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Developer Choppin Builds on Traits of Certainty, Sincerity

January 04, 1987|DARYL KELLEY | Times Staff Writer

LONG BEACH — Michael J. Choppin doesn't like the story of the whirlwind courtship because it makes the business deal of his life sound too easy.

Choppin and his future Japanese partner did not know of their common interest in building a world trade center until a corporate matchmaker told each of the other in 1983.

Within days, Choppin met with Kajima Corp., a giant construction firm. And the next day they agreed to jointly bid for the trade center contract.

Two months later the job for the Greater Los Angeles World Trade Center was theirs, and Choppin had been catapulted into a new international league of real estate development.

"It was the classic ships in the night, only this time someone made the connection," said Choppin, 48, the self-educated chairman and president of IDM Corp., a $100-million Long Beach company.

Choppin, who is leery of interviews, wants no misunderstandings.

"They had looked us over. I don't want it to come out that they spied on us, but they clearly knew who we are," he said. "Sometimes I don't want to be quoted. . . . because the Japanese are very sensitive. They're very relationship-oriented. That's why I'm careful about how I phrase my words."

Crisp and formal in a dark blue suit, he leans forward on a leather couch in his oak-paneled corporate office, his back to a panoramic view of Recreation Park and the ocean beyond. He knows precisely what he wants to say and in what context.

So, for an hour, he makes a speech about the world and regional forces that have made the World Trade Center, just under construction and at least a decade from completion, a near-certain success.

He also makes it clear that the trade center project, and not Mike Choppin, is the topic of the meeting. "There are a lot of people who seek identification and publicity. I'm not one of those. It's why I chose to call the company IDM rather than the Mike Choppin Company."

The interview, friends and acquaintances say later, is typical of Choppin, the managing partner in development of the 2.2-million-square-foot trade center, probably the most important commercial building in the city's history.

Confident of Success

It was the same sure focus, care for detail and certainty of success that allowed an intense and authoritative young Choppin, a one-time newspaper boy and aircraft assembly worker, to found IDM in 1969 and quietly develop or acquire 62 projects worth about $900 million across Southern California.

"He is a man who likes to be in control of the situation," said Connie Smith, IDM vice president for communications.

"He has a protective aura about him," Harbor Bank Chairman James Gray said. "When you deal with Mike, it's a very honest and direct kind of relationship. It's not the kind where you call him up and say, 'Let's have a drink.' But if I wanted to put 10 people together to solve a problem, he'd be one of those 10."

Volunteer Problem-Solver

In fact, despite his reserve, Choppin in the last half dozen years has evolved into one of Long Beach's premier volunteer problem-solvers. He is a member of 11 civic or charitable organizations.

He was one of three people appointed by the mayor in 1985 to help pull the Long Beach Symphony out of debt. He served prominently in 1986 on a special committee that recommended a full-time mayor. And he chaired one of the city's Year 2000 strategic planning task forces.

He has brought to those committees an ability to readily grasp the essentials of a situation, say those who have worked with him.

"There is a certain Jesuit feel to his basic character. He takes certain basic principles, business and moral . . . and applies them to the facts of a particular case and makes them work," said attorney Charles Greenberg, a member of the full-time mayor committee.

Thinking Called Clever

While on that committee, Choppin "was surprisingly quiet until he could distill in his own mind a set of precepts about the issue," Greenberg said. "But once that happened he became quite a forceful fellow. His thinking was clever. It sometimes departed from political reality. But it was always imaginative and interesting and fit into an overall fabric."

Intensely private, Choppin will say little about his wife and four children, his passion for sailing and flying, or the satisfaction he must take from his success after starting with nothing as an immigrant from England in 1948.

But he will talk about his business, and, after a while, the business of character building.

Factors in Development

His was built, he said, by a positive-thinking father who sold cars, by St. Anthony's High School (in whose alumni Hall of Fame his picture now hangs), and by his success as an Army paratrooper.

He remembers his father taking him to motivational seminars and to a Toastmaster's club. Though just 12 years old, he was called on to speak about "why I wanted to be president of anything. And I spoke for two minutes. . . . It was that kind of training that made me believe in myself."

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