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Forbes

RAGGED RIGHT MEASURE

For once, the corporate chieftains weren’t leaving L.A. they were descending upon it.

For three days last week, 250 of Corporate America’s finest gathered in Los Angeles for the third annual Forbes CEO Forum.

So what do folks like Jim Perakis of Hyperion Software Corp., Wolfgang Schmitt of Rubbermaid Inc. and Thomas Page of San Diego Gas and Electric Co. talk about?

How about baby food, the relative quality of Oregon wines and the college choices of their offspring.

There was Robert Levitt, a managing director of Credit Suisse First Boston, trying to strike up a conversation with Duffy Smith, a senior vice president of Gerber Products Co., during the welcoming dinner at the Four Seasons Hotel on the edge of Beverly Hills Wednesday night.

“We’re customers of yours,” Levitt offered, mentioning that he and his wife feed their 1-year-old Gerber baby food.

Smith’s replied with a nod and a smile, nothing more. Levitt fared better in initiating a conversation with an AT & T; Solutions executive about their common boyhood home of Dayton, Ohio.

For those conspiracy theorists alarmed at the prospect of captains of industry plotting the nation’s future, forget it. The chitchat around the dinner of salmon, potatoes and a meringue dessert fell more to bonds, computer technology and alma maters.

The conference Forbes’ first conference of any kind in L.A. was intended as a chance for company heads to get to know one another and discuss common issues and problems.

At an hour-long cocktail party before dinner, executives jockeyed for position to shake hands and share a few words with such luminaries as former U.S. Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, one-time junk-bond dealer Michael Milken and former U.S. Housing Secretary and vice presidential candidate Jack Kemp.

“I wish I could cut your taxes,” Kemp, no longer in public office, told one admirer.

Some of those gathered Wednesday evening just expressed pleasure to be in California, rather than New York, where it had been hot and muggy, or other cities with less pleasant weather.

“Here it’s cool, sunny and lovely,” said Tim Forbes, Forbes magazine’s chief operating officer and No. 2 man behind brother and editor-in-chief Steve Forbes.

After dinner, keynote speaker Kemp’s energetic speech proved popular with the crowd. The former congressman and USC football player’s first laugh came with his referring to himself as the “former next vice president of the United States.” He then announced that he has decided to “go for the most powerful position on the face of the globe” chairman of the Federal Reserve Board.

The more serious aspects of his address dealt with such issues as free trade with Latin America, elimination of the inheritance tax and the death of communism in the former Soviet Union.

The next day’s events began before 8 a.m. at UCLA. The previous night’s dark blue suits and ties had given way to polo shirts, open collars and casual pants. Lecture-goers were reading copies of the Wall Street Journal and the 80th anniversary issue of Forbes.

The lecture hall’s stage was designed to look like a mansion study down to the leather-bound books on the shelves, the bust on the mantle, the decanters filled with ice water and the magazine rack filled with copies of Forbes magazine.

The morning’s speeches by Weinberger, U.S. Commerce Secretary Bill Daley and two university professors took on the feel of a college graduate course. UCLA Professor George Yip, one of the speakers, went so far as to hand out photocopied charts to his “students.”

But according to event organizers, the event most people were looking forward to was Thursday evening’s keynote address by News Corp. Chairman and CEO Rupert Murdoch.

“It’s generated a lot of excitement. I would say it’s a highlight of the event,” said Forbes spokesman Elizabeth Ames. “Everyone wants to see him.”

Accommodating the crowd, as well as an influx of news reporters, was not expected to be a problem the event was to be held at a spacious 20th Century Fox sound stage.

For Gary Mendoza, Mayor Richard Riordan’s deputy for economic development, the conference where both Mendoza and Riordan made several appearances was about more than just speeches by CEOs, gin-and-tonics, cigars and pleasant conversation.

It was about showing corporate chieftains that L.A.’s diverse economy and pleasant climate make it a good place to do business even if companies have left the city before.

“I’m hopeful that there’s some good carry-on,” Mendoza said, adding that perhaps some corporate heads will decide to do business in L.A. long after the conference is over.

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