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How I Made It

For wealthy tech entrepreneur, a timely connection

The gig: Chester J. Pipkin is the founder, chief executive and chairman of Belkin International. He started the Playa Vista company in his parents' Hawthorne garage in the early 1980s. The company capitalized on the early explosion in personal computing, selling devices that connected computers to printers. Through the years the company has kept pace if not stayed ahead of the changing tech landscape. In 2014, Fast Co. named Belkin one of the 10 most innovative companies specializing in the "Internet of things" thanks to its Wemo line of Internet-connected home accessories.

Growing up with tinkerers: Pipkin's parents both worked with their hands. His mother moved west to Los Angeles from North Dakota and worked as a machine operator in aircraft factories during World War II. "She was a Rosie the Riveter type," Pipkin, 54, said. His father was a machinist and worked for various aerospace contractors as part of the Apollo program. "I got exposed to a philosophical outlook that great experiences for people could be built by my own hands," he said.

History in his blood: Pipkin has been obsessed with history from an early age. The Pipkins were Dust Bowl-era migrants, and his great-aunt, Myra Pipkin, was a prolific folk songwriter who sang about the struggles of those newly arrived to California. She was interviewed by Library of Congress historians who said she was believed to have been the inspiration for the character of Ma Joad in John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath." "I am a history guy more than anything else," he said.

Getting hooked on computers: Pipkin enrolled at UCLA as a history student but soon found himself obsessed with the burgeoning personal computer scene in the early 1980s. He was hanging out in funky independent boutique stores started by entrepreneurs when he noticed consumers faced a simple problem: How do you connect the PC to a printer? Back then there were no clear standardized procedures, so Pipkin figured he could make some money if he offered a solution.

Dropping out and getting fired: Pipkin took a part-time job at an electronics company while he was still in school but quickly found himself run ragged. He couldn't handle classes, a job and tinkering on early Belkin products. So he dropped out of school. Then he was laid off. "I was clearly paying more attention to my work on Belkin."

A sense of history: Pipkin credits his obsession with history with helping him decide to jump totally into the business world: "Just like the advent of the Industrial Revolution, railroads, the making of steel, the PC marketplace was getting ready for take off."

Early success: Belkin officially launched in 1983, selling cables for printers and modems. The first product to take off was the Belkin Hamlet, which connected an Apple IIc computer to non-Apple printers. The Shakespearean name came from a bad joke ("IIc or not IIc") that Pipkin now cringes at. "Thankfully we got some real marketing now," Pipkin said.

Rough growth: The tech start-up life was not without its ups and downs early on, Pipkin said. A large customer once filed for bankruptcy, leaving Belkin with $11,000 in receivables that weren't going to get paid, he said. "Many times it looked like this was absolutely going to take off and then we were in huge trouble and the company was at risk of going out of business," he said. But the early pitfalls provided valuable lessons down the road, he said. "Many times we are doing our best work when we are the least complacent."

Keeping up with the times: Belkin shifted from early PC hardware in the 1980s to surge protectors and USB storage devices in the 1990s. Belkin bought Irvine-based network hardware maker Linksys from Cisco in 2013. Now, through its Wemo brand, the company sells such products as a smartphone-controlled light switch and an Internet-connected Crock-Pot.

Constant reinvention: "The only way for us to continue to excel as a brand and as a vibrant growing organization is to be in a constant mode of reinventing ourselves," Pipkin said. "Things in this market change really, really quickly. It is both a positive as it relates to opportunity, but it is also extremely treacherous. It can be deadly at any point in time."

Low-key success: Despite Belkin's success ( the private company said it has 1,350 global employees and more than $1 billion in revenue), Pipkin keeps a relatively low profile. After Belkin bought Linksys, Forbes ran an article with the headline: "Chet Pipkin: The Wealthiest Tech Entrepreneur You've Never Heard Of."

Giving back: Pipkin's first job was camp counselor at the YMCA where he met his future wife, Janice. Seven kids and three grandchildren later, the couple still volunteer at various nonprofit organizations. Pipkin is on the board of Children's Hospital Los Angeles and the Da Vinci Charter Schools in Hawthorne, among others.

javier.panzar@latimes.com

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