Aug. 8, 2011
Chet Pipkin is the most famous tech mogul you’ve probably never heard of, even though he came of age in the South Bay, and even though you’ve probably purchased some of his products.
In many ways, the arc of his story is familiar, calling to mind that of better- known tech tycoons. Much like Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs, Pipkin is a college dropout.
Just as Zuckerberg co-created Facebook in a dorm room, Pipkin, 50, launched his business, Belkin International – now an industry leader in connectivity products – from his parents’ garage in the Hollyglen neighborhood of Hawthorne.
And much as Gates has made philanthropy a full-time obsession, Pipkin now spends a sizable chunk of his working hours on community service projects all over Los Angeles County, from improving squad cars with the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department to sitting on the board of the YMCA to serving as president of the board at Da Vinci Charter high school in Hawthorne.
Unlike some of his better-known peers, Pipkin, now a resident of Manhattan Beach, grew up in a working-class family. By merely attending – let alone graduating from – Lawndale High School, he surpassed the education level of both parents.
And unlike Gates, Zuckerberg and Jobs, Pipkin majored in history, not computer science or physics. This detail, perhaps more than anything, sheds light on how one of the L.A. area’s most influential tech entrepreneur ticks.
Pipkin, once Belkin’s CEO and now its chairman, jumped headlong into technology in the early 1980s not because he had any formal training in the field, but because he understood that the sands of time are forever shaped by a series of tidal waves. He believed he could see the next one coming.
Always an entrepreneur at heart, Pipkin had contemplated other pursuits as a high schooler, from starting a limo service to opening an ice cream shop to becoming a Santa Claus for hire. But it wasn’t until he started thinking like a historian that he began to see the future.
While working a low-paying job stocking shelves at a wholesale manufacturer of electronic components, Pipkin began pondering other legendary moguls whose fortunes capitalized on sweeping historical movements: Andrew Carnegie’s empire of steel during the railroad boom, for instance, and John D. Rockefeller’s prescience and good timing during the meteoric rise of the oil industry.
“As soon as I started thinking that way, it was overwhelmingly obvious that this PC thing was going to take off,” he said. “I didn’t know about hardware, software, or anything about anything. I just hopped in.”
Now, he likes to say that if you own a personal computer, there’s an 80 to 90 percent chance you’ve got a Belkin product; if you own a smartphone, it’s a 95 percent chance.
Roots in the Depression
Pipkin’s parents both came of age in a hardscrabble place and time: the middle of the country during the height of the Great Depression. His mother was the illegitimate daughter of a farmer in North Dakota. Until her dying day a year ago, she never overcame the shame of the stigma, he said.
His father, who died in 2006, was born in Texas, but as a boy traveled by horse-drawn wagon with his family to Oklahoma, sleeping in abandoned houses along the way.
Both of his parents were among the waves of Americans pushed west by the ravages of drought and economic hardship.
There’s one detail of his family tree that surely piqued Pipkin’s affinity for history: It is widely speculated that his great-aunt, Myra Pipkin, was the basis for Ma Joad in John Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath,” according to the Library of Congress. (Click here to listen to her interview with documentarian Charles Todd.)
Pipkin’s father, Chester, was eventually drafted to serve as a machinist in World War II. His mother, Lorraine, became a machine operator in the L.A. area, fulfilling the archetypal role of Rosie the Riveter. They met after the war, working together as machine operators – he was her boss – in the region.
One of four children, Chet Pipkin attended public schools in the Wiseburn School District, the very district that hosts Da Vinci Charter, whose five-member board he now chairs. At Dana Middle School in Hawthorne, he was an average student. For whatever reason, he blossomed academically at Lawndale High.
There, he discovered not only his aptitude for learning, but also his passion for civic engagement, signing up for the YMCA’s youth and government program.
To this day, he is a board member of the YMCA of Metropolitan Los Angeles, as well as of the California YMCA Model Legislature and Court.
The YMCA is also where he met Jan, his wife of 25 years and the mother of their seven children – six sons and one daughter, whom they adopted as a teen.
Pipkin said his wife has played a crucial role at Belkin since its founding, and she now sits on the company’s board of directors.
“I always got the high-profile stuff,” he said. “She got the heavy-lifting stuff. Really the very unsung hero, if there is a hero in this story.”
After graduating toward the top of his class at Lawndale High, Pipkin began his short stint at UCLA, which lasted all of two quarters. Unable to afford a parking pass, he would toss a bicycle in the back of his Datsun pickup every day, park off campus and pedal in.
But his real education was occurring on Hawthorne Boulevard, which in the early 1980s was dotted with stores that were selling these newfangled things called personal computers and printers. After his epiphany about the Next Big Thing, Pipkin literally began knocking on the doors of these shops in his spare time on evenings and weekends, asking if they needed any help.
