As the new chief economist for the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp., Nancy D. Sidhu may be a little more reserved than predecessor Jack Kyser, but she said she’s ready for the challenge of trying to explain L.A.’s economy to media and business leaders from around the world. She began her career as a Ph.D. teaching at Northeastern Illinois University, but jumped ship – despite tenure – to a job at a steel company. Sidhu came to Los Angeles from the Midwest when her husband, Victor, got a job with First Interstate Bank in downtown Los Angeles. She first worked as an economist at Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A., then signed on at Security Pacific Bank. Later, Security Pacific merged with Bank of America, and her job was eventually phased out. Sidhu joined the LAEDC as a consultant in 2000. A year later, Sidhu was in New York for a meeting of the National Association of Business Economics at the Marriott Hotel next to the World Trade Center when the two hijacked planes hit the twin towers. Sidhu and hundreds of other economists were evacuated before the South Tower collapsed onto their hotel. To this day, Sidhu is reluctant to talk about her experience, saying the pain is too deep. She sat down with the Business Journal at her downtown office to discuss her career as an economist, her role filling Kyser’s shoes and her penchant for traveling to places most tourists wouldn’t pick as destinations.
Question: How did your childhood inform your career?
Answer: My family was full of business people. My father was a stockbroker and had interests in oil. My mother’s family also worked in the corporate world. So, from a very early age, I was interested in business and industry. I was the first of our family – I have three sisters – to make a career outside the home.
Why did you decide to become an economist?
I grew up believing that I would be teaching at the university level: college professor of finance or something like that. But when I went to Smith College, I signed up for economics and found that I just loved it. Economists look at the world the way it really works – and that’s what I love about it.
You’re now moving into Jack Kyser’s position, as the voice of the Los Angeles economy. How does that feel?
I had worked with the media before, but nothing like what I’m going through now. The region is so complex and interesting: It’s difficult to explain Los Angeles to different parts of the country or the world. I think it helps that I came to Los Angeles from somewhere else, so I have something to compare it to.
Are you going to make changes?
I don’t think the forecasts will be much different than what Jack did.
What’s your typical day like?
I’m spending most of my time in the office now. I’m not doing many speeches yet, although I expect that will change over time. I do find I enjoy getting out and talking to people. I’m spending a lot of time preparing the forecasts and various reports, and taking a lot of calls from the media. And, since we’re short one economist right now, I’m still doing my old consulting job and what had been Jack’s job.
How do you balance your work with your family and hobbies?
It definitely requires planning. But like everyone, I find that I need to make sure I get enough rest so that I can be refreshed in the mind.
You still do crosswords, but you noted that you “used to” do jigsaw puzzles. Why did you stop?
I loved to do jigsaw puzzles. But the last one I did had 1,000 pieces and lots of blue sky, so it was incredibly difficult. It stayed on our kitchen table for months, until Christmas time came and I had to clear it away. That’s when I decided to stop.
You said you travel mostly in California. What are some of the most unusual places you’ve been to in the state?
I love to go to places where I can learn how things work. So, this past May, Victor and I went to Oroville Reservoir and Shasta Dam in Northern California. At Lake Shasta, the water was right near the top of the dam. I really learned about how the state’s water system works, which I found fascinating. We also went into the Bay Delta area and drove on top of some of the levees. It was really strange riding on this road and looking out on either side and only seeing the tops of trees. You really get a sense of how fragile the whole area is, and then you realize that most of the water we use here in the Los Angeles region has to pass through that area.
Have you traveled recently to any places outside of California?
We went to Seattle a few years ago. My favorite part of that trip was visiting the Boeing plant in Everett and seeing how they were putting together the 787 Dreamliner plane.
What’s your next destination?
We hope to drive out to Boron in the Mojave Desert, where they mine borax. I believe it’s the largest borax mine in the world.
You were at Ground Zero during the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. What did you see?
I really would prefer not to talk about it. The pain is still very deep.
How did it change you?
Prior to 9/11, I had always felt a certain sense of security in life. After 9/11, that sense of security has vanished. But maybe, in reality, it was never really there. That’s all I want to say about the matter.
Do you have any plans for what you’d like to do when you retire?
I don’t know when I’ll retire – my work is so interesting. But I suppose when I do retire, I’ll have time to do a lot of the reading I just can’t get to now. And I’ll probably travel a little more.
How did you meet your husband?
When I was at the University of Illinois, a mutual friend set us up on a blind date. Victor drove up in a snazzy white Oldsmobile convertible with red leather seats. Right from that moment, things clicked. And here we are, more than 40 years later, still married.
