Selwyn Joffe was once recruited to play football at the University of Oklahoma, but he was far from an average recruit: It was his standout play in rugby in South Africa that drew coaches' attention. Joffe, 50, never played a down for the Sooners, but did pack his bags as a teenager, leave his parents and immigrate to the United States. Joffe ended up attending Emory University in Atlanta, where he had relatives and pursued a degree in accounting and, later, got a law degree. Joffe started out at accounting giant Deloitte & Touche, where he learned the ins and outs of business. He later jumped to Arthur Young & Co., but really made a mark for himself when he met celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck and became chief executive of Wolfgang Puck Food Co., which put Puck's name on supermarket frozen pizzas. During his tenure at the company, 1989-96, sales skyrocketed from $3 million to $100 million. His latest venture is Motorcar Parts of America Inc., a Torrance-based manufacturer of alternators and starters about as far from gourmet pizza as you can get. Joffe maintains that the companies have more in common than one might think.

Question: You've had a varied career, from frozen food to alternators. How did you make it all work?

Answer: Business is business. Whether it's learning what to look for in an emerging business, starting a company, rebranding a line of frozen foods or streamlining production and cutting costs at a manufacturing plant, it's all basically the same. As with many businessmen, I love a challenge and I've basically just followed my instincts. Sometimes they're correct and sometimes they're not. But it's always exciting.

Q: You seem to focus on turnarounds a lot.

A: I've learned that I really enjoy turning companies that are struggling around. I did it with Wolfgang's and we're seeing it a little with MPA. You must give people the chance to succeed. You have to empower them. Everyone wants to succeed and it's our job as managers to allow them to do that. The process has been very similar, in practice, at both companies.

Q: Still they're such different companies and industries.

A: They're actually more alike than you realize. They have one big similarity.

Q: What's that?

A: (Laughs out loud.) Grease. But, seriously, they were both very similar. Wolfgang had a strong brand, but it was packaged and aimed incorrectly. And Motorcar, because of their excellent customer service, had also, sort of accidentally, established a great brand. That's the first step in turning a company around making sure the brand has integrity. After that, it's all about cutting back the fat and being smart with money.

Q: Is there any more to it than that?

A: I empower people. My father was a pharmacist by trade but later bought a tiny chicken feed company that he turned into one of the largest rice companies in the world Tastic Rice, which was later bought by Tiger Brands Ltd. He taught me that you must work like a team. Motorcar Parts is chock-full of fantastic sales people and wonderful workers, but everyone was terrified to take chances because they were fearful they would be fired if they made any mistakes. I have a no-firing policy.

Q: A no-firing policy?

A: Mistakes are fine, if people are following their instincts, taking a few chances and trying there hardest. I think we have a great atmosphere here and if you continually fire people, it disrupts the flow. It's important to make people feel that they have a vested interest in the company besides just getting a paycheck every two weeks.

Q: So how is it going at Motorcar?

A: I remember the first time I came in when I was considering taking the chief executive position at the company. I was already on the board and had been approached by another board member about running the company. The first thing I noticed when I walked in the office was that everyone's door was shut and locked. It's impossible to work in an environment like that. Lots of little things like that needed to be fixed. So, I cut labor by 40 percent, moved the primary manufacturing down to Tijuana, Mexico, and cut $45 million in expenses. It was tough, but we're finally seeing the benefits.

Q: What about the no-firing policy?

A: It's always hard to let people go, no matter what. But performance isn't the sole determination of how well people are doing at their job, and how much they benefit the company. We had to cut costs or no one would've had a job before too long.

Q: I'm still curious about your dad's chicken feed company.

A: As I said, I grew up in a modest household. But later in my childhood, my father started a tiny chicken feed company that he turned into one of the largest rice companies in the world. So the end of my childhood got a lot better. But whether we had money or had no money, I never was in want of anything.

Q: What was it like growing up under apartheid?

A: I love my home and still go back every few years. But I left for a reason. My family, especially my father, was always opposed to the apartheid movement. My father taught us to believe in people and we're all different but only because of our drive, determination and respect for others not because of what race we are or what color our skin is.

Q: It sounds like your dad was a big influence.

A: My father was a real people person and taught me the importance of being honest with people and about being sympathetic to what people are going through. He loved to talk and learn about people and I picked up on it at an early age. He's the main reason behind my no-firing policy I have as a chief executive. Everyone wants to succeed and it's up to people put in charge to allow them to do that.

