Austin Beutner, the former investment banker who was recently hired by Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa as his jobs czar, has always fully committed himself to whatever he’s working on. As an investment executive, first for Smith Barney, then at the Blackstone Group and later at the Evercore firm that he co-founded with former Clinton administration official Roger Altman, he burned the midnight oil many nights racing to put together multimillion- dollar deals for clients all over the globe. Altman had tipped him to a job in the Treasury Department as an adviser to help Russia transition to capitalism. Now, Beutner’s on another tour of duty in the public sector as Villaraigosa has given him the task of making Los Angeles a more friendly place to do business. When he’s not working, Beutner is something of a thrill-seeker. He’s an avid bicyclist; he has helicopter-skied in exotic locations; and he’s raced in outrigger canoes off Hawaii. Three years ago, Beutner suffered serious neck injuries in a mountain biking crash. It took him a year to recover; he’s since returned to riding. Beutner took time out between meetings with Villaraigosa to reflect on his career and his goals as the mayor’s job czar.
Question: How did you start out in finance?
Answer: Luck of the draw, I guess. When I graduated from Dartmouth, I had offers to work at a trucking company in the Midwest, and had some other job offers in the Midwest. And I also received an offer to work at Smith Barney in New York City. As a kid from the Midwest, New York seemed like a good place to make a start.
So what was it like when you got there?
Three of us were squeezed into a one-bedroom apartment. But it turns out that the summer of 1982 was a great time to start on Wall Street. The tide turned and the bull market began. I worked hard and opportunities in the mergers and acquisitions market presented themselves. I did a lot of work with oil and natural gas and related companies.
You went from Smith Barney to Blackstone Group in 1988. What opportunities did you get there?
Blackstone gave me my first exposure to businesses outside the U.S. But above all, Blackstone was very much a meritocracy: Titles didn’t mean much. The focus was on what you did and the ability to get things done.
How did you jump from Blackstone to the Clinton administration?
I had managed to save a bunch of money at Blackstone. I did not lead a fancy lifestyle and, at that point in my life, I thought myself very lucky. I also kept in contact with Roger Altman, who was vice chairman at Blackstone before he left to join the Clinton administration as deputy treasury secretary. Roger alerted me that the Clinton administration was looking for some help in transitioning Russia to a capitalist economy. I decided to take that opportunity.
Quite a gamble given the situation in Russia at the time.
Yes, it was. That was when Boris Yeltsin had ordered troops to shoot at the Parliament buildings. But I figured that the worst outcome would be that I would have some great stories to tell.
What was it like?
There was very little rule of law. There was no set standard of conduct in business. On the second day of my posting, I asked to see one of the leading reformers in Russia. I grabbed a Russian interpreter and went to go see the gentleman. I started talking about the resources that the U.S. could bring to the table to help Russia transition to a capitalist economy. But then we wound up in a heated debate on why businesses needed to make a profit. You see, in Russia, they thought that when a business makes a profit, it’s because they take advantage of somebody. That made communicating very difficult.
Did you ever fear for your safety?
No. Some of the folks we interacted with were extorted, shot and killed. So you had to be careful. But I was a known person working for the U.S. government and so was not a target. That said, it was a bit disconcerting to walk into a meeting with a Russian businessman and see a gun in his briefcase. That was the norm there.
Why did you decide to return to Wall Street?
After three years, I was making virtually no money. My wife and I had just married and she was pregnant with our first child. We wanted the child born in the U.S., not in Russia. Roger and I decided to start an investment and advisory firm that we called Evercore.
Why start a new Wall Street company instead of joining an existing one?
The mid-1990s was the era of one-stop conglomerates on Wall Street. But these companies got so big that top management had to focus on managing instead of meeting with clients. We set out to make sure that all our senior partners participated in meetings with clients, including Roger and me. That way, we could better gain the confidence of prospective and new clients.
Wasn’t that challenging?
Yes, it was a bit of a struggle. There were so few boutique firms left: most had sold out or become giants. And then there was the travel to meet with clients, both in the United States and in countries all around the world. We focused on lot on big clients and so we soon were advising on some major deals, most notably the merger of AT&T and SBC.
You’ve always balanced your working life with extreme recreation, like helicopter skiing. How do you do that?
There are services that charter helicopters for groups of people. Get a big enough group and it can actually be cheaper than going up a ski lift. And there’s always the fun of skiing on untracked terrain.
What’s the most remote place you’ve gone helicopter skiing?
When I was in Russia, I would go helicopter skiing with a bunch of friends on the Kamchatka Peninsula, near Japan. That really was remote, but it was also a lot of fun. Last year, I went skiing with my family in New Zealand.
How did you crash your bike?
I was mountain biking in the Santa Monica Mountains with a friend. We were coming down the hill, probably a bit too fast. The next thing I knew, I was lying down on the ground and joggers were looking down at me. I must have been unconscious for a while. To this day, I have no memory of exactly how the accident happened.
