Randy Hoffman concedes that he was probably driven to excel in business in order to overcome a troubled childhood and an abusive, alcoholic stepfather.
At 17, he won top honors at his school for forming a student-run company that sold holiday-decorated brandy snifters filled with peppermint candies.
By age 30, he was president of a binocular manufacturing firm with over $100 million in annual sales. Three years later, he took the reins of Magellan Systems, a company that became one of the country's fastest-growing private enterprises and in the process made him a multimillionaire.
The drive to succeed grew out of an unstable home environment and moving around a lot, Hoffman said. "Maybe it was the desire to build something and own something."
That same drive now propels Hoffman to try to conquer the world of politics. He is vying for a seat in Congress to represent the west San Fernando Valley and parts of Ventura County. To win, he must unseat freshman incumbent Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks), who made a list of 10 most "vulnerable" Democrats who will be targeted by the Republican Party this year.
On paper, Hoffman looks good. He has a Harvard degree in business, a personal net worth of between $2 million and $7 million and the management experience to organize a powerful campaign. He already has put nearly $300,000 of his own money into the effort.
Hoffman, the favored Republican candidate in the June primary, has the support of Republican politicians and business leaders such as Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Simi Valley) and Valley auto dealer Herbert Boeckmann.
House Majority Leader Rep. Dick Armey (R-Texas), Majority Whip Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas) and other party leaders have also contributed to Hoffman.
"We'll do everything we can to support Randy Hoffman," an Armey spokesman said.
But after nearly a year of campaigning, Hoffman remains vague about the policy matters he hopes to champion if elected. He has declined to discuss how he differs from Sherman, saying that his immediate goal is to get his name and accomplishments known by voters throughout the district.
He talks in general terms about improving schools, reducing bureaucracy and fighting crime. But his speeches and campaign brochures focus more on his business success and his "real world experience."
That only provides ammunition for his critics who call him an "empty suit" with little history of community involvement outside of his business ventures.
"It's amazing that they would say I have no interest in the community when I have created hundreds of jobs in Southern California," Hoffman replies.
Hoffman also bristles at critics who compare him to another Republican businessman who made the transition into politics: Mike Huffington, the millionaire former congressman who spent nearly $30 million on a failed bid for a U.S. Senate seat.
Huffington made his wealth on his father's oil and natural gas prospecting firm, while Hoffman said he worked his way up from a modest and troubled childhood.
"There is nothing easy about building a business," he said.
Hoffman was born in Evanston, Ill., 44 years ago. He was raised by his mother, Alice Bates, a secretary, and his stepfather, Phil Colvin, a toolmaker. His mother and birth father divorced when Hoffman was 3.
The family moved to California in 1961 in search of work in the growing aerospace industry. But jobs were hard to find, and at one point the family was forced to file for bankruptcy.
Making matters worse, Hoffman's stepfather was a "raging alcoholic" with a violent temper, Hoffman's mother said. She claims he once threatened her with a knife while a 7-year-old Hoffman hid in the closet.
"In the late '50s and early '60s, you didn't talk about it," she said. "There was no place to go."
In search of fulfillment outside of home, Hoffman joined Junior Achievement, an after-school program that teaches youngsters how to run a business.
"It turned out that I really enjoyed it and was good at it," he said. "I guess it was also a good escape from the family environment."
He got his first taste of the enterprise system when he started "Possibilities Unlimited," the student-run company that sold snifters for $3 a piece. He won top honors with the company and a trip to Indiana University for a nationwide conference.
After high school, Hoffman attended Orange Coast Community College and transferred to USC, where he graduated summa cum laude. He was accepted by Harvard Business School, where he earned a master's degree in business administration.
After graduation and a stint at the management consulting firm of Booz, Allen & Hamilton, Hoffman was recruited by Bushnell, a marketer of binoculars, telescopes and rifle scopes that controls 34% of the world market. He became president of the firm within three years.