Q: It must have been difficult to leave him to come to the United States.

A: I grew up in a modest home for most of my life, sharing a room with my three brothers and my grandmother. And I was nervous but optimistic about coming to the states. But I had family in Atlanta, my uncle, and he went to Emory and made it very easy for me. He let me use his car and I made friends easily, so I decided to stay and will never leave America now. I'm about as patriotic as anyone. I love it here.

Q: Aside from the family in Atlanta, I'm curious why you didn't give the Sooners a try.

A: I've always been into sports and when the recruiter came all the way down to South Africa to watch me play rugby I was very excited. He suggested I look at a rule book for American football, since I knew absolutely zero about the game so I did. I went to the library that day, got a book and realized I didn't know one thing about the sport. So, I decided I wanted to try something else. Plus, those guys looked so big and so fast. It was a little intimidating.

Q: Do you have any regrets about not pursuing a career in sports?

A: Not at all. I still get my fill. I have season tickets to just about any team I can get my hands on the Lakers, the Dodgers and now I'm looking at getting them for the Clippers, too. I quickly realized in college that my affliction with sports was about the team mentality. I love being part of a group of people working together toward a common goal. Sports are also a big reason why I am where I am.

Q: Why is that?

A: I met Wolfgang shortly after I moved out to L.A. through Larry Friend, who played for the Knicks in the late '50s and is a member of the Jewish Hall of Fame. Larry had raised some money for Wolfgang but he needed more help; the company was going under. I was raising money for a company and met Larry; we instantly clicked. All we did was talk about business and sports. If it wasn't for my love of sports, I never would've clicked with him the way I did.

Q: So when did you meet Puck?

A: He set up a meeting at Spago with Wolfgang and we went through four bottles of wine at dinner; I was working at Wolfgang Food Co. shortly after that night. I learned that the problem with the company was there was so much passion in the product but no acumen. Like I said, if I can understand it, it's not that difficult to turn it around.

Q: How was it working for Wolfgang Puck?

A: It was a lot of fun. I still talk to Wolfgang. Even though he's a big celebrity he's a very down-to-earth guy.

Q: Why do you say that?

A: (Laughs again) I'm a big fan of open-wheel racing so I took him to the Indianapolis 500 a few years back. We went to pick up our pit passes and tickets, and, this is so him, Wolfgang forgot his wallet. They asked for his ID and he just looked at me with this surprised look and said "I don't have it." The ticket clerk said we couldn't get in without identification and Wolfgang was so upset. So I turned around, held his hand up in the air, and asked the hundreds of people in line behind us if anyone knew who he was. Everyone, in unison, yelled out, "Wolfgang Puck!" He got so embarrassed but we got in and the race was great. That was such a memorable experience. It sums him up so well.

Q: So what's next for Motorcar?

A: I want to turn it into a $1 billion company in five years. The auto parts business is so fragmented and growing, with more and more drivers keeping their cars longer and longer. As long as we keep our debt low and keep our business growing, we can do a lot. We have some financing lined up and the market is ripe for acquisitions. We want to grow with a mixture of organic growth and acquisitions.

Q: I guess you figure coming out to Los Angeles was a good move?

A: One of the best. I've always wanted to live here and I hope I never leave. I love it here. The weather is amazing, the restaurants are some of the best in the world and the entertainment is unbeatable. Plus, my wife, Gremi, and my kids, Cole and Ethan, love it. And I'd never dream of taking them away.

Q: Do the kids share your love of sports?

A: Not at all. I can't even drag them to the games. They're both really into music, so I take them to all the concerts. We've gone to the Police, Rod Stewart, the Eagles, Bon Jovi; you name it, we've gone. And they love it. My kids are my hobby now, probably because I'm more of a kid than they are.

Selwyn Joffe

Title: Chairman and Chief Executive
Company: Motorcar Parts of America Inc.
Born: 1958; Johannesburg, South Africa
Education: B.S., marketing and accounting, 1980; J.D. and accounting
certification, 1983; Emory University in Atlanta
Career Turning Point: Landing a job with CNN out of college but deciding to leave, saying, "Cable news won't catch on." He took up business instead and got a job at Deloitte & Touche
Most Influential People: His parents and mentor Larry Friend
Personal: Lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Gremi, and two sons, Ethan, 14, and Cole, 16
Hobbies: Listening to classic rock with his two sons, watching open-wheel racing, attending Dodgers and Lakers games, playing video games with his sons

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