To drum up international support for the first World Cup in the United States in 1994, Alan Rothenberg logged more than a million frequent-flier miles in four years.
As president of the U.S. Soccer Federation and chairman and chief executive of the U.S. World Cup organizing committee in the ‘90s, the Los Angeles attorney traveled through airports around the world without pausing to think about what made them tick.
Now he must learn.
As head of the city’s seven-member Airport Commission, Rothenberg oversees four airports in Los Angeles, Ontario, Van Nuys and Palmdale. He was appointed last year by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who admired his business acumen and his connections with local power brokers.
“We had to coordinate an awful lot of travel,” Rothenberg said of his efforts to organize the 1994 World Cup. “A lot of the things that are integral to the operation of an airport I’ve had some experience with -- granted, on the other side of it.”
Rothenberg fills a spot formerly occupied by high-profile City Hall insiders including Ted Stein, a Valley developer and lawyer, and attorneys Dan Garcia and Johnnie L. Cochran Jr.
Known for 18-hour workdays, Rothenberg, 66, is what Los Angeles World Airports needs to cope with an array of challenges, including updating its aging centerpiece and tightening security at its airports, associates say.
“Los Angeles International Airport is not where it needs to be,” said Peter Ueberroth, managing director of the Contrarian Group, an investment consulting firm, and organizer of the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.
“I think he has the best chance of providing the leadership to get it back to its former reputation, and that’s critical -- we need it from a tourism point of view.”
Rothenberg says he’s eager to tackle one of the most pressing issues at the city’s airport agency: figuring out how to spread an expected doubling of passengers in the next two decades among the region’s airports when many of these facilities are already full and airlines resist relocating flights from LAX.
One solution may be to form a partnership between the city’s airport agency and private firms that can help fund transportation systems to smaller airports, Rothenberg said.
“We need to be creative in the kinds of deals we structure; we need to somehow come up with ideas to encourage the airlines to commit to it,” he said.
Rothenberg’s business connections and his abilities as a “very, very skilled organizer and administrator” should serve the Airport Commission well in this effort and others, said Michael Collins, an executive of the city’s convention bureau, where Rothenberg has served on the board for about a decade.
Ueberroth said that when he tapped Rothenberg as commissioner of soccer for the 1984 Olympics, no one believed he could sell tickets in a country where soccer as a spectator sport repeatedly fizzled.
But the event defied expectations, selling out matches at the Rose Bowl and convincing soccer’s governing body to award the United States the 1994 World Cup.
Rothenberg was recruited to manage the tournament with a paid staff of 400 and budget of $350 million. The World Cup broke attendance and revenue records.
Afterward, the Los Angeles millionaire founded Major League Soccer in the U.S.
“He completely transformed the sport of soccer in the United States,” said Marla Messing, who worked with Rothenberg on the 1994 World Cup and on the 1999 Women’s World Cup.
Rothenberg will take on a similar challenge as he and the Airport Commission oversee a $1.1-billion upgrade at LAX -- the first face-lift at the 77-year-old facility since the 1984 Olympics.
This overhaul will include three construction projects: moving the southernmost runway 55 feet, revamping the Tom Bradley International Terminal and rebuilding LAX’s complex baggage system.
His public sector role is a change for Rothenberg, who says he’s accustomed to seeing projects through.
“You have to realize some of the major projects are going to happen long after you’re gone,” he said. “You might launch something, but when it’s successful, they’re not even going to remember who you are.”
Rothenberg, the son of a Detroit drugstore owner, began his career in Los Angeles in 1963 when he helped found what was initially called Manatt, Phelps & Rothenberg, where he represented clients in banking, business, sports and entertainment.
He caught Ueberroth’s eye when he was representing Jack Kent Cooke, who owned the Forum, the Los Angeles Lakers and the Los Angeles Kings.
“I became a sports lawyer before people knew there were sports lawyers,” said Rothenberg, adding that when growing up in Detroit he was an avid hockey, basketball and baseball fan.
He went on to become president of the State Bar of California and chairman of the Los Angeles Sports Council and to serve on the NBA Board of Governors.
After retiring from practicing law in 2000 following 10 years at Latham & Watkins, Rothenberg, who said he had no hobbies, decided to start a bank.
His 1st Century Bank is growing quickly and is known among small and medium-sized businesses for its high levels of service and access to its top officers, including Rothenberg, said Edward Carpenter, chairman of Carpenter & Co., an investment bank that helps other institutions get started.
“So far it’s been really successful, and I sleep at night,” Rothenberg said.
Rothenberg’s charisma and hands-off style is a welcome change for the staff at the city’s airport agency, say employees who chafed under the aggressive management style of one of his predecessors -- Stein.
The raspy-voiced Rothenberg has often used his well-timed sense of humor to put people at ease during contentious exchanges at Airport Commission meetings.
One recent exchange followed a sometimes tense conversation between the board and Sylmar developer Ronald N. Tutor, who was awarded a $253-million contract to rework LAX’s southern runway complex.
After undergoing intense questioning, Tutor told the board he had had a hard time hiring subcontractors because high costs have forced many out of business.
“This is a very different marketplace than I’m used to,” Tutor said. “There’s no contractors of substance that remain. You’re going to discover that if -- God forbid -- this city builds the airport we need.”
“Mr. Tutor,” Rothenberg responded, “I just want to make one correction, and it’s God willing that we get the airport that we want, not God forbid, please.”
The audience chuckled.
“I couldn’t agree more,” Tutor replied.
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Down to earth
* Age: 66
* Occupation: bank chairman, arbitrator.
* Married to Georgina, his junior high school sweetheart, for 45 years. Father of three grown sons.
* Born in Detroit, he has lived in L.A. for 43 years. Loves to travel.
* Had a 37-year career as a litigator, during which he would organize impromptu broom-ball games with associates on roller skates.
* Colleagues from his law, sports organizing and banking careers remember his arriving at work at 5 a.m. and keeping his office “very, very cold.”
Los Angeles Times