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SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA Job Market : PART TWO: GETTING AHEAD : The Path to the Top : Four executives recall how luck, good timing thrust them up the ladder

May 17, 1987|MARTHA GROVES | Times Staff Writer

The formula for a successful career often consists of equal parts accident and luck.

Consider the former Marine who decided to join a prominent California aerospace company after being stranded in an East Coast snowstorm--and went on to become chief executive. Or the college dropout who complained about a situation at Berry Gordy's Motown Records, only to be invited to come on board to fix the problem.

Or the prominent Los Angeles retailing executive who got his start thanks to a persuasive neighbor. Or the Southland banker who attracted the chairman's attention with her deft handling of a crisis while a colleague was away.

In other words, the image of the determined executive climbing steadily up the corporate ladder, rung by well-planned rung, doesn't always conform with reality. Career choice--and advancement--can be as much a matter of timing as of skill and experience.

"Luck is being in the right place at the right time," said Rudy Dew, vice president in the Los Angeles office of Hay Career Consultants. "That 'accident' (of succeeding in a career) comes to the person who prepares himself for what he wants to do."

Robert O. Snelling Sr., president of Snelling Inc., an employment service, speaks from experience about "accidental" careers. He studied to be a chemical engineer before being "tapped to help out in the family business" that he now heads. "Look at (Chrysler Chairman Lee A.) Iacocca," Snelling said. "He started as an engineer, moved into selling. At least he knew he wanted to be in transportation."

Here are the stories of how some executives close to home happened into their lines of work.

LAWRENCE O. KITCHEN, LOCKHEED

For Lawrence O. Kitchen, 63, the decision to join Lockheed, which he now heads as chairman and chief executive from offices in Calabasas, was made somewhat reluctantly--and all because of some nasty weather.

"I guess it all started out of high school. I went into the Marine Corps after Pearl Harbor in January, 1942. I wound up in an aviation technical school down in Florida. From there, I spent 20 months in the South Pacific with a Marine aircraft fighter squadron. Aviation got into my blood.

"When I got out of the Marines in January, 1946, instead of going back to my hometown of Shelby, N.C., which was strictly a textile and farming area, I decided to take my chances and go to Washington, D.C., to try to get into the Navy aeronautical business as a civilian.

"Jobs were scarce. (To be) closer to the opportunities, I took a job as a clerk-typist while going to night school. I wound up getting my first opportunity as a technician.

"I waited and worked hard and went to school at night. . . . After about 12 years, I was designated an aeronautical engineer by the Civil Service. By that time, I had been asked by Lockheed several times to go to work for them but had always turned them down.

"But life has its funny moments. We had a miserable snowstorm in D.C. in 1957, and I was stranded on the George Washington Parkway. I abandoned my car, walked home, got home about 9:30 and said, 'Who needs this?' "

In 1958, Kitchen started with Lockheed Missiles & Space Co. in Sunnyvale, Calif., where he held various posts over the next 12 years, taking time out for an executive training program at the University of Pittsburgh. He was named president of the corporation in 1975 and chairman in January, 1986.

Of his success, Kitchen said: "You could probably sum it up by saying that I happened to be in the right place at the right time."

His advice to job seekers: "The one thing I really look for in people is being a self-starter. Too many people wait for direction. I'd rather have someone who's overzealous that I have to haul in now and then.

"The basic thing that I keep stressing is integrity and a sense of ethics. The other thing is that, once you set your goals . . . just never give up. Set milestones and (devise a) plan that will get you there."

SUZANNE DE PASSE, MOTOWN PRODUCTIONS

Patience and persistence have paid off for Suzanne de Passe, who 20 years ago "joined Motown in a rather unorthodox fashion" and is now president of Motown Productions, the Hollywood-based film, television and theatrical division of Motown Industries.

It all started when Cindy Birdsong, a friend of De Passe who had just joined the Supremes singing group, came out of the Ed Sullivan Theater in New York one evening and asked whether Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr. could share the limousine that she and De Passe had rented.

"I said, 'Fine,' " De Passe, 40, recalled. "I was very young, working in Manhattan, and it was difficult to get taxis in Manhattan at peak hours, so I'd rented a limo. At the time, I was talent coordinator of a very large dance nightclub and was just kind of getting into the entertainment business."

A year later, she ran into Gordy again at a Supremes party in Miami on New Year's Eve, 1967.

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