Gary Burnison's Los Angeles Travel Guide
In a city known for Hollywood glamour, bikini-clad surfers and flashy cars, Korn/Ferry International’s chief executive officer, Gary Burnison, remains true to his midwestern roots.
His cluttered office, not far from Beverly Hills’ ritzy Rodeo Drive, looks more like a middle manager’s than a chief executive’s. A soccer ball sits on the floor and a golf club leans against the desk; magazines and books stack up on a conference table. Burnison fetches his own take-out lunch boxed in Styrofoam as well as a visitor’s from the office kitchen. Creative Artists Agency, the powerhouse firm that represents Sandra Bullock and Tom Cruise, is just a building away. But Burnison isn’t impressed.
“The other day I was at Nate ‘n Al [a Beverly Hills deli] and Piers Morgan walked in. Nobody cared,” says Burnison.
Tall, blond and still boyish looking at 50 years old, Burnison isn’t part of the glitterati in Los Angeles, a city he’s called home for more than 25 years.
Korn/Ferry, though, is an L.A. stalwart. The world’s largest executive search firm, with nearly 80 offices in 40 countries, got its start 42 years ago in Los Angeles. Last fiscal year, Korn/Ferry dug itself out of the Great Recession, posting a 30 percent increase in revenues to $744 million on net income that more than tripled to $58 million.
But Burnison sees a tough slog ahead. Calling the economy’s slow climb back from a decade of overspending a jobless recovery, Burnison says that many people still feel left behind. “It’s going to be a decade of adjustment to the new normal,” he says, poking at his macaroni salad during lunch at his conference table.
It’s a sober perspective gained from traveling the globe and monitoring employment worldwide. Burnison spends about three quarters of his time on the road, which is something of a hallmark for a firm that quickly expanded to Europe, Latin America and Asia after its founding.
Burnison says he once ate breakfast in Germany, lunch in Paris and dinner in London in a single day. He admits the travel sounds sexy, but the reality can be grueling. It’s one reason that when he is in Los Angeles he’d rather not be anywhere else.
“I haven’t seen anyplace like it, and I’ve been everywhere,” says Burnison.
Unlike other cities, downtown Los Angeles is less of a geographic hub. Instead, Los Angeles County—famous for its urban sprawl—is woven together by a mosaic of smaller towns ranging from Venice to Hollywood to Pasadena. Each city has its own flavor and idiosyncratic population, creating tremendous diversity, says Burnison. Then, there are the odd juxtapositions: skyscrapers set against beaches and mountains, suburban neighborhoods in the midst of major thoroughfares and traffic.
“It’s so unique geographically. Where does it begin and where does it end?” he muses.
Deflating some of L.A.’s timeworn stereotypes, Burnison discounts the city’s ruinous traffic jams.
“You ought to go to Beijing or Mumbai,” he says, adding that it can take an hour and a half to travel anywhere in China’s clogged capital.
What about L.A.’s infamous smog? From his 26th-story office, he says, he has a crystal-clear view of the Pacific Ocean most days.
Aren’t people in Los Angeles pretentious and fake? Burnison balks.
“You never have to pretend you’re something you’re not here. Los Angeles is a complete meritocracy. Performance trumps pedigree,” he says. “It’s refreshing and invigorating.”
It’s easy to blend into the mosaic and become part of the city’s laid-back ambience, he says. You can go to Wolfgang Puck’s flagship restaurant, Spago, in jeans and work midday at a local Starbucks without anyone raising an eyebrow.
But even Burnison has lapsed into L.A. bashing. He once told the British newspaper The Telegraph that people in Los Angeles are judged on how deep their tan is and what car they drive.
Burnison is tan. And, yes, he probably got that way doing something thoroughly L.A.: surfing—in his case, with his five kids. But he drives a decidedly practical Ford Taurus.
Burnison was born in Inglewood, California. He attended the University of Southern California, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in business before working for KPMG Peat Marwick, Jefferies and Company, and eventually Korn/Ferry.
Although he has lived and worked in California for decades, Burnison’s identity was forged more than a thousand miles away. He grew up in the small, farming town of McPherson, Kansas. He still stays in touch with his 88-year-old aunt, who lives there. And he says that his unpretentious upbringing informs almost everything he does today.
Not surprisingly, many of the things he recommends doing in Los Angeles are low-key—even free.
“My first thing is to always be outdoors,” says Burnison.
He advises visitors to Los Angeles to get outside and take in some of the city’s accessible beauty by hiking in the Santa Monica Mountains and Griffith Park or by going to one of the city’s sun-drenched beaches.
For a thoroughly L.A. experience, visitors can even hike up to the iconic Hollywood sign. The Los Angeles Convention and Visitors Bureau website, discoverlosangeles.com, lists some of the city’s premier treks.
