If it hadn't been for Groucho Marx, Carl Terzian might never have become the dean of public relations in Los Angeles. An appearance on the popular comedian's quiz show in the 1950s led to a meeting with John F. Kennedy, then a U.S. senator and soon to be president. The meeting inspired him to become a teacher and public speaker. One day a woman in the audience at one of his presentations recommended him for a job as public relations manager for architect Charles Luckman. After four years, he decided to go out on his own. He recently celebrated the 40-year anniversary of Carl Terzian Associates. Over the course of his career, he's rubbed elbows with the city's powerful and elite, polished the images of public officials and executives, and served as a matchmaker between company executives and non-profits looking for board members. He's best known for the networking events he organizes an incredible 800 a year, or about three each workday connecting people from private enterprise, philanthropy, public service and other professions. The goal is to drum up business for his clients and promote charitable causes. But he's also helped create relationships lasting lifetimes. Terzian, 73, recently sat down with the Business Journal at the Regency Club in Westwood, his favorite meeting place.

Question: How the heck did you land a spot on the Groucho Marx show?

Answer: I was student body president at USC and a magazine named me as one of the 10 best student body presidents in the U.S., so they asked me to be on "You Bet Your Life." I was on with a beautiful, buxomy blonde from France who was an actress and had to change her dress seven or eight times before it qualified to be on TV. The subject was U.S. presidents, which came as quite a blow to her because she didn't know we had presidents in the U.S. and couldn't care less.

Q: How did you get noticed?

A: In the course of the show, Groucho said: "Wow, you have almost straight A's in college, you're a debater I assume you'll want to go into public life one day." I thought about it for a moment and said I didn't know about that, but felt that being a good citizen was something we should all try to do to give back to the country.

Q: And that led to meeting John F. Kennedy?

A: Yes, a few months later a man came to the campus and asked to see me. He said his name was Ted Sorenson, a staffer for Sen. Jack Kennedy of Massachusetts, and that the senator wanted to meet me. This was in the late 1950s when Kennedy was preparing to run for president against Richard Nixon in 1960. Sorenson said that Kennedy and his father had seen me on TV in the winter home in West Palm Beach and liked what I said about young people getting involved in government.

Q: Where did the meeting take place?

A: In Kennedy's office in Washington, D.C. Later when I was passing through, I walked in and there were lots of tourists around because he was already becoming well known. A woman came up, extended her hand and said, "I'm Evelyn Lincoln, the senator's secretary, and who are you?" When I told her my name, she said "Terzian, Terzian didn't we write you a letter about 10 months ago?" She was right on target. So I spent an hour and a half with Kennedy and really saw the appealing side that made him the Camelot of his day.

Q: What did you talk about?

A: Mostly politics. He was interested in me because I was from California and we were having a governor's race there. I'm sure Kennedy was thinking that whoever won that race would control much of California, so he wanted to know who the candidates were and what their chances were.

Q: Would you mind disclosing what your own politics are? Were you a Kennedy supporter?

A: No, I'm a lifelong Republican but I pride myself at being a broad-minded Republican. I actually do a lot of work with public officials who are Democrats as well as Republicans, and some are close personal friends.

Q: I understand you knew Richard Nixon as well.

A: Yes, he had already been vice president and run unsuccessfully against Kennedy for president. When he was running for governor of California, I introduced him to the student body at Woodbury University, where I taught political science. He was our guest speaker and kept saying, "Let's talk about issues involving California," but not a single question came up. Everything had to do with Cuba and China; nobody cared what he had to say about California. He couldn't successfully make the transition from national to state office, and a few years later he was elected president.

Q: What other public officials and celebrities have you worked with?

A: I was very close to Tom Bradley when he was mayor. I've also worked with lots of supervisors including Zev Yaroslavsky. The agency handled Peter O'Malley's image as he was selling the Dodgers. I've worked with U.S. senators including Dick Lugar of Indiana, a close personal friend; Strom Thurmond of South Carolina; Mark Hatfield of Oregon; Sam Nunn of Georgia; and Peter Domenici of New Mexico. Even though I'm a Republican, we also handled (former California senator) Alan Cranston, who I enjoyed very much. And we help guide the philanthropic part of Barry Manilow's life.

Q: Tell us about your childhood.

A: I was born and raised in Hollywood and went to Hollywood High School. My parents were Armenian. Father fled from the old country in the 1920s and mother was born here. He wanted to be a doctor, but ended up joining a men's clothing firm on Hollywood Boulevard as the chief fitter. His clients included Joe Louis, Duke Ellington, Babe Ruth and Joe DiMaggio. My mother was an executive assistant at USC. They always said we were a middle-income family that couldn't pay USC's tuition, so if I wanted to go there I'd have to get a scholarship. Their threat was that if I didn't make the grade in high school, they'd be forced to send me to UCLA.