“The bigger ones asked me to move along,” he said.
The smaller entrepreneurs allowed him to hang out, asking him to help out with odds and ends, such as unloading a truck.
“On the outside, it sounds really folksy,” he said. “On the inside, it was a really intense, focused strategy to really discern and figure out everything that could be figured out about that market.”
All the while, he observed people. It didn’t take him long to discover a void. Salesmen were eager to push products out the door, customers were confounded as to how to get a printer of this brand to talk to a computer of that. Easy-to-use cables connecting one to the other didn’t exist.
“There were so many different variations and combinations,” he said. “It would have been impossible for the stores to stock all of them.”
Pipkin knew a thing or two about cables. After all, in addition to hanging out at computer shops, he’d been working full time at the wholesaler store, Electro- Sonic, which sold a lot of connectors to the military.
Dining-room table start
Using a cable cutter and a soldering iron, Pipkin – who’d always been a tinkerer – built his first computer cable on his parents’ dining-room table. Purchasing the parts from various vendors, he built 10 or so and brought them to a store.
Impressed, the store owners asked how much he wanted for them. He shrugged his shoulders and said $15 or $20 apiece.
“I probably made about a couple bucks an hour on those,” he said. “But I figured if there was a need, and this was exploding, we would be in fine shape.”
After a week, his mom kicked him out of the dining room and into the garage. His night job began to take priority over his day job, to the irritation of his bosses at Electro-Sonic. They fired him.
“They did the right thing,” he said.
It was 1982, and Pipkin was suddenly at a crossroads: Get another job, return to school or dive full time into his business. Pipkin chose option No. 3.
In the late 1970s, he and Steve Bellow, a friend from Electro-Sonic, had conceived of another business that never went anywhere. Merging their last names, they called it Belkin, but did little more than print out some letterhead. In his new enterprise, for fear of looking too small, Pipkin didn’t want to name the company after himself. He decided to go with Belkin. (Bellow later came to work for Belkin, but as an employee, not a partner.)
In 1983, the company’s first full year, Belkin generated $180,000 in sales. The number skyrocketed year by year: $600,000, $1.8 million, $3million. Today, Belkin International, still a private company, has offices on all continents except Antarctica, employs about 1,500 people and generates $1 billion a year in sales.
An easygoing manner, and a lasting stuttering impediment
Chet Pipkin has a lanky build and a narrow face, with a wisp of sandy-gray hair atop a freckly receding hairline.
For all his drive, his manner is relaxed and approachable. On a recent day at work, he showed up in his usual attire: untucked business- casual shirt, blue jeans.
Since early childhood, he has grappled with a stuttering impediment, and to this day occasionally falters on a word, whose first syllable he will calmly repeat several times before completing it successfully.
The stuttering, he said, used to be difficult, but not so much anymore.
“I’ve got a reputation and a brand now, so I’m not as worried about the first-impression thing,” he said, sitting in his smallish office in Belkin’s new glassy headquarters overlooking a park in Playa Vista.
He never sought speech therapy until he was in his 30s, upon noticing that his 3-year-old son, who’s now 21, also stuttered. They went to see the therapist together. His son no longer stutters, and Pipkin said he, too, learned some tools to keep it at bay, but generally doesn’t like to employ them unless absolutely necessary, as for a public-speaking engagement.
“It doesn’t feel authentic,” he said.
He briefly launched a nonprofit organization for stutterers, but shut it down when it became apparent that other organizations were already doing good work in that domain.
Pipkin, who is big on solving the energy-consumption problem, drives a battery-powered sports car, the $110,000 Tesla Roadster, although he is a little sheepish about the flashiness.
“I made the mistake of taking a test drive,” he said.
Asked if he is a billionaire, Pipkin says no, and declines to quantify his net worth.
His stated discomfort with flashiness and attention seems to jibe with depictions of him by friends and business associates, who generally describe him as intensely focused, but humble.
Sean Williams, who resigned a few weeks ago as a Belkin vice president after working there for 27 years, said he isn’t surprised that press coverage of Pipkin or even Belkin is relatively scant.
“A lot of people in his position would have a PR person or organization getting his name out in the press, getting him speaking engagements, building up a personal brand,” he said. “He could care less about that.”
(The Daily Breeze contacted Pipkin for this story through an administrator at Da Vinci Schools.)
Williams added that he knows about all of Pipkin’s charity work only because other people talk about it.
“He never, ever talks about what he’s doing to give back,” he said. “It is always done completely in the background.”
The only criticism Williams had of Pipkin and Belkin is that the company has never been good at celebrating success.
“You would do something superhuman, like grow the business 80 percent one year, but then he would immediately be talking about what the targets were for next year,” he said. “He is very, very demanding.”