Did you walk away or were you carried?
My bicycle companion had continued down the hill. When he saw I wasn’t behind him, he started back to find me. On the way, he saw a ranger who had come up from a nearby Boy Scout camp. When they found me, the ranger phoned the accident in using his walkie-talkie. Other people with cell phones had no reception because of the remote location. Then the air rescue people came over and helicoptered me over to UCLA trauma center.
How long did it take you to recover?
I needed several surgeries on my neck and spent the next year recovering. But that gave me time to reflect on where I was in my life. I had done well at Evercore and could afford to make a change: That’s why I went into public service in the 1990s. And now I wanted to take another break from my investment career.
So what did you do?
I decided to take another year off to focus on charitable activities and also to be there more for my kids. It was the first real break I had in nearly 30 years since graduating college. Then I looked for an avenue to return to public service. I was actually in discussions last summer with some folks about returning to Washington, D.C., to join the Obama administration, perhaps in the Treasury Department. And then I was invited to the breakfast put together by former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan. He’s been a longtime friend and we had done some charity ski races together.
What happened at the meeting?
People from the private sector were sharing ideas of how they could help the city. I made some observations that without changing the approach of City Hall, not much else that was being talked about would be effective.
So what happened next?
Jeff Carr, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s chief of staff, and Jay Carson, chief deputy mayor, were both at the breakfast and they called me up afterward. They wanted to hear more about my views, especially my idea to combine the traditional City Hall functions of housing, building and safety and redevelopment with the port, the airports and the Department of Water & Power. All of these play a vital role in economic development; if you want to do it right, you need to place the economic development functions of all these under one person.
They asked me if I wanted to be that one person. I told them, “If all you’re looking for is an ombudsman, I’m the wrong guy. But if you are prepared to enact change, have concrete results and an impact, I would be very much interested.”
Did you speak with Mayor Villaraigosa before taking the job?
The mayor and I talked at great length about this several times. I wanted to know if the resources were there to do the job, if there would be sufficient staff and empowerment to do the job. I also needed to know how much authority he would give me to act and to know that the mayor was truly behind the effort.
What are your main goals?
We have to work on changing the culture at City Hall to provide a higher level of service for our constituents, which include private sector employers. This sounds simple, but it’s not been so simple in practice. Then we have to prioritize the use of the city’s resources on the jobs of the future. I’m also going to work especially hard with the port, airport and DWP to make sure they spend their money on contracts and suppliers in Los Angeles.
What’s your typical day like?
I try to make sure I’m outside the office for part of every day, visiting companies and other employers, non-profits, etc. This is the same philosophy I and Roger Altman had at Evercore. I also spend time with some of the constituent groups – labor, business, community groups – to make them understand what we’re trying to do. Also, I spend some portion of the day at City Hall directing our resources appropriately. That’s 12 hours each day in all, unless I go to dinner and then it’s a little more.
Isn’t that exhausting?
Yes, this is going to take a couple of years of very hard work. But I’m hoping that by the middle of this year, we should start making some structural changes and that next year, we ought to be harvesting some of the results.
Why did you decide to do this on $1 per year salary
I’ve been fortunate that I can afford to do this. I think the money is better spent on making sure we maintain all the vital city services. I also want to send the message that it’s time for other folks in my generation to come to public service. I’m 49. There are a bunch of people in my generation who all sit back and say the city doesn’t work as well as it should. I say we should try to help. I’m not only talking about other executives, but also other people outside City Hall. I’ve already hired several people who are essentially volunteers in this effort.
With 12-hour days, how do you spend enough time with your family?
I can never spend enough time with my family. I make an effort to see my kids early in the morning and before I sleep at night. One plus: I’m not traveling as much as I was in previous jobs – at least not yet. I do expect to do some traveling to promote Los Angeles as a center for trade and commerce for the Pacific Rim.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received
I’ve frequently been told that all you’ve got is today and tomorrow. Focus on those things. Learn from the past, but don’t dwell on it.
TITLE: First Deputy Mayor, Chief Executive for Economic and Business Policy
ORGANIZATION: City of Los Angeles, Office of the Mayor
BORN: New York; 1960
EDUCATION: B.A., Dartmouth College
CAREER TURNING POINTS: Leaving Blackstone Group to join Treasury Department as adviser in Russia; starting Evercore Partners with former Deputy
Treasury Secretary Roger Altman; decision to return to public service after bicycle accident
MOST INFLUENTIAL PEOPLE: Stephen Schwarzman, Blackstone Group chief
executive; Michael Blumenthal, former secretary of the Treasury in Clinton
PERSONAL: Lives on the Westside with wife Virginia, a homemaker; four children, ages 13, 10, 8 and 6
ACTIVITIES: Bicycling, helicopter skiing, surfing, outrigger canoeing
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