Building an alliance is never easy. Building an alliance of businesses in an area as economically diverse as the San Fernando Valley can be especially tricky. But that is exactly what Bruce D. Ackerman, the new president and chief executive of the Economic Alliance of the San Fernando Valley, hopes to do. Ackerman, who assumed his post in January, is charged with continuing the work started by the alliance when it was founded in 1994 after the Northridge earthquake and funded with donations from private enterprise and some city grants. Then, as now, the Valley labored in the shadow of the city of Los Angeles, without a true identity of its own, and one of the first tasks of the alliance was to help establish an image for the region that would help attract and retain businesses. Now, with an economic recovery well along in the area, the organization finds it must deal with more-pressing problems, namely, how to help its constituents keep pace with the demands of their growing businesses. Ackerman joined the alliance late last year with the understanding that he would replace its former chief executive, Bill Allen, in about six months. But Allen’s timetable was moved up abruptly when he accepted a job at a dot-com, and in January Ackerman was thrust into the No. 1 spot. Ackerman has spent virtually his entire career working for local chambers of commerce and, most recently, the San Gabriel Valley Economic Partnership. His priority with the Economic Alliance of the San Fernando Valley is setting up training programs to assist businesses build a pool of qualified workers and developing a strategy to help companies meet other expansion needs. Question: What is the business of the alliance? Answer: We’ve got five initiatives: improving the education system; attracting, retaining and expanding businesses that result in high-quality jobs; marketing the region; collecting and disseminating economic and demographic data about the Valley; and improving our local environments and quality of life. Q: What’s taken up most of your time since joining the alliance? A: I’ve spent most of my time either fine-tuning or making sure there was a reality check with what I perceive to be our customers and the cities we serve. It’s one thing to have a great program, but if who you are trying to sell it to doesn’t know about it and doesn’t buy into the fact that it’s what they want, you’ve got a real problem. I’m delighted to say it’s on target. Q: How did it feel to have to hit the ground running when you joined the alliance? A: My style is not a leisurely approach to anything. I go a million miles an hour all the time. Q: There have been a number of changes recently in the alliance staff. What were they? A: What people don’t realize is that eight months ago, this organization only had four people. We’re at eight now. So it’s doubled its size. We have two brand new managers: Saul Gomez, regional manager for economic development, and Kenn Phillips, the director of education and workforce preparedness, which is a whole new focus for the alliance. Kenn’s coming on board is the first time we’ve had a full-time staff person working and carrying out those directives. Both he and Saul started in November. Q: The alliance recently completed several major studies about the Valley. What’s the next step? A: One of the really big things that came out of the economic forecast is the need to work with industry clusters. We’re always going to be there to help business, but we want to get focused on those we know for sure are growing. We may go in and identify five, six or 10 clusters, like entertainment or bio-tech, and we want to get sophisticated in how we deal with the clusters. Q: Can you be more specific about the kinds of things you might do? A: One of the groups we know is growing is the communications and telecommunications industry. One of the things they’re expressing is they are growing so fast, they can’t hire enough people. The biggest demand they have is for people to staff their call centers. If we set up a call center training program with input from the industry, and enlist community colleges to do the training, and work with the Valley Economic Development Center to get the word out, we could have a program beneficial to anyone in that industry. Q: What about the other studies, such as the Valley almanac and the community indicators to gauge how satisfied people are with life here in the Valley? A: Part of what we’re going to do is look at framing some public policy issues that we could then refer since we’re not an advocacy group to one or several other industry associations. There’s a lot of mining of the data that we still want to do. I think we’re going to produce the almanac at least on an every-other-year basis, if not every year. We’ve yet to publish the community indicators. We’ll probably be doing that on July 1. And one of the things that’s come out of that whole dialogue is some kind of a community-wide forum on a true visioning process for the San Fernando Valley for the 21st century some kind of large, community strategic planning session, which I think would be incredible to do. Q: What do you plan to do with the results of the business survey you conducted? A: We took the data that came in and started separating it and digesting it and categorizing it. We’re looking at about 500 companies that may have expressed an interest in being contacted about a particular service or issue. We’re going to create a protocol and referral system internally for how we deal with those inquiries or requests when they come in. Q: What do you see as the biggest challenge facing the alliance? A: I think our biggest challenge and opportunity is to keep this concept of a true public/private collaborative going forward. There are eight different organizations we partner with. We want to make sure we continue that. We want to make sure we don’t do things in a void or vacuum. It’s easy to go out and do something. It’s a little more involved to pause, look around, and make sure you’ve got the right people involved. Q: Your organization launched its “Valley of the Stars” image campaign in late 1997 to promote the area. How would you rate the success of that campaign so far? A: It’s had fairly good success. The fact that we pulled a 14 percent recognition factor (among businesses surveyed) was pretty substantial. I think you evaluate after you’ve been doing that for a couple of years. The other things we’ll continue to do is the branding of events, Valley of the Stars Heart Run, for instance. We’re going to do more of that. Q: You’ve spent 30 years in civic life. What attraction does it hold for you? A: As we look at where we’re going to be 10 or 15 years from now, or what legacy will I leave my children, I want to leave a better place to live and work. If we work together for a common understanding of what we need to do, we can truly build a community that’s sustainable, not only today but 20 years from now. If we don’t do it, it won’t get done. So that’s why I’m here.