Most days, Russ Pillar wears sneakers and shorts to the office. And no one thinks twice when he suggests a midday run instead of a conference room meeting. But the president of the Los Angeles Marathon didn’t always have such a carefree job. He started his career as an investment banker for Merrill Lynch in New York. Later, at 27, he became chief executive of Precision Systems Inc., a St. Petersburg, Fla., communication company on the verge of bankruptcy. His turnaround of Precision helped Pillar land prominent West Coast gigs as chief executive of Richard Branson’s Virgin Entertainment Group, chief executive of CBS Entertainment Group and president of Viacom Digital Media Group. After leaving Viacom, he started investment firm 5850 Group, the company that helped Dodgers owner Frank McCourt acquire the Los Angeles Marathon in 2008. What started as an investment turned into Pillar’s full-time job. During the last two years he’s attempted to infuse new energy into the race, moving it to the spring, starting it at Dodger Stadium and moving the finish line to Santa Monica. Pillar met with the Business Journal at one of his favorite running trails along Santa Monica’s Ocean Avenue to talk about why he took an interest in the marathon, the reason he’s usually pounding the pavement while most of the city sleeps and his secret for finding the best sushi in Los Angeles.
Question: Have you ever run a marathon?
Answer: I’ve run three, the Long Island Marathon, the New York City Marathon and the Chicago Marathon. I ran Chicago and New York in the span of three weeks last year in the name of research.
Wow. Was it hard to run them so close together?
Yeah, but it went great. The races were so inspiring that I wound up running the New York City Marathon faster than the Chicago Marathon, even though the Chicago course is supposed to be easier.
What’s your personal best time?
You know, I don’t really know. It’s like four hours and 20 minutes. I’m a very average, middle-of-the-pack runner.
Have you ever run the L.A. Marathon?
I never have. I’ve worked the L.A. Marathon. It’s my busiest day of the year. But it’s also the most fun day of the year.
What’s your job on race day?
I have a new tradition that I began last year. I start the race with Frank (McCourt) and city officials. Then I hurry to the finish line. I spend about eight hours standing 50 meters in front of the finish line to congratulate runners as they finish. It’s a personally fulfilling day for me.
You spent many years working for digital media companies. How did you wind up organizing a marathon?
The race was being auctioned about two years ago. I thought it was a really interesting extension of my career, which I’ve spent trying to help consumers connect with things they’re passionate about. I entered into a transaction to tie up the race and then I went to look for investors to help me purchase it outright. I met no one who was as excited about the opportunity as Frank. We shared a common vision for the L.A. Marathon.
What was that?
The marathon was a civic asset that had fallen into some disrepair. As a great city, Los Angeles deserves a great race. So we bought the race and set out to reinvent it.
Part of the reinvention was designing a new course. Why did you choose the Dodger Stadium to Santa Monica route?
We wanted a race that really spanned the entire city and reflected all the great neighborhoods, or as many as we could fit into 26.2 miles. With the course we were able to really unite Los Angeles end to end.
It can’t be hard to find 26.2 miles in a city as big as Los Angeles.
No, it’s not hard to find 26.2 miles. But what is hard, in our car culture, is finding 26.2 miles that you can shut down to vehicular traffic. Fortunately, the municipalities that we worked with – Santa Monica, West Hollywood, Los Angeles – were really enthusiastic about our vision.
It must take a lot of planning to organize the event. What’s a normal day like for you?
I wake up well before the sun to get some miles on the road before the family wakes up. I come back, wake the boys up. My wife gets them to school. Then I have a full day of meetings, conversations and planning. In late afternoon it’s off to one of the boys’ myriad sports teams. Then, one of the most important things to me and my wife is that we have dinner as a family together every night of the week. It’s a chance to check in with one another and see how our days went.
It sounds like the job is pretty flexible. Is that true?
The beauty of the job is that I can get as much done on long runs as I can behind a desk. One of my most productive meetings was a six-mile run in Boston with the director of the Boston Marathon. Working at a race, people don’t look at you sideways if you suggest that we go for a run together. Also, you can wear shorts and T-shirts to the office and people won’t think you’re underdressed.
Does working for the marathon help you stay motivated to run?
I’m always looking for an excuse not to run. If I don’t have an event to train for, I’m happy to let my running shoes collect dust in the closet.
Wait. So you don’t like running?
It’s easier to have an event to train for than to just get up and go. My wife is one of those runners who can just get up and run no matter what. I’m a different kind of runner.
Are you training for anything now?
I’m training for a 50-mile race in Santa Barbara in the spring. Candidly, I’m not quite sure why I’m doing it. It just seems like something else to do.
That’s a long race. How are you preparing?
I try to run at least five days a week. When you work a full-time job, have two boys whose sports teams you coach and have obligations as a husband, it’s sometimes hard to find the hours to put in on the trails. I have spent many lovely blissful hours of quiet contemplation running while the rest of Santa Monica sleeps around me.
How is organizing a marathon different than the other jobs you’ve had?
