Life has turned out very differently for John Semcken than how it looked from the cockpit of an F-14 fighter jet. Back then he was a Navy pilot landing planes on the decks of aircraft carriers. A 1978 graduate of the United States Naval Academy and, later, the famous Top Gun flying school, his skills and expertise eventually landed him a job as technical adviser on the hit 1986 movie by that name starring Tom Cruise. After retiring from an eight-year stint in the Navy, he worked on several other Hollywood productions including ABC miniseries "War and Remembrance," based on the World War II novel by Herman Wouk. Today, Semcken, 52, is vice president of billionaire developer Ed Roski Jr.'s Majestic Realty Co., where he throws around some weight. Semcken was point man on the company's 1998 development of the $375 million Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles. He is currently overseeing Roski's effort to attract a National Football League team to a proposed 75,000-seat stadium in the City of Industry. The Business Journal caught up with him in his office in the San Gabriel Valley city.

Question: What in the world ever possessed you to become a fighter pilot?

Answer: My dad was a Navy pilot and I grew up wanting to be one my whole life. I went to the Naval Academy at Annapolis, then went to flight school and kept on dancing until I got selected to fly jets. I first came to California when the Navy stationed me at Miramar in San Diego.

Q: What was it like?

A: Really fun. When you're young, flying an airplane off aircraft carriers is very exciting. I flew almost every day for nearly eight years. It was an exciting part of my life.

Q: What stands out?

A: I flew off the USS Enterprise in the early 1980s when we were in d & #233;tente, trying to show the Russians that we were always going to be wherever they were. I guess the most interesting thing that happened was when the Russians shot down Korean passenger Flight 007 in 1982. The Navy sent three carrier battle groups to the Northern Pacific for a month and a half, and we were overflown by Russian airplanes every day. We intercepted them and escorted them out so they knew that they couldn't get near the ship.



Q: Any scary moments?

A: All the time. There are always moments when things go wrong on airplanes, of course like running out of gas and having to land on the deck when it's pitching 30 feet. Once a compressor stalled on the catapult, I lost thrust in one of my engines, went off the end of the ship and sank. Generally, though, I was lucky.

Q: How did you end up being technical adviser on "Top Gun"?

A: The Navy picked me to oversee the movie. There were two of us from Miramar, myself and a guy called Rat who, today, is a four-star admiral commander of the Pacific Fleet. I was the only Navy guy, though, who was there all the time. I helped with picking locations, choreographing some of the maneuvers and writing some of the script. It was lots of fun.

Q: Did you get to meet Tom Cruise?

A: I was with Tom every day for the entire shoot. He was very young. I think he turned 21 the summer we were filming the movie. He had just finished "Risky Business" and this was the first movie where he was the main guy, so he was very focused. He wanted to know everything about how we did things, what language to use, how he would act in certain situations. We talked a lot.

Q: Have you talked since then?

A: I've seen him once since then, at a Dodger game, and he remembered me so he knows who I am. During the shoot, I think I was more like their mascot or something.

Q: What got you out of the Navy?

A: In 1986, ABC called Paramount Studios asking who their adviser on Top Gun was. They gave them my name, so ABC called and said they were doing a miniseries called "War and Remembrance" and needed an adviser. My first question was, had they gotten permission from the government because I was a naval officer. They said, no, we want you to do this for us. At first I was hesitant, but when they told me how much I'd be making more in a week as their adviser than I did in a month in the Navy I said, well, I could do that. So I got out of the Navy and went to work for Hollywood. It was my first experience in the real world, where you could get fired.

Q: Is that what happened?

A: Well, there was another guy a Navy captain who'd been promised a job when he retired. He came in and worked for several weeks and then the producer came up to me and said, "John, you're going to go a long way in this business but, you know, I can't afford two." That was my last day. I worked for a little longer on some other film projects and then decided that maybe the film business wasn't for me.

Q: So how does a Top Gun pilot end up in real estate development?

A: It was complete luck. Some friends had told me I ought to go into real estate because it would be a good business and I had the personality for it. So I pulled an ad out of the paper, went in and they gave me the job on the spot. I said, "Well, let me go home and think about it." I was living in an apartment above a garage in Manhattan Beach at the time, and that night I took a run on the strand. When I got back there was this lady sweeping off her back porch, and she said, "What do you do for a living?" I had just finished filming a commercial, so I was working all night, coming home and playing golf during the day. She said, "My husband thinks you're a drug dealer," and I said, "No, to be honest I just got offered a job in real estate." She said, "Well my husband works for a real estate company downtown, why don't you go see him tonight?" So I went downtown, chatted it up with him and the next day went to work for the Charles Dunn Co.

Q: How did it go?

A: Real estate is 100 percent commission and I wasn't making much money, so I started a little motivational speaking business on the side. I got paid to give speeches, believe it or not. I couldn't believe it; I was just telling stories about being in the Navy. After my boss at Charles Dunn left, I went to another company (Gerald Hines Interests) because I was really good at giving presentations.

