Bill Allen is retiring from his positions as president and chief executive of the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp. after becoming one of the Los Angeles region’s most prominent business leaders in recent years.
But Allen has long had a close association with the San Fernando Valley. He was raised from the age of two in Encino, where he still resides with his wife, Marie. He was a founder of the Valley Economic Alliance and remains active in the local community.
The gregarious Allen also had a career in television before his work advocating for the local economy. He worked with CBS Television and later became the president of MTM Television, a production company founded by former NBC television executive Grant Tinker. Allen also led production on hit series such as “Remington Steele,” “St. Elsewhere” and “Designing Women.”
His time in entertainment numbered 20 years as he followed in the footsteps of his father, Steve Allen, a television and radio personality rounded out by his skills in comedy, music and writing. Among Steve Allen’s many achievements was winning the 1964 Grammy Award for Best Original Jazz Composition and co-creating and hosting “The Tonight Show,” the first late-night television talk show.
However, unlike Bill Allen’s foreseeable journey into television, his next career path would present itself suddenly.
Allen’s transition to becoming a business leader was born out of the tragedy caused by the 1994 Northridge Earthquake, a 6.7 magnitude seismic event that resulted in 57 deaths and tens of billions of dollars in property damage. Included in the destruction was a studio space that MTM Television operated out of.
“We owned half of that facility, and it was devastated by the Northridge earthquake,” Allen said. “I was asked by then L.A. Mayor Richard Riordan and several San Fernando Valley community leaders including David Fleming and others to help write a strategic plan for the San Fernando Valley’s recovery and to help execute that plan by creating the Valley Economic Alliance.”
Allen held the economic alliance’s first chief executive position from 1996 to 2000.
One of Allen’s greatest accomplishments as chief executive of the economic alliance was developing the L.A. Metro Orange Line as a means of getting more mass transit into the Valley.
“We held a series of highly publicized transportation summits with all of our elected officials and community leaders,” Allen said. “And we planned what was called the mode, the grade and the alignment of that Orange Line, which was not due to be funded for another 30 years in Metro’s planning timeline.”
Getting the bus line up and running took six years from concept development to completion at one-tenth the cost of a subway, which would have required more funding and underground construction.
Allen said his ability of being able to successfully engage with community partners was a big reason the line was completed. The importance of such collaboration was something he learned in the entertainment industry.
“No one producer, director or actor can make a television show happen or be successful. You have to get an entire creative team together to achieve success both commercially and artistically in the entertainment industry,” he said. “I took that same approach at the Valley Alliance and at the economic development organization of building collaborative partnerships that could achieve goals we couldn’t achieve on our own as individuals or even as individual organizations.”
Allen’s departure from the economic alliance in 2000 involved the passing of his father. The death led Allen to take over as a trustee of his father’s businesses, which included television licensing company Meadowlane Enterprises and music catalog publisher Meadowlane Music. (Steve Allen’s wife, and Bill Allen’s mother, was actress Jayne Meadows.) In time, Allen would end up purchasing the companies.
Allen’s commitment to the Valley region did not stop when he stepped down from his senior position at the economic alliance. He has been the organization’s vice chair ever since. And he was recognized as the 60th recipient of the Fernando Award in 2018. The Fernando Award is considered the most prestigious award for civic stewardship and volunteer service to the San Fernando Valley community. (Photos from this year’s Fernando event are on page 6.)
Just as his service in the Valley Economic Alliance marked a crucial benchmark in his business career, so too would his time with the economic development organization.
Allen went on to take over for former Chief Lee Harrington in 2006, and his experience and achievements at the economic alliance would prove beneficial to his time leading the LAEDC, which involved historic challenges for the region’s economy. Particularly, the great recession and the Covid-19 pandemic were massive setbacks that the economic development organization had to help the region overcome, according to Allen.
“In the case of the great financial recession, we lost nearly 400,000 jobs in L.A. County during that time,” Allen said. “In the pandemic, L.A. County alone lost 785,000 jobs in a two-month period because of the public orders requiring the shutdown of large sectors of our economy.”
In both cases, a strong response was needed from his economic development arm.
In 2008, Allen and company brought together more than 1,000 local stakeholders of every type, from business groups, labor groups and government organizations to educational institutions and community organizations. With partners from these sectors, the economic development organization conducted 26 public workshops that facilitated conversations about how the local organizations wanted to create a more resilient economy that could better withstand future disruptions.
As for the pandemic and the state of L.A.’s economy, Allen said the region has only partly recovered after more than two years of effort.
As of July, L.A. County is still without 129,000 of the jobs that were lost to the pandemic, according to Allen, and employment in sectors such as accommodation and food services and arts, entertainment and recreation have significant ground to make up.
“We devote a lot of our attention with our small-business assistance to those kinds of businesses, many of which are owned by women and people of color, who had less capital available to them in launching these businesses, so they struggled to keep the businesses open,” he said.
Allen was the lead behind the Community Connectory, a specialized assistance program for small businesses owned by women and people of color. The program received philanthropic support from businesses including Wells Fargo, which allowed the economic development organization to transform it into a stronger coalition. The organization now includes the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, Local Initiatives Support Corp. L.A. and the city and county of Los Angeles.
Allen said that since he joined the LAEDC in 2006 the organization has strengthened its inclusivity, its strategic planning and the suite of services it offers to the county. In his estimation, the growth and development of the economic development organization has been one of his key professional accomplishments, and things seem to be looking up as the recovery from the Covid pandemic continues.
“Los Angeles deserves leaders who uphold the highest standards of service, and one of those public servants has been Bill Allen,” Mayor Eric Garcetti said in a statement.
All good things come to an end, and this year will mark the end of Allen’s tenure as the organization’s lead, a decision Allen said was greatly influenced by his family.
“My wife and kids have been remarkably tolerant of the 16-hour days required to run an organization like the LAEDC,” Allen said. “I’ll be turning 65 In November, and my wife and kids (said) this might be a good time to turn the reins of the LAEDC over to the next generation, and they were exactly right.”
The organization’s COO, Stephen Cheung, will assume the president’s role in October, and the CEO position in January.
“Stephen has been a steadfast champion to crush the digital divide and to ensure an economy that works for all County residents. We are indeed grateful for Bill Allen’s 17 years of service and look forward to working with Stephen Cheung in the years ahead,” Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors Chair Holly J. Mitchell said in a statement.
Allen will continue his service on the boards of the Weingart Foundation, UNITE-LA, and the Valley Economic Alliance. He is scheduled to become chair of FilmLA, a nonprofit film office, in January.
Allen’s call to business leaders circled back to the element of engagement.
“Get engaged. Whether you’re leading a small business or a large enterprise, it is tough to succeed purely on your own,” Allen said. “In the 21st-century economy, you really need to engage with others in your industry.”
He emphasized that working with other individuals and organizations should also be directed toward the pursuit of an equitable economy for all of L.A. County.
“We have extraordinary wealth and prosperity that a very significant number of our neighbors enjoy, but we also have one of the largest concentrations of poverty in the nation,” Allen said.
“Given the concern we all have about homelessness and poverty in general, we should each try to devote more of our lives to creating more equitable opportunities for our neighbors to participate in the abundance that L.A. and California have to offer.”