On the surface they can be different, but at the core they’re connected around enabling consumers to learn about something they’re passionate about. I saw this as an extension of the things I’d already done. The marathon was a consumer brand that had lost its way. So what we were able to do was re-establish what the brand stood for.
What brought you to Los Angeles?
A job transfer when I was working as an investment banker for Merrill Lynch 20 years ago. I had a particular expertise in dealing with Japanese corporations, and many U.S. subsidiaries of Japanese companies are based in Southern California. My boss called me in and suggested I relocate. I moved around a bit before permanently settling about 10 years ago.
What was your career turning point?
I was made CEO of Precision Systems Inc. when I was 27 years old. The ability to rally a team around the turnaround of a business really helped me cement the idea that there was nothing I couldn’t do.
How did you turn the company around?
I was able to turn the company into one of the most successful public companies on the Nasdaq that year. It was an inspiring experience.
Why do you think they picked a 27-year-old when they could have chosen someone with more experience?
I’d like to say that they saw my passion for the business and the employees, but probably they couldn’t find anybody else who wanted to relocate to St. Petersburg, Fla.
Was it easy for you to pick up and move there?
Yeah, when you’re 27 you can move to St. Petersburg. Geoffrey Chaucer once said that you should be prepared for appointments
you have not made. That’s the motto I like to live by.
Chaucer? Are you a fan of “Canterbury Tales”?
Not especially, just love the quote.
Who are some of the people who’ve influenced your career?
My parents had a profound influence on me in guiding the things I studied and the ways I explore the world. I’ve also had a number of bosses who have, over the years, broadened my horizons, whether that was Richard Branson at the Virgin group; or Mel Karmazin, who was running CBS; or Paul Allen. I’ve been fortunate to have a number of visionary mentors and bosses who really helped me view the world in a more expansive way.
What was it like working for Richard Branson?
It was at once a tremendous delight and significant business challenge. If Richard were to have one saying, it would be: “Nothing is impossible.” The balancing act all of his senior executives needed to master was to execute his expansive vision and desire to delight the consumer in a fiscally responsible way. It wasn’t without its stresses, but it was always fun.
How were your parents influential?
My mom was a university professor. She was always encouraging my brother, sister and me to explore other places. The best way to learn about a place is to speak the native tongue. She encouraged us to learn foreign languages. My sister is a fluent Spanish speaker, my brother speaks and writes Mandarin and Cantonese. Japanese is my area of interest.
And you’re fluent?
Yes. I learned it in school and spent my junior year of college abroad.
Do you have much opportunity to speak it now?
Only when I go to Sawtelle and want to order dinner. When you can speak with the chefs in Japanese, it just feels like the sushi you’re getting is of a higher grade.
Between organizing the marathon and coaching your sons’ teams, you also find time to run an investment group, right?
Yes. The marathon came through that group. We’ve worked on a variety of projects.
We made an investment in a music discovery company called Artists Den that showcases live music in unusual venues. We also invested in the world’s largest and most popular online media business for outdoor enthusiasts called Bulls and Beavers (the website provides news and information to hunters and fishers).
Do you find time for any other hobbies?
I like to cook for large groups of people. We have a wood-burning pizza oven in our backyard so our house has become a favorite gathering spot for neighborhood families, which is fun. And I read.
Are you reading anything now?
A really interesting book called “Wilderness Warrior: Teddy Roosevelt and the Crusade for America.” It’s about his focus as a conservationist and how he set up the national park system.
Have you always been an athlete?
I played lacrosse growing up and rugby in college. It’s an important part of my life.
In what sports do you coach your sons?
I coach baseball, basketball, lacrosse and soccer. Then we ski in the winter. Both my boys are also ranked U.S. Tennis Association players. But that comes from my wife, who was a competitive tennis player.
Why are sports so important to you?
I’m a huge believer in the transformational power of sport. One of my proudest days at the marathon was when we partnered with a charity called Students Run L.A. and awarded 3,000 scholarships for at-risk students to run the marathon. The program has a tremendously high success rate. More than 90 percent of the kids who finish the program go on to postsecondary education.
And in your own life?
My wife and I have a routine every night at dinner where we ask our kids if their muscles have gotten bigger or smaller that day. And they tell us what they did to make them bigger. Then we ask if their brains have gotten bigger or smaller. We make an active lifestyle part of the life that we live. We think it’s important that our kids understand that it’s an important part of being a complete, healthy person.
Company: Los Angeles Marathon
Born: New York; 1965
Education: B.A., East Asian studies, Brown University.
Career Turning Point: Being named chief executive of Precision Systems at 27.
Most Influential People: His mother, a professor at New York University, and father, a paper salesman; former bosses Richard Branson, Paul Allen and Mel Karmazin; Mark Gold, president of Heal the Bay.
Personal: Lives in Santa Monica with his wife, Carrie, and sons Levi, 8, and Cole, 11.
Activities: Training for an ultramarathon, coaching his sons’ sports teams, baking with his backyard pizza oven.