When Randy Herrel was a kid growing up in Evansville, Ind., he built rockets that successfully launched living cargo – mice – hundreds of feet in the air and returned safely back down. A constant tinkerer, he liked to see what made his homemade rockets work, why they sometimes didn’t and how he could improve them. That’s been the story of his professional life, too. As an engineer at Douglas Aircraft in Long Beach, he saw his company lose big orders to competitor Lockheed because of better business practices, not better engineering. That spurred him to turn toward the business world. After earning a Stanford M.B.A., he worked as a management consultant at Touche Ross and as chief financial officer at clothing company Quicksilver Inc. before helping turn around golf apparel maker Ashworth Inc. During his 10-year tenure, that company grew revenue from about $75 million to more than $200 million. After taking a year off, Herrel accepted a new challenge five years ago: help Catalina Island return to its former status as a premier Southern California attraction. Since coming to the island, he’s overseen the development of new attractions, hotel renovations and a gentrification of some Avalon restaurants – and the number of visitors is on the rise. Before catching a ferry to Avalon one recent morning, Herrel met with the Business Journal at a Long Beach coffee shop to talk about what brought him to Southern California, how he splits his time between Avalon and Newport Coast, and how Eastern Airlines pushed him into business school. Question: So your first job after college was here in Long Beach? Answer: I came out to work for Douglas Aircraft in Long Beach, and here we are. I’d never been west of the Mississippi until I got in the car and drove out here.

You went to college at Purdue. Are you from Indiana?

I grew up in Evansville, Ind. – small town.

Why Purdue?

A long time ago, I built rockets. I wanted to be an astronaut. And I figured out Purdue was a top school where actual astronauts graduated, if you work it backwards: Neil Armstrong, all those guys. That was one of the places to go.

But you never made it into space.

My only miscalculation was if you’d ever seen the original seven astronauts, they were very short. I’m 6 foot, 3 inches. They’re not going to put a 6-foot, 3-inch guy into a capsule if they can put a 5-foot, 7-inch guy in and save hundreds of pounds and a lot of space. That and contact lenses finally did me in.

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