Viking Clings to Helm : When Nordskog Industries' 1-Man Show Ends, What Then?

Times Staff Writer

Vigorous, shrewd, younger-looking than his 73 years, Robert Nordskog is in the pink.

He presides over Nordskog Industries, a personal mini-empire based in Van Nuys with more than 550 employees and 1986 sales of $30 million. And he is perhaps the world's most successful racer of powerboats.

Despite repeated injuries and hospitalizations from years in pursuit of his waterborne passion, this quintessential self-made man shows no signs of slowing down. Yet his advanced age raises one big question about his empire.

When the time comes, who will take his place?

His 48-year-old son, Gerald, predicts that his father will run the family business until his last day on earth. Privately held, Nordskog Industries is primarily a manufacturer of aircraft galleys, the compact in-flight kitchens used to prepare airline meals.

"I've never heard him use the word retirement, " Gerald said. "I don't think it's in his vocabulary."

Nordskog Industries illustrates how hard it can be for an aging entrepreneur to plan for succession, or even to consider letting go of the business he founded.

Samuel Terada, vice president and general manager of Jamco (America) in Everett, Wash., a leading Nordskog competitor, questioned whether Nordskog Industries could grow without its founder.

"Everybody in this business knows Nordskog has been strongly led by Bob," he said. "So everybody wonders what will happen when Bob is gone."

Gerald might seem the obvious choice. But it's not a subject that the genial, solidly built Nordskog likes to talk about. He won't say who his heir will be, or who will head Nordskog Industries in the future, and just last year he spurned an outside offer to sell his company.

"The way I've got my business set up, it can function without me," Nordskog said.

Often, it does. Nordskog spends a good deal of his time traveling or boat racing--he holds about 45 world or national boating records--and he says there are three non-family lieutenants who mind the store when he is gone.

But, as the strong-willed founder put it, "I'm the head honcho."

Nordskog started the company in 1951. At the time, he was an experienced airplane repairman and saw a need for someone to make aircraft kitchens. So he raised a few thousand dollars by selling the family's house and hocking his car. The Nordskogs also skipped movies and desserts and did without new clothes for a year, he recalls.

Today, Nordskog Industries is a leader in aircraft galleys. Those who know the business describe Robert Nordskog as a smart businessman and the driving force behind the firm, although some denigrate the quality of his galleys.

One executive involved in galley purchasing at a major airline said Nordskog competes on price, not quality or advanced features. He and others in the business said Nordskog's galleys have improved in recent years but still don't rival their Japanese and German counterparts.

Michael Hanks, president of 4 Flight Custom Products, a Sun Valley airplane-interiors concern, said Robert Nordskog built the business by pinching pennies, bidding aggressively, and hiring young people cheaply and training them.

Questionable Future

"To his detriment, Bob has not built up any faith in the guys below him," Hanks said, adding that it is an open question whether Nordskog's customers would stay with the company if its founder were to leave.

The galley business now accounts for 75% of Nordskog Industries' sales, and the company claims to be No. 1 in the $150-million-a-year industry, although its two primary competitors, Jamco and Sell Aviation, a West German concern, also claim to be the biggest.

Like its competitors, Nordskog also makes ovens, refrigerators, coffee makers, and other kitchen products for airplanes and for other specialty uses.

The Nordskog empire includes several other businesses. One is an electric-vehicle business in Redlands that turns out carts and towing vehicles for industrial and warehouse use. There's also a small advertising agency, plus Nordskog Marine Testing, which tests boats. And the company publishes Powerboat Magazine, which focuses on Nordskog's passion, powerboating.

Nordskog has long been a daredevil. As a teen-ager, he says, he was a wing walker on stunt planes. In 1936, he set a Model T Ford speed record of 125 m.p.h. Nordskog, who has been racing boats since he was 28, can top that speed on water. But boat racing is so dangerous that he has broken almost every bone in his body, besides rupturing or puncturing his lungs, spleen and kidneys.

Nordskog's relationship with his son, Gerald, while respectful, has also been rocky at times.

Nordskog Industries used to have a division that made ground-support equipment for aircraft--commissary equipment, lavatory trucks, and luggage-loading machines--and generated $15 million in annual sales. But the elder Nordskog sold it six years ago after Gerald left the business.

Started Young

Gerald started working part time in his father's business while still in junior high school and joined full time in 1958. He was senior vice president in charge of the ground-support business until he and his father had a parting of the ways in the spring of 1981.

Neither man is precise about what happened, but Gerald says they basically disagreed about how to run the business.

"I'm a dictator," the elder Nordskog said bluntly. His son, he added, is a dictator too.

With room for only one tyrant, Gerald says, he and his father agreed without rancor that the younger man should strike out on his own. (Gerald's two sons have also worked in Nordskog's business, but they both left too.)

Unfortunately, strike out is just what Gerald did. He says he suffered a financially disastrous second divorce and custody fight (he won the latter and now raises his 7-year-old daughter), and also made some bad investments.

"I was in debt," Gerald said. "I was going from hand to mouth."

So, about a year ago, his father explained, "I brought him back." Gerald is now in charge of scheduling production but does not have his old title. Instead, he merely serves on his father's staff.

Different Breed

Despite the older man's description of both as dictators, in many ways father and son could not be more different.

The father does not hesitate to speak of his achievements, whereas the son is a paragon of modesty. The father has been married to the same woman 49 years; the son is twice divorced. The father, a mechanical whiz, has a fleet of customized cars with souped-up engines. The son drives a 4-year old, company-owned Mustang, and says he doesn't even own his own car.

But the contrasts go deeper. The father, who does not seem particularly religious, is consumed by business and boat racing. The son, a "born-again" Christian, claims to be indifferent to business as long as he is doing "the Lord's work," and says he has only been boat racing twice.

"Business is just a way of making some money so you can put bread on the table and pay your house payments," Gerald said.

Both father and son work hard at philanthropy, but the older Nordskog is involved with secular charities, whereas the younger leans more toward Christian ministries. The son is also much more interested in politics.

As chairman of the Valley Prayer Breakfast Meeting, Gerald brought potential presidential candidate Pat Robertson to Van Nuys on Feb. 4, and says he will not only support Robertson for president but wants to work in his administration.

Maybe it's just as well that Gerald channels his energies into politics and religion. For now, at least, there seems little chance he will get to run the family business that bears his name.

As for his father's hobby, boat racing, Gerald thinks it unlikely the elder Nordskog will give that up either: "He's a Viking, see. It's in his Norwegian blood."

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