Photos by Summy Lam, Club COO; from the Alive! archives; and sources as indicated
LACEA: The transfer of the steadfast commitment to serving City Employees, effective Jan. 1, has been in the making for a decade.
Last November, after a decade of preparation, John Hawkins, CEO of the parent company Los Angeles City Employees Association (LACEA), enacted a succession plan and handed the overall reins to Robert Larios, the CEO of the Employees Club of California, a subsidiary. Robert Larios will now lead both the parent company, LACEA, and its subsidiary, the Employees Club.
The LACEA, one of the nation’s largest voluntary employee benefits organizations, is the parent organization over the Employees Club.
The leadership of both the parent and subsidiary organizations is now consolidated under Robert Larios. Robert had led the Employees Club subsidiary since 2021.
Back in October 2002, in a dramatic change that propelled the association forward to great success, John Hawkins created the Employees Club which he headed along with the LACEA until October 2021, when Robert Larios took over the Employees Club role. John remains involved in the parent association; his role now becomes Club Founder and Training Officer, ensuring the association’s 96-year legacy of exemplary customer service continues seamlessly.
Both personnel moves are effective Jan. 1.
John’s and Robert’s changes were accepted unanimously by the parent LACEA Board of Directors, chaired by Andrew Virzi III, LADWP. The LACEA Board consists entirely of current employees of the City of Los Angeles, as has been true since the LACEA was founded in 1928.
About Robert Larios
Robert served as the Chief Operating Officer for the Employees Club of California subsidiary for nearly six years, during which he oversaw and drove record new expansion of its membership base increase by 66 percent and upgraded the customer service experience for its membership. He became the CEO of the Employees Club in October 2021.
He brings more than two decades of experience with the association, where he was first hired as a Member Services Counselor in 1998 and quickly learned to leverage the execution of difficult strategic leadership decisions within a nonprofit organization and for-profit subsidiary.
Robert was the third CEO for the Employees Club of California subsidiary and the first Mexican American. He holds a Master’s degree in business administration from the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan, and a Bachelor of arts degree in Spanish literature and linguistics with a minor concentration in business administration, both from the University of Southern California.
The LACEA Board, on behalf of all active and Retired Club Members, and staff and friends of the association, sends a bountiful and heartfelt thank you to John Hawkins on his steadfast, innovative, passionate and tireless advocacy of the lives and work of government employees. •
The Birth of the Club
Alive! is reconstituted and created.
Club Founder John Hawkins reflects on his time helming LACEA and the Club.
by John Hawkins
It was one big experiment.
Thirty years ago, the Los Angeles City Employees Association (LACEA), which was created in 1928 to serve City employees, was at a very serious crossroad – “Do we shut down the association because we are irrelevant and can no longer compete?” Or, “Do we re-invent ourselves, start a process of evolving into something bigger than ourselves?”
Danna McDonough, our President at the time, chose the latter: to re-invent ourselves, to create something that no one has ever done before, to be bigger than ourselves, to give back, and to show the world how awesome the employees are in the City of Los Angeles. It was a bold move, revolutionary really; even to this day, no one has matched how much we celebrate the work and lives of public employees. She gave this new venture a name: The Club.
So, the work began. Our mission? “To Celebrate the Work and Lives of City Employees.” We started by taking a cue from Darwin: We took our Alive! newsletter, which existed as a six-pager that we published quarterly, and forced its evolution into a full-fledged newspaper. We became reporters, photographers, interviewers … we learned on the fly, we kept evolving, experimenting, and kept focused on that mission.
