Gary Toebben retired at the end of June, wrapping up 12 years as chief executive of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce. He steered the L.A. chamber through a steep membership decline during the Great Recession, eventually rebuilding its roster. He also oversaw the launch of the Bixel Exchange to support local tech entrepreneurs, and the establishment of a center for global trade and foreign investment.
Toebben, 70, was raised on a farm in Nebraska and served as chief executive for several chambers of commerce in the Midwest before taking the L.A. chamber post in 2006.
The Business Journal talked with Toebben to get his take on Los Angeles and the many challenges the region faces. Edited excerpts of the conversation follow:
Question: At what point during your tenure did you see Los Angeles as a global city?
Answer: Three points really. Look at the commitments that the voters made to Measure R in 2008 and Measure M in 2016 –these were major statements that the public wanted to embrace additional mass transportation. Every major global city in the world has a major mass transportation system, and each of those efforts was a sign that Angelenos were beginning to look at themselves differently, that Los Angeles was more than a single-passenger vehicle city.
Another key turning point was the commitment by Korean Air in 2010, during the depth of the recession, when (Korean Air) Chairman Cho Yang-Ho made the commitment to then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to invest in Los Angeles with the Wilshire Grand project. That was the first of many large-scale international investments here. You know, sometimes your attitude about yourself changes when the attitude of others about you change.
In what other ways has your perspective on Los Angeles changed since you first took over the post 12 years ago?
I’ve learned how the water systems that have put in place have been so significant and transformative, and I’ve also realized the tremendous assets of the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.
I’ve also recognized the need to create large and diverse coalitions – otherwise it’s nearly impossible to get things done.
You got a chance to get to know many businesses in Los Angeles up close during your tenure. Can you name a couple of those businesses, and what made them stand out in your memory?
One company that I’m so appreciative of is AECOM. It purchased so many smaller companies and did this while keeping L.A. as its headquarters location. So often we have been chagrined by headquarters moving somewhere else, so it’s quite remarkable that company has chosen to stay.
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