The gig: Carl Terzian, 78, is founder and chairman of Carl Terzian Associates, a public relations firm that has gotten the message out for companies in a wide range of industries as well as for nonprofit organizations. Terzian estimates his company over 45 years has worked with more than 5,000 clients and was one of the first to market law firms and coordinate paid speeches for politicians as marketing tools. Terzian is well known for hosting networking events that bring together executives, professionals and people from the nonprofit world.
An L.A. original: Born and reared in Hollywood, Terzian went to Sunday school at Hope Lutheran Church on Melrose Avenue. There he developed a strong faith that led him to become what he calls a "secular minister" through his networking niche by "investing in good, influential people and connecting them to one another." He attended Hollywood High School and USC, where he was student body president and earned a bachelor's degree in political science in 1957.
A big break: In his 20s, Terzian was teaching at Woodbury University and nursing a side career as a motivational speaker, delivering about 200 speeches a year. He credits a talk to more than 1,000 executive secretaries for launching his public relations career. One recommended him to her boss, architect Charles Luckman, who was looking for PR help. Terzian spent four years working for Luckman.
On his own: Luckman's firm was acquired by a New York conglomerate in 1969. Acting as a mentor, the architect told Terzian he should start his own firm. "He told me to take my secretary, my stuff and gave me 30 days to get out." Terzian left Luckman's spacious digs for a dilapidated, unfurnished office in the old Getty Union Bank at Wilshire Boulevard and Western Avenue. "I was a trembling mess with a young family … and I had no idea what I was doing," he remembered. He scrambled to find clients, one of whom was now-famous philanthropist Kenneth T. Norris. He helped Norris launch USC's Norris Cancer Research Center.
It's all in the shake: Whether Playboy Enterprises or the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank, Terzian cinches every new account with a handshake. (A few government officials did insist on a follow-up contract.) Those shakes eventually led to a new marketing technique — arranging speeches for politicians traveling to Los Angeles, at $2,000 a pop. "It was the most unusual PR stunt," he said, because it then turned into "a marketing tool for my clients to have senators speak at their events." It started with Terzian's friend, Sen. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.). Whenever the senator landed in L.A., sometimes just for a day, Terzian had a slew of speeches lined up. "Word spread to Washington and soon I was coordinating speeches for Strom Thurmond every year," Terzian said.
Back of the business card: In L.A., "your greatest asset is who you know, who sits to your left and right," he said, gesturing. So Terzian started putting together free events to connect people from all realms of business. One of his clients hosts the dinner, cocktail hour or breakfast, and Terzian picks the guest list from his ever-growing Rolodex of about 16,000 names. Attendees bring their business cards, but not for conventional reasons. Terzian asks them to share "the backside of the card" by telling the table about their passions, family and fears. "When given the opportunity, people become very candid," he said. The events, about 800 a year, are geared primarily to get people involved in nonprofits. "It's business matchmaking, but sometimes just matchmaking," he said. "We just had our 38th marriage and about $2 billion in business is done around our tables every year."
Who's in the stack: Terzian's Rolodex includes some impressive names. Terzian appeared on Groucho Marx's 1950s quiz show, "You Bet Your Life," and attracted the attention of young Sen. John F. Kennedy. The future president invited the college student to Washington, D.C. "We chatted for an hour, just the two of us, and I was so impressed by his charisma," he said. Terzian has represented figures including Tom Bradley, Norman Chandler and Norton Simon. He introduced Richard Nixon to his political science class at Woodbury in the 1960s, managed singer Barry Manilow's philanthropic interests, handled Peter O'Malley's image when he was selling the Dodgers, worked with Ronald Reagan during his California governor years and was an international goodwill ambassador for President Eisenhower.
Keeping it old school: Terzian still uses 3-by-5 index cards for his extensive contacts. Despite suffering a near-fatal heart attack last year, he refuses to retire. Blame it on a deep-rooted work ethic learned from father Henry, chief fitter at a clothing firm, and mother Louise, an office worker at USC. Terzian doesn't advertise and accepts clients only by referral. Like a true PR rep, he pushes his product — the people. "We are fighting against computer screens," he warned. "It's fun to get out there and meet people, expose yourself to new things." He always sports a pocket square and a full suit, and never carries a smartphone.
The Terzian way: "Don't lose the personal touch; know what you are passionate about; focus on people to find fulfillment, not money." And most importantly, he said, "the first week after your kid is born, start collecting business cards." With that, he stood, adjusted his tie and said: "It's time to go, let me give you my card."