My father, Robert Hawkins, was a County Employee for 30 years. He worked for the LA County Sheriff’s Dept. as a firearm and tool mark examiner. For the majority of his career he and four others worked in the basement of a nondescript little brick building on Alvardo and Beverly. For years he and his team toiled away solving crimes by inventing, creating new techniques and processes revolving around firearm and tool marks left over from the scene of a crime (usually murder). I used to think to myself … wow, if the walls of that basement could talk, what amazing and interesting stories they would tell. But they couldn’t talk, and the stories remained in the basement, fading into lost memories. I know as a kid, how proud I would have been to have seen my dad and his team featured in a newspaper, with them telling their stories of how crimes are solved by matching a bullet and a gun … or that screwdriver found in a suspect’s car that was used to pry open a window. So, that was my impetus to get the stories out about what City employees do every day – to spread the word, to spread pride, to let the spouses and children know that their mother or father is doing something special, contributing to a greater cause, each and every day. That’s why we have a policy, that the cover of every Alive! must be a picture of a City or DWP employee, no matter the rank or position … and, no politicians or City officials. (We broke that rule only once, and that was to feature one of the most amazing City official ever, Tom LaBonge, who had been a City employee before he ran for Council office, and who became a good friend of the Club. He truly appreciated the sense of community we were trying to achieve). Rest in Peace, Tom; we miss you.
Another rule we had was to always interview people in person, at their job site; no email interviews. We wanted to experience the personal connection, we wanted to breathe the same air they breathed, to see what they saw, to walk in their shoes as best we could. (We had to use Zoom once the pandemic hit, for safety.) Which leads me to another rule – we would use no stock photos unless absolutely necessary. Every cover shot needed to be taken by us. It was our way of focusing on our mission, to stay true to it, to be part of the City employee fabric. No shortcuts.
When we decided to give Alive! a new “life,” we needed a team to make it happen. We needed a seasoned editor and a graphic designer who could handle the workload of a monthly publication. By sheer magic, and through a host of serendipitous circumstances, we brought on board John Burnes (Burnes Creative) and David Jamgotchian (JJLA Associates). Both local Los Angeles consultants who have been with us on every issue of Alive! since day one. John Burnes has organized and conducted every single interview, always making great efforts to keep me, the interviewer, on point. And David, the magician behind the design of every cover, every page layout, every printing every month for the last 20 years. There is absolutely no way we could have done this without the two of them. Thank you, John and David! (And Dearbhla and Marie!)
So, we started with turning our Alive! – a small, quarterly newsletter – into the Alive! newspaper. And we made it big, 11 inches by 17 inches. The very first one was only eight pages, but at times it grew to more than 100 pages – so much to celebrate, so many faces. Some issues we printed had more than 1,000 pictures of City employees, each one of those creating connections from family members to fellow employees. Fuses were being lit, and it spread like wildfire. Crazy story for you: After printing a story on the staff at the LA Zoo (yes, City employees run the LA Zoo!), we took a bunch of copies of that issue back to the Zoo to distribute to the employees. And something amazing happened: Their staff meeting was paused, and everyone started signing their name next to their pictures; they were autographing copies of their coworkers’ Alive! John Burnes, our Chief Editor, and I looked at each other … and smiled. If that’s not building community and connection, than nothing is.
When people ask me what the Club is all about, I say, “Take a look at Alive!; it will tell you everything you need to know.”
As a kid I loved reading the Glendale News Press and our local small town newspaper, The Valley Sun. I always sped to the sections where local people were highlighted. Either with them holding up the newspaper on their travels or announcements for weddings, deaths; or maybe it was local businesses and their employees being highlighted. Something clicked for me – a sense of community, belonging to something, being in the know.
I am delighted that as I hand the reins to Robert Larios, I will continue on as Club Founder and Training Officer, forming new Club hires to work toward our true goal, celebrating your lives.
— John Hawkins, Club Founder and Training Officer
And that’s what I envisioned the Club to be. A “device” (I would say “company,” but that sounds so sterile) that would build community for City and LADWP employees, that would connect people by telling their stories and celebrating their lives.
And that’s what we did. We created The Club, the perfect name for what we do, and the credit for the name must be given to my predecessor Danna McDonough, who sparked the passion of building community 20 years ago with the very first Alive!
We tell the stories of the amazing things City and LADWP employees do, for if we didn’t, they would be lost forever.
