in his work in their country.
Selflessness has been a hallmark of Knuepfer’s way of doing business. He grew up in Elmhurst and, after graduating from York High School, attended Denison University. His parents, Robert and Suzanne, were active in the civic life of the western suburbs. Knuepfer House, an Elmhurst residence for individuals with disabilities, is named for Knuepfer’s mother and his family.
“I was taught by my parents that to whom much is given, much is expected,” Knuepfer said. “My parents were excellent models of that.”
Today, Knuepfer models the same philosophy.
An active philanthropist, he was Centennial President of the Rotary Club of Chicago and Governor of Rotary International, and serves on the boards of Adler Planetarium and Metropolitan Family Services. He joined Elmhurst’s board in 2013. His service activities have taken him around the world, including a trip to India to immunize hundreds of children against polio.
He and two sons spent a week just before Christmas on a mission trip to Honduras, where they painted buildings, dug ditches and made mud bricks for an orphanage run by the orphans-aid organization All God’s Children. Many of the children in residence at the orphanage were disabled or had been abused by family members. Knuepfer bought a year’s worth of new clothes for the girls in the orphanage.
“It was the best Christmas present I ever gave anybody,” he said.
Knuepfer’s service on Elmhurst’s board is in some ways a return to childhood roots. Raised blocks from the College’s campus, he attended local schools with the children of Elmhurst professors and remembers attending sporting events on campus.
“They were the hometown team,” he says. “And my time in the business world has given me a deep appreciation for the kind of liberal arts education students find at a college like Elmhurst.”