Williams added that Pipkin is “the best person I’ll ever meet.”
For the most part, Pipkin’s 28-year-old company has managed to remain under the radar, with some exceptions. In 2003, Inc. magazine listed the company – then located in Compton – on its Inner City Hall of Fame for an explosive rate of growth. Belkin has made the Los Angeles Business Journal’s Fastest Growing Private Companies list for five years.
The press hasn’t all been good, however.
The company in 2003 was criticized on technology news sites for putting out a line of wireless routers that served spam onto the desktop.
In 2009, Belkin was blasted in the tech blogs after it came out that a marketing executive with the company was paying people to write positive online reviews. Belkin publicly apologized and took down the reviews.
In 2010, the company moved from Compton to Playa Vista. The glassy new headquarters, with its twin four-story buildings, is a testament to the company’s quiet success, and perhaps a reflection of Pipkin’s personality.
Every office is identical in size, regardless of one’s rank, with walls that double as whiteboards for brainstorming.
Engineers might trade ideas and scribble formulas while standing at a pingpong table. The cafeteria is at once fancy and casual. Chandeliers hang over the main table, and the head of the kitchen dons the full chef regalia, tall white hat included. In the middle of the room stands a foosball table.
These days, Belkin has branched out significantly from its origins in cables, producing an assortment of products that includes wireless routers, iPod accessories, laptop cooling pads and iPad cases.
Engineers are laboring on a project pertaining to what Pipkin believes will be the next big thing: energy conservation.
“If you look at population growth on the Earth, it’s a pretty scary statistic,” he said. “But what’s more scary is consumption per person. … There are no ifs, ands or buts: We’re either all going to be dead or are going to find ways to manage our consumption in much better ways.”
The new product, he says, will plug into an outlet and provide an item-by-item breakdown of how much energy each appliance is using – and costing. In a couple of months, Belkin, in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Energy, will pilot the device in 60 Chicago homes.
Risk-taking charity work
Keeping track of Pipkin’s charity work is as dizzying as understanding the full scope of his business.
But much of his work stems from a simple observation about government: Rarely in the public sector is there an incentive to use taxpayer money for thoughtful risk-taking. Much of his philanthropy involves fulfilling this role.
For instance, one of the efforts involved equipping squad cars in the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department with automatic license-plate readers.
Through an entity called the Safe Cities Foundation – founded and underwritten by Pipkin, with financial help from Target Corp. and Wells Fargo – enough capital was raised to build prototypes for three cars. It proved a success, and Sheriff Lee Baca asked for 10 more. (Pipkin said Belkin receives no profit from the work.)
“We’re the incubator for these kinds of things,” Pipkin said. “If the idea is no good, we take full responsibility.”
Conversely, if it is good, Pipkin’s foundation backs off, allowing the public entity to take it from there, like a kid removing the training wheels from a bicycle.
Pipkin was approached to join the board at Da Vinci Charter by the school’s principal, Matthew Wunder, a former guidance counselor at Manhattan Beach Middle School, where Pipkin’s children attended.
“Don’t think I wasn’t really, really nervous about it,” Wunder said. “He’s really accessible, but Chet Pipkin is a legend.”
One thing that made the phone call difficult is that Pipkin was already spread pretty thin. In addition to his involvement with the YMCA, he sits on the boards of Children’s Hospital Los Angeles and the Diabetes Camping and Educational Services organization. He also coaches kids soccer.
But Pipkin was receptive.
Role at South Bay school “He made it easy,” Wunder said. “He was infinitely patient and inquisitive.”
Pipkin believes the fatal flaw of the public education system is its rigidity.
“When it’s working, it’s working – many, many schools do it well,” he said. “They don’t need our help.”
But when the dropout rate in the Los Angeles Unified School District is 30 percent, something is amiss, he said.
Pipkin insists that he isn’t one of these people who believes charter schools are the silver bullet, but he does appreciate how they are generally more receptive to experimentation. He claims to have few original ideas about how to improve education, but rather encourages Da Vinci to have the flexibility to try unconventional ideas supported by solid research.
Example: Contrary to popular belief – and intuition – research shows that smaller class sizes really don’t correlate to significantly higher achievement until the head count drops to below 17. However, research shows that achievement tends to decline once the number of student relationships per teacher exceeds 75. At many high schools, teachers have five periods with at least 30 kids, or about 150 relationships.
To get that number down to below the magic 75, Da Vinci has adopted the block schedule, meaning the classes last for an hour and a half rather than
just one hour.
Pipkin said he welcomes debate on whether or not such practices truly benefit kids.
But “if it’s a debate just to keep things from changing, then I lose patience with it.”
With all the earnestness of a multimillionaire who believes he can change the world for the better, he added: “We can do better, we must do better. Otherwise the consequences to society are going to be overwhelming.”