As the Valley Economic Alliance’s first permanent president, Bill Allen was instrumental in growing the business group into a significant economic and philanthropic organization. When he assumed the position in 1995, Allen brought together Valley businesses, government officials and educational institutions to make the region a more desirable place to live, work and do business. Now chief executive of the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp., Allen continues to be involved with the Alliance as vice chairman. Before joining the Alliance, he served as president of MTM Television in Studio City. Allen is the son of “Tonight Show” host Steve Allen and actress Jayne Meadows. In October, he was awarded the Fernando Award for his volunteer service in the Valley.
Question: How did you become involved with the Valley Economic Alliance? Answer: I was literally sitting in the dentist chair, of a dentist named Fred Adelson, who had been in Encino for many years. He was doing a semiannual teeth cleaning and had all the gear in my mouth, so there wasn’t much I could respond to. And he used that opportunity to basically pitch me the idea of getting civically involved right after the (Northridge) earthquake. He said, “You’re the president of Mary Tyler Moore’s television production company. You have some resources to help. You have a lifelong experience in the Valley that could help, I wish you’d come to a planning meeting for something called the Economic Alliance.” And I said, “I’d be happy to.” I wasn’t going to deny the man when he had sharp tools in my mouth.
How did you participate at first?
He asked me to simply go to a few meetings. At the first meeting I attended, which was at Galpin Motors, I met Bert and Jane Boeckmann, David Fleming, Bob Scott, David Honda, Gary Thomas and so many other Valley business leaders that were simply trying to conceive of a series of strategies to help respond to the earthquake. There were some short-term business assistance strategies being developed, including developing rapid economic development response teams.
How did you eventually become president? That strategic planning process went on for more than a year in 1994 and 1995, and then we decided to incorporate an actual economic alliance and begin to implement that plan. Around that time, I sold my interest in MTM and the Family Channel, which had acquired us, and the other CEOs on the planning committee – people like Bert Boeckmann, Steve Lew, who was the head of the Universal Studios lot and theme park activities – all turned to me and said, “Why don’t you step in and run the Alliance?” And I said, “I don’t have any background running an economic development organization.” But I said, “You know what, I will be happy for a year to help get this organization up and running. I’ll raise a few million dollars you need to get it launched, I’ll provide some office space, I’ll devote a year of my time and then I’ll try and find someone who’s a real professional in economic development to take over.” I so enjoyed the work that I ended up doing it for four years.
What was your vision for the Alliance? I felt strongly that it should be more than just a partnership of business organizations and businesses. If we didn’t have a healthy education system, there wouldn’t be the talent base for businesses to employ or for entrepreneurs to spring from. Communities needed an educational base where families could raise their children in good schools and pursue higher education in the Valley. And finally, I felt strongly that if we didn’t have government at the table reflective of the entire San Fernando Valley, we were missing an opportunity. My vision was really that business, education and government would come together. How could we develop workforce development programs with our colleges and our businesses to ensure that we were developing talent for the future? How could we develop infrastructure for the Valley, including transportation infrastructure? How we could market the Valley? Valley people fully understood and appreciated the many virtues of living, working and operating a business in the Valley, but most people outside the Valley did not. The Valley had sort of a sleepy suburban image to the rest of Southern California and frankly no brand identity outside of Southern California.
How did you develop the ‘Valley of the Stars’ campaign? Jane Boeckmann, who was the editor of “Visions” and the editor of “Valley Magazine” was asked to co-chair that with me. We said, “If we’re going to develop a brand identity for the Valley, what are we known for?” And clearly it was the entertainment industry with Disney, Warner Brothers, Universal, CBS and Dreamworks all located in the Valley as well as hundreds of other production companies, talent agencies and entertainment law firms and PR firms. We said, “How do we let the world know that this is where the stars come to live, to work, to produce the entertainment that entertains the world?” I was playing with different titles and slogans like, “San Fernando Valley, where the stars come out to shine.” And I kept using the words Valley and star in different iterations in a planning meeting of this marketing committee. When Steve Lew said, “Jacqueline Susann had a famous book called the “Valley of the Dolls,” why don’t we call ourselves the Valley of the Stars?” And I said, “Steve, I love it. It is simple. It gets the message across.”
How was the Alliance involved in the Orange Line? We the Alliance, working with our business partners like VICA, VEDC and the United Chambers; working with our higher education partners, which included all the community colleges, public and private universities; and the Valley’s cities convened a series of public transit workshops that were held in very public consensus-oriented ways. I set one basic rule: People could not come to tell us what they didn’t want because we already had a long list of what they didn’t want. They could only come in the spirit of finding something they would actually want or might be willing to approve. With three such sessions scheduled across a year, and some individual meetings in between, we brought a consensus position to our federal, state and local government officials. We said, “Here’s what the Valley has decided it wants: An express bus system along the old Southern Pacific Railroad. The reason it wants buses rather than rail is because it wants it now. The community doesn’t want to wait 20 or 30 years for a $3 billion rail program, which we were told might be the cost.” We said we’ll take the present value of the Valley’s tax revenue, and we believe we can build an express bus system, which we did. It’s a tremendous example of when you bring business groups and city officials together, and you bring education institutions that all have different ideas, you can actually get a consensus and see public agencies do what I think they’re quite willing to do, which is serve the needs of the public.
Why do you feel motivated to make the Valley a better place to live and do business? Though I was born in New York, we moved here when I was about a year-and-a-half because my father was producing a successful prime time show at the new NBC Burbank facility. We moved here in 1959, and I’ve lived here ever since. I’ve raised my three children here in the Valley. I worked at CBS Television City for about seven years. I worked for nine years at MTM, which co-owned what today is CBS Studio Center (in Studio City) and was then CBS-MGM Studios. I’ve worked most of my career in the Valley and have lived essentially all of my life in the Valley, and I just love the community. I was raised in a family that really believed that much is expected from those to whom much has been given. I was obviously raised in a family where I was given many advantages, and the expectation from my parents was that I would give back to my community. And while I have given back to many areas in Southern California, I felt that I lived in this Valley, I went to schools in this Valley, I have employed neighbors, friends and colleagues in this Valley, I should really focus a good deal of my efforts in this Valley.
How did it feel to be selected as the Fernando Award recipient? I was genuinely surprised and deeply moved at winning the Fernando Award. I was moved as I was giving my acceptance remarks by how many people in that audience, and how many people who had won the award before, had been partners in this work over the last 25 years and had been mentors to me. People like David Fleming and Dave Honda and Bert Boeckmann. So many of these people have been personal mentors of mine and tremendous collaborative partners. They’ve become friends. We’ve been through a lot of battles together and bonded in the trenches. This Valley is full of wonderful people. There are so many people willing to roll up their sleeves and make the community better. But often they need to be invited into that opportunity, and they need to be supported in whatever their volunteer endeavors are. And the Alliance is that gathering place for 25 years and continues to play that role today.