Kenn Phillips brings an approach forged in the aerospace industry to his new role as chief of the Valley Economic Alliance.
By Mark Madler, Staff Report, San Fernando Valley Business Journal
Monday, May 4, 2015
Kenn Phillips has been with the Valley Economic Alliance for 16 years working primarily behind the scenes for the Sherman Oaks organization. In October, the 56-year old Thousand Oaks resident was named chief executive, giving him a higher profile at the non-profit that seeks to attract and retain businesses in its five member cities – Los Angeles, Burbank, Glendale, San Fernando and Calabasas. A native of Kansas, Phillips had a nomadic childhood with a father who traveled the country for work in the computer industry. He settled in Southern California by his high school years and later attended UCLA. He went to work for aerospace giant Boeing Co. in the San Fernando Valley and his work there in community relations caught the attention of the Alliance’s then chief, Bill Allen, who brought Phillips on board in 1999. Phillips took time to talk with the Business Journal about his career, his business philosophy, the Alliance’s role in the Valley business community and the lasting influence of a high school soccer coach.
Position: President and CEO
Organization: Valley Economic Alliance, Sherman Oaks
Born: Neodesha, Kan., 1958
Education: B.S., psychology (minor in mathematics), UCLA
Career Turning Point: Married my best friend. “If you have a solid partner, you have a person to bounce ideas off and provide a different perspective. Having that person in my life is how I have been successful.”
Most Influential Person: Andy Turnbull, high school soccer coach
Personal: Married 33 years to Lynne Phillips; two adult daughters, Amanda and Danielle
Interests: Reading, tennis, soccer and fly fishing
What motivates you?
Answer: Helping the community; providing value for the community. It always has.
Why is that?
It’s great to see when you bring leaders together with a common interest in getting things solved right now.
Can you give an example of that?
We spent three months going out and visiting with many of the leaders in the Valley. There were about 100. What I want to know is what their passion is. If they were king for a day, if they could do anything, what would that one thing be? We learned a lot of things. Most of it was education related. We heard transportation types of issues. What we found was many times they want to go ahead and be part of that even if it’s short term.
What would you address if king for a day?
My number one passion is environmental education. More specifically, if I could I would change the way education is delivered. In elementary school we love school. Somehow we start liking it less and less. It’s lecture time, you sit down, shut up and have a test on Friday. We have to change that model. We’ve got to change it to what you are doing in the community is everything you embrace in the classroom.
How has your career in aerospace informed what you do now?
What it taught me was that I could translate. Many times you ask an engineer for the time and they will tell you how a watch works. I could take many different areas of operations and engineering and put presentations together. I could have a better understanding of the probability of getting work done and a better understanding of what new work would cost and how much work that would take. I was naturally good at that.
How did you get into aerospace?
I was working at UCLA when a friend of mine suggested I could go to work in fast food or in aerospace. Aerospace paid better. I started at (military electronics manufacturer) Bunko Ramo Corp. (in Westlake Village). They were involved in aerospace contracts. They brought me in for a temp job. I was doing inventory control for the tooling department. I reorganized their entire tooling system.
How did you come to work at Boeing?
I already had four years working in aerospace and they were ramping up for the Space Shuttle. That’s how they hired me. If you had a degree, they wanted to hire you. It was helpful that I had the mathematics and aerospace background.
What else did you do at Boeing?
Later I was doing a lot of community service. The communications department asked me to come, so I was their communications manager for a few years before I came here.
How did you come to the Alliance?
The Alliance was doing an education summit. This was 16 years ago. They were looking at what private industry was doing in education. Boeing was recognized for a program to create a diverse workforce. I created the program; I was the idea guy, the coordinator guy. That brought me to (then Alliance Chief Executive) Bill Allen’s attention. Bill made me an offer and we came up with terms. I came to the Alliance at the end of October (1999).
What did you learn from Bruce Ackerman, who had been chief executive for 10 years before he died in 2010?
Bruce was personable. Part of his personality was you had to be there. You have to attend the events and have to love this type of work because it shows. He showed how much community development is important for economic development.
What was your reaction when you found out he had cancer?
Bruce without question was not only my colleague and boss, he was very parental. Losing a person like Bruce, you cannot replace him. It’s impossible. He was much more than a colleague.
You have roots in Kansas. How did you end up in California?
My dad was working for a company that was eventually purchased by IBM. You have heard about military brats, I was a computer brat. We would move around to accommodate him going around and verifying everything. When that was done we would move. I lived in a lot of different places. Although I started in Kansas, I’ve been to almost every state with the exception of Florida and Alaska. I’ve lived in parts of Texas and Arizona, New York, North Carolina. Coming to California was the same kind of deal. He was working at Vandenberg (Air Force Base) at the time. We lived in Northridge and then in Ventura County.
How old were you when you came to California?