Q: I guess they never made good on that.

A: No, I got the scholarship; first for undergraduate work, and later for law. I walked in with a class of 300, got through the first two days of law school and then stood up, said, "I don't think I want to be a lawyer," and went back over to the scholarship office to give the money back. They said, "well, what do you want to do?" I said I loved political science, so they said, "Fine, here's a scholarship for that."

Q: How did you get into public relations?

A: While I was teaching at Woodbury in my mid-20s, I also had a career as a public speaker on the side doing about 200 speeches a year. One of them was at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco, where I addressed a thousand executive secretaries attending a national convention. A few months later one of them called and asked if she could recommend me to her boss, a well-known architect, who was looking for an internal public relations man.

Q: So that's when you went to work for Charles Luckman.

A: I had four great years handling his image all over the world. Then, in 1969, he said, "Carl, let's have a father-son chat." He said I could stay with him but he thought that I'd stagnate if I did. He said I ought to "get out of here, start your own firm and do for others what you've done for me." So I left with my secretary and went from a beautiful office with a good salary to a little corner office at Wilshire and Western in the Getty Union Bank building, which is now being turned into condominiums.

Q: What were some of your memorable accounts?

A: We had Playboy, which was fun to lust over. But we had seven or eight of their top executives and, to them, it was a business. Our job was to get them on non-profit boards. So I'd come to your hospital and say I have an outstanding person for your board every non-profit is looking for outstanding board members and they'd say, "Oh, do you have a resume?" I'd give them the resume and they'd say, "My God, he is great where did you say he currently works?" I'd say, "Mmmmmmm Enterprises Inc." because once you said Playboy, you were dead. Eventually, though, we got them on.

Q: These days, your agency is best known for networking events.

A: Networking is our niche. It could just be bringing you together to meet someone a one-on-one it could be a small table of half a dozen, or it could be a table of 30 or more. The most traditional pattern is that we have a host, one of our clients; a bank, law firm, accounting firm, non-profit, real estate developer, whatever it is. We make the arrangements; I invite every guest personally by phone. We tell you to bring a stack of business cards and while we're having breakfast, lunch or cocktails, we pass our cards out around the table.

Q: How do you break the ice?

A: As we eat I call on each person to say something about themselves; then everyone sitting around the table talks, for four or five minutes at the most, about what we call the front and back of the card. The front of the card is what you do; the back is who you are as a person your education, family, hobbies, perhaps something dramatic that's happened in your life.

Q: What's the point?

A: Lives have been dramatically changed. Those who follow up and follow through do hundreds of millions of dollars in business a year. We've had almost 20 marriages from around our table. We put about 500 people a year on non-profit boards all over the country, some from off our table. It's usually a two-hour experience; I encourage people to look on the cards they collect as seeds to be watered and fertilized. If they do that and follow through, the experience has the chance of maturing and growing into a flower of some kind.

Q: What's on the back of your own card?

A: I spend quite a lot of time on non-profits and am on a number of boards. I love Yorkies and have two grown children in their mid-40s; one went to Scripps and does public relations recruiting and special event planning for a major law firm downtown, and the other went to Berkeley and does computer and high-tech marketing in Sunnyvale. They both were born midmorning in time for me to do a noon speech without having to cancel and have been very cooperative ever since.

Q: What's your typical day like?

A: I usually have seven or eight appointments. A portion of the day is spent networking, either running the events or being on the phone inviting guests. A portion of the day is spent doing something with the non-profits in which I'm involved. I'm still active in my little Lutheran Church in Hollywood; it's 67 years old and I've been there for all 67. I generally go to bed about 2 a.m. and get up around 6; it's not good, but my metabolism can handle it and I usually have an anxious desire to get where I'm going.

Q: Any thoughts of retiring?

A: No. The comments always are, well, you've had this firm for 40 years and sooner or later you'll need an exit plan of some kind. People are after me to think it through so that the firm can continue as an asset in the community. I want to continue working for as long as I have the health and energy to do so. One reason I won't retire is that I don't know what a golf club looks like and I don't really know how to garden in the backyard. It's been a little tough for me to learn to relax.

Carl Terzian

TITLE: Chairman

COMPANY: Carl Terzian Associates

BORN: 1935; Los Angeles

EDUCATION: B.A. from USC in political science

CAREER TURNING POINT: When architect Charles Luckman, his then-employer, urged him to start his own firm

MOST INFLUENTIAL PEOPLE: Besides Luckman, his parents, Henry and Louise;
former minister H.K. Rasbach; and his wife, Joan

PERSONAL: Lives in Holmby Hills with his wife and their five cats. Two grown children: a daughter in public relations and a son who does high-tech marketing

HOBBIES: Public speaking, traveling, reading, politics

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