Sidhu is an unusual name. Is Victor from India?
No, Victor grew up in America and was in school studying political science when I met him. But Victor’s father grew up in British colonial India as the youngest of seven sons; he was the one who came to America to study at UC Berkeley.
What’s the secret to 40 years of marriage?
No big secret. We have always been friends and have been able to talk to each other about everything.
Why did you move from academia to a steel company?
After I earned my Ph.D., I started teaching at Northeastern Illinois University near Chicago. I earned tenure, so I had a secure job. But after a few years, I decided I wanted to go into the private sector, becoming an economist for a major corporation. I worked through the list of companies in Chicago and landed a job as a market analyst for Inland Steel, which at the time was the sixth largest steel company in the U.S.
How did you learn about steel?
In a six-month training program, I visited every department at the company and spent time at the main steel mill. I really got to learn about steel and how the industry worked. My favorite part was getting to drive a rail locomotive. It was only about 300 yards or so and ended up being easier than I thought it would be. But it made for a really fun adventure to tell my husband about when he asked me what I did at work that day.
You mentioned that the chief economist for Inland Steel at the time you joined was one of the most influential people in your life. How come?
Bernard Lashinsky viewed economics as the study of industries and the private sector. If you really want to find out what’s going on in the economy, you look at what’s going on within industries, especially industries like steel that are good bellwether industries. Even today, the economy isn’t going to recover until business sales pick up. I’ve molded my economic outlook on this approach.
Wasn’t it unusual to be a woman working at a steel company in those days?
When I arrived, that was already starting to change, at least at Inland Steel. The company was making a conscious effort to hire more women and I was a part of that. I was the only woman in the market research department when I came on board, but two more women were hired right behind me.
Was Los Angeles a big change from the Midwest?
I didn’t think I’d ever want to leave the Midwest, but by that time, in the mid-1980s, Victor really wanted to go to Los Angeles. It was a rough welcome, though. Four weeks after we arrived, the Whittier Narrows earthquake occurred – that was the first earthquake I’d ever experienced. Then, a year later, that famous fire occurred at the First Interstate Tower: Victor’s office was on one of the floors that completely burned.
That must have been quite traumatic for him.
Well, for a few days. But he ended up in a better office.
Tell me about the job at Security Pacific?
I had to do monthly forecasts of interest rates – and believe me, that was a humbling experience. Some of my forecasts ended up being blown out of the water. But, since everybody kept encouraging me to try, I learned to pick up and try again. Soon, I really enjoyed the job.
Why did you leave?
Security Pacific was acquired by Bank of America. BofA, which was based in Charlotte, N.C., believed that it no longer needed economists on the West Coast. Bank mergers have been particularly bad for economists; there are far fewer economists now at banks than at any time in the last 50 years. So, I was looking for another position and found one at the LAEDC.
What were your most memorable forecasts?
Back in 1990, when I was at Security Pacific, I successfully called the 1990-91 recession at a time when many economists were still talking about a soft-landing. Then, at the LAEDC, we called the 2001 recession. I saw the slowdown coming, especially in the automotive sector, which I was very familiar with from my days at Toyota.
You called the recession, but did you call how bad it would be in Southern California?
That was one of the ones that I missed. Our models called for California to generally follow the rest of the nation.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
That was a long time ago, during my early days at Inland Steel. I went to Indianapolis with some of my colleagues to give a speech at a conference. Afterwards, I was starving and we went out to get hamburgers. Some of the folks were planning a night out on the town and I asked if I should join them. One man said, “No, you should go home. Nothing good happens after midnight.” That was a very nice piece of advice. If you just follow that piece of advice, you stay out of all kinds of trouble.
Nancy D. Sidhu
TITLE: Chief Economist
ORGANIZATION: Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp.
BORN: Winnetka, Ill.; 1941
EDUCATION: B.A., M.S. and Ph.D., University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; had attended Smith College in Northampton, Mass., before transferring.
CAREER TURNING POINTS: Joining Inland Steel Co. as market analyst; moving to Los Angeles after husband received job offer from First Interstate Bank.
MOST INFLUENTIAL PERSON: Bernard Lashinsky, chief economist for Inland Steel.
PERSONAL: Lives in Santa Monica with husband of more than 40 years, Victor; one grown daughter who works as business planner for Motorola Corp. in Chicago; three grandsons.
HOBBIES: Reading and listening to books on tape; doing crossword puzzles; traveling, mostly in California.
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