The first time I was in sixth grade. I was 10 years old. I was 14 when I came back.
Did all that moving influence your character?
When you know you are going to be moving, you create friends or you are friendly quickly. You knew when you are going to be leaving, what these contracts are. Some are 60 days. By the time we reached California I had already been at 16 schools. I moved around a lot but got to see beautiful parts of the country many times. It shaped my character, made me a little more out in the community, trusting people quickly and developing bonds quicker.
You named Andy Turnbull as the most influential person in your life. Who was he?
Andy was a soccer coach. At the time I was living in Oak Park (area of Thousand Oaks), I was in high school. I had played soccer in Virginia and fell in love with the game. Andy was my first mentor. He found ways of helping me improve dramatically. I was able to get a scholarship to go to UCLA. It was all because of Andy Turnbull. He saw something in me that I would never have seen. He knew many of the coaches at the college. If that hadn’t worked out, I would have gone someplace else or my life would have been very different.
Do you still play soccer?
No. Too many knee surgeries. I still watch the game.
Are there any other sports you are interested in?
I still play tennis but not as much as I used to. Once or twice a week is about it.
Are your sports interests somehow reflective of your character?
No, I don’t think so. I am naturally competitive but most of my competition is predicated on team competition instead of individual competition. Even with tennis I play doubles.
Getting back to the Alliance, what are your goals as its new chief executive?
One of the projects we continue to do is research. Because of open source data out there, we can see lots of information. But information is only good if you can make it useful.
How is the Alliance making data useful?
We have several projects we are working on. The first one is working with a group that has a Department of Labor contract to identify businesses that are currently hiring engineers, architects or construction managers. If you hire any of those (professionals) who are unemployed we can give you a $12,000 offset.
Where does the data fit in?
The big data for us is identifying those people who are hiring and we are working with someone else on where that talent is, at universities or work source centers managing people that are unemployed.
Any other campaigns you are working on?
The Special Olympics are coming to town in July. From Woodland Hills to Sherman Oaks there are 457 non-franchise restaurants (along Ventura Boulevard). The two areas of our concentration is this, we want to make sure they become more ADA compliant. What we find is they do not take the tax credit and leave $20,000 on the table every year. They can go back three years and take that tax credit. Part of what we do is educate the CPA firms and the businesses to do that. We don’t want to see them get sued.
What are some of the challenges for redevelopment in the Valley?
Permitting and pricing. It depends on the city you are at. If you are in a smaller city, you can expedite. But it’s difficult for any new construction or new development. As things get busier and busier, you have the same amount of resources from the city when it comes to inspectors. Now it is just a matter of dividing those inspectors with the amount of work.
What is the role the Alliance plays in that?
Sometimes we can help fast track projects, especially if they get us involved early and before they have any issues. There are several people in the Valley that can help, depending on the types of businesses or the types of issues.
You share a building with Valley Industry & Commerce Association, the Valley Economic Development Center and United Chambers of Commerce. How does the Alliance work with those organizations?
VICA represents an advocacy organization with larger businesses in the Valley. The UCC represents the 17 chambers in the Valley and generally smaller businesses. VEDC is the money people. We provide technical assistance; we do large numbers, large referrals. In a given quarter we will visit 500 businesses. If they are looking for advocacy, depending on if it is a small business or a large business, we will kick it over to (VICA or UCC). If it’s related to money, especially secondary lending, we will go upstairs (to VEDC).
How does the staff find time to visit 500 businesses in a quarter?
If you visit 10 business a day times five, that’s 50 businesses (a week), and that’s only 10 weeks. You still have two weeks to spare.
You listed reading as a favorite hobby.
I like autobiographies and biographies. I read quite a bit. The Jon Cryer book “So That Happened” is one I just started. He was the comedian on “Two and a Half Men.” “Snowball,” I just finished that, it’s a Warren Buffet book. It is an honest recap of showing who all these leaders are. I just read one on Thomas Paine, and presidential books on Jefferson and others.
What is the attraction of those types of books?
I like to hear those types of stories. What was the world like, what was the United States like 400 years ago? How did things come to be? How did these people risk everything in order to do that? I am impassioned about my history as well. When did the Phillipses come the United States? When did the rest of the family come here?
And when did your ancestors come to this country?
The first one came in the late 1600s. The Phillipses specifically came later. And they came because of the Revolutionary War. They were on the British side. Col. William Phillips was fighting in Canada and was captured. He stayed with (Thomas) Jefferson for two months. They have a nice memorial in Virginia from the Daughters of the American Revolution about him and his relationship with Jefferson. It’s quite something.
You list fly fishing as an interest. What do you do when you want to get away from it all?
There are many places to go on the Feather River, up north in the Mount Lassen area. One of my favorites is right outside a little town called Chester. It’s breathtaking, so serene.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and space reasons.