Q: So how did you end up at Majestic?

A: Later I want to work for Smith & Hricik, which had a plan to build the world headquarters for Unocal downtown. We had a signed lease, but Unocal decided to leave California and terminate it, so our project was dead. That was a bad day because all my income was based on those leases and now we had to find something else to do with the property. We were all Midwest guys who loved hockey; we went to all the Kings games and said, "Well, what if we build them an arena?" So the next thing you know, we're teaching ourselves about arenas. It was an idea that came out of our project falling apart.

Q: That was when you met Ed Roski, right?

A: Yes. We were talking with the then-owners of the Kings when they got into financial difficulty and Mr. Roski and Phil Anschutz bought the team. They didn't need our property any longer, so we were out. The good news was that Mr. Roski liked me and hired me to work on the Staples Center for him.

Q: So you went to work for Majestic specifically to do Staples Center?

A: Yeah, that's all I'd been doing for the last several years so I knew everything about arenas and suites and naming rights and club seats. We did all the entitlements and approvals and negotiations for Staples Center and then, once it was approved, went to work on the Coliseum.

Q: I take it you mean renovating it for an NFL team?

A: We spent five years trying to renovate it, but it never worked out. Two years ago the commissioner of the National Football League came out and said they were never going back to the Coliseum, so that's when Ed Roski came up with this other project that he'd worked on for years in the City of Industry. We had already gotten a (business park) approved, so we just changed it a little bit took out some elements and added a football stadium and that's what I spend most of my time on now.

Q: Ed Roski has a reputation for aggressiveness, what's it like working with him?

A: I think he's the most generous human I've ever met. He's fun, he laughs around and he has a good time. I think developers have an image of being tough because their projects don't happen overnight. I think the image of being tough is more that of somebody who really believes in what he's doing and sticks to it. Ed Roski is focused, very smart and he's the hardest working person in our company.

Q: Some skeptics believe this stadium will never be built; what do you say to them?

A: When we did the Coliseum, we went a long way on not much more than smoke and mirrors, but this project is different. I can show you the plans. We've done the environmental impact report. We have all the financial analysis and team assumptions. We have a city that wants it and, frankly, the NFL loves the concept.

Q: Assuming you get a team, will you be attending games?

A: I've been a sports fan all my life. This is the best job in the world for a frustrated jock. I was a baseball player, cross-country runner, played hockey, basketball and wrestled. I did all the sports in high school, then when I got to college realized that I wasn't any great shakes. Being a fighter pilot takes a little bit of physical talent; I was good at it, but coming back to all these sports things is great.

Q: Do you play any sports still?

A: I have to work pretty much every day but Sunday. I'd like to have a little more free time. In my old days working downtown, I used to play golf at least once a week. I think I played four times last year.

Q: So how do you keep in shape?

A: I get up three or four times a week at 5 a.m. and go spinning. You know where you're sitting on a stationary bike and you got a guy up there playing music and telling you to tweak the friction knob up? It's painful.

Q: Sounds unpleasant. What do you do for fun?

A: I love singing; I'm just a knucklehead, I sing all the time. I also like to ski and go snowboarding with my kids. We try to take a vacation once a year.

Q: Where do you go?

A: We go all over. The great thing I'm trying to do with my two boys is visit all the Major League Baseball stadiums in the country. We're checking them off on our list and trying to plan vacations around the games. My wife loves to do that, too. She's a real estate lawyer and (a) client is Major League Baseball, so sometimes she helps us get tickets.

Q: Can you tell us a little more about your wife?

A: Her name is Mee, and she has an incredible story, 10 times more interesting than mine. She was born in Korea and came here when she was 7 years old. Her dad was going to college at UCLA. They brought the kids over, and then had two more over here. When she was a senior in high school he died of a brain aneurism, so she ended up having to take over. She put herself through law school at night while taking care of the family.

Q: That's incredible. Just one more thing: Do you still fly?

A: I don't fly much anymore. I don't have the time. The last time was, maybe 10 years ago, I got an award from the Boy Scouts and asked a friend if I could have the event at the air museum in Santa Monica. We did a bunch of flying in his P51 and pulled the airplane right into the hangar. I was wearing my Navy flight suit and he was wearing his. We got out of the airplane and the Laker Girls escorted us down.


John Semcken

Title: Vice President

Company: Majestic Realty Co.

Born: Smithtown, Long Island; 1956

Education: B.S., aerospace engineering, U.S. Naval Academy

Career Turning Point: Meeting a woman on a back porch who persuaded him to
interview with the Charles Dunn Co.

Most Influential Person: His boss, billionaire Ed Roski Jr.

Personal: Lives in San Marino with his wife, Mee, an attorney.They have three
children, ages 16 to 24.

Hobbies: Golf, skiing, bicycling, singing, sports

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