So, we started. Humbly. And slowly evolved to what we are today – the largest independent employee benefits association in California.
At the same time we jumped into the world of ticket brokers, looking for the most affordable tickets to amusement parks, movie theaters, zoos, anything we could get our hands on.
We made a decision to never mark the tickets up in price, going against the norm in the ticket business. We decided that to be different, to truly honor the hard work of every City employee, we would sell every ticket at cost – not a penny more than we paid for it. Many of you remember the “Ticket Guy,” Navin Cotton. As an intern at the Club he started that program from scratch. All he was given was a list of names and phone numbers, and then he ran with it.
He even took us to a whole new level of selling City seal merchandise, T-shirts, mugs, hats, etc. After he left for new opportunities, we kept evolving the discount program, getting better and better. Today we have a full-blown working warehouse where we keep our ClubMobile van, red tent and now the incredible Club Truck; merchandise inventory; and hat presses and silk-screening equipment, all managed by Guadalupe Lira.
The pandemic hit the Club, like it did everyone. The world went dark, and suddenly we found out how amazing toilet paper was. Do we shrink and lie low, when our Members needed us? Heck no. In true “Celebrating the work and lives of City employees” form, we thought to ourselves, what could we do in the midst of supply shortages and the anxiety that COVID was bringing? A light bulb went on in our heads: “Let’s call every single member, all 50,000, to see if they are okay and if they need anything. So we did! Our entire staff was enlisted for making calls. We started with the Retirees and then worked our way to the active members. We ended up sending out 10,000 packages, free of charge, which included food, face masks, toilet paper (of course), gloves and hand sanitizer. We met many “freelance” suppliers in parking lots all over the City securing these hard-to-get items due to the normal channels being completely out of stock. Once again, we adapted. We thought outside the box, all the while focused on our mission.
We have also been hit with tragedy. Howard Pompel, one of our most revered employees, lost his life in the tragic Chatsworth Metrolink crash back in 2008. He exemplified our mission; he lived and breathed the Club. To this day people still comment about his good nature, sage advice and his ability to make a cloudy day sunny again. Rest in Peace, Howard.
Evolving also means looking at the competition in a different way. To serve our Members better we created partnerships with fellow insurance brokers, who also happened to be former competitors. We joined with Employers First Choice (EFC) in Sacramento and Aflac here in Los Angeles. And when I say partnerships, I mean true, dyed-in-the-wool-type partnerships with Patrick Miller and Daren Everett from EFC and Shem Bostick from Aflac. Both organizations embrace what the Club stands for, what we espouse, our mission and goals. A complete win-win.
According to Plan
So now, time to get to the purpose of this historic issue of Alive! About 10 years ago I began planning for my retirement – as in looking for someone who could grab the Club torch out of my hand and continue the relentless pursuit of celebrating the work and lives of public employees. I wanted to consider someone from within, not an outsider, and luckily we had an employee who understood our mission, our vision, our goals; it was in his bones. That person is Robert Larios. I have had the privilege of working closely with Robert for more than 20 years, and in the last 10 years working with him with the specific goal of him taking over. That’s ten years of collaborating on tough issues, working together on how to keep evolving, never standing still, always focusing on being better than yesterday.
As I review the last 20 years, here are some moments that really stand out:
- Our story and flight in the LAPD Air Support helicopter, zooming through downtown, landing on the Library Tower and then descending straight down the side of it. And then that helicopter becoming the “quarterback” in the sky on an actual crime in progress, a jewelry heist. Exciting stuff!
- I’ll never forget our first big interview. I was very nervous, I had never interviewed someone in a professional setting. But I had John Burnes, our editor, with me, who knew exactly what to do. It went beautifully, and really put Alive! on a professional map. And thank you, Larry Keller, Port Director, for the opportunity!
- I’ll never forget one of the nicest guys in the City, Alvin Blaine, former General Manager of General Services. He too agreed to meet us for an interview