For those who want to take a dip in the ocean, a ribbon of beaches running from Malibu to Venice offers swimming, surfing and sunning. Burnison often boogie boards and surfs with his kids. (He’s not so midwestern that he doesn’t have a second home in Newport Beach, California.) If you do venture into the water, Burnison advises wearing a wet suit.
“The water is freezing even in the summer,” he says.
Another Los Angeles activity Burnison enjoys is sports. An avid sports fan, he often drags his wife to college football games on dates. He recommends taking in a Los Angeles Lakers or Dodgers game. In a city without a professional football team, college games are a ready substitute, he says, particularly when his alma mater USC plays the University of California, Los Angeles.
And while Los Angeles is sometimes derided for its lack of culture, Burnison challenges visitors to find a museum as gorgeous as the Getty.
“The views are incredible,” he says.
The museum has two locations—one is 12 miles northwest of downtown atop a hill overlooking the city’s west side, and the other, Getty Villa, is located above Pacific Coast Highway overlooking the ocean.
He also recommends spending the day at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). The museum is next door to another only-in-L.A. site—the La Brea Tar Pits, where more than a million fossils have been uncovered in the oozing tar.
Dining, From Casual to Sophisticated
As for restaurants, Burnison says it depends on where you go in the city. (Remember Los Angeles’ sprawl?) But if you’re traveling with kids or just looking for a good burger, Burnison likes the Apple Pan, housed in a small, white house with green awnings in the middle of busy Pico Boulevard. It’s been serving burgers the same way since 1947, making it an L.A. icon.
If you’re interested in tasting some of the city’s Mexican-influenced fare, Burnison says it’s hard to beat the Best Fish Taco in Ensenada, which is modeled after fish taco stands in Baja, Mexico. The restaurant has three L.A. locations.
Burnison says he and his wife also recently ate an excellent meal at LACMA’s Ray’s, a restaurant heralded by Esquire magazine as one of Los Angeles’ best new restaurants in 2011.
For a more highbrow dining experience, Burnison enjoys Mélisse, a Michelin two-star award-winning French restaurant in Santa Monica.
Job Search Tips
An interview with one of the country’s top executive recruiters would be incomplete without a few career insights. And Burnison, who authored a book on leadership entitled No Fear of Failure: Real Stories of How Leaders Deal with Risk and Change, is passionate about all matters regarding hiring and firing. One of his top tips—never quit a job without having another—is an old saw but is perhaps more true in this economy than in others.
“I can’t emphasize how important that is,” he says. “There is a discriminatory element to being unemployed. It’s unfortunate, but it’s human nature.”
By the same token, if you have been fired or laid off, Burnison advises that you be transparent about it.
“If you got fired, don’t beat around the bush,” he says. “Demonstrate what you can do.”
As for landing a new gig, Burnison says sending out blanket résumés is a waste of time. Networking, he says, is a full-contact sport, and you’ve got to work your network to find work.
What’s the most important quality for any job hunter to have? “Authenticity,” says Burnison. “Just be who you are.”
Gary Burnison’s Los Angeles Address Book
701 Stone Canyon Rd; 310-472-1211
Iconic hotel remodeled last year and reopened to praise.
Peninsula Beverly Hills
9882 Santa Monica Blvd. Beverly Hills; 310-551-2888
A classic hotel hideaway near Rodeo Drive and the Beverly Wilshire hotel.
10801 West Pico Blvd.; 310-475-3585
An L.A. tradition, where hamburgers are the mainstay.
Best Fish Taco in Ensenada
Los Feliz: 1650 N Hillhurst Ave; Glendale: 604 W Glenoaks Blvd.; Boyle Heights: 2415 E Cesar E Chavez Ave.; 323-466-5552
Three locations serving fish tacos, Baja-style.
Ray’s and Stark Bar
5905 Wilshire Blvd. (in LACMA); 323-857-6180
Mediterranean-inspired cuisine, situated within the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
1104 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica; 310-395-0881
Fine French fare and elegant surroundings.
Traveling from Los Angeles is a plus, Burnison says, because you can fly overnight whether you’re going east or west and begin the workday the following morning. But he warns fellow road warriors never to go to bed before midnight wherever they land.
“If you do you’ll wake up four hours later unless you’re on heavy medication,” he jokes. Another tip: “Never check your luggage.”
Burnison, who has been diverted on flights more times than he can recall, says you never know where you’ll land until the plane hits the ground. For that reason, he travels lightly, packing one suit and several shirts. If travel plans change, he says, you can always buy another shirt.
Kelly Barron is a Money Makeover columnist for the Los Angeles Times. Her work has also appeared in Smart Money, Entrepreneur and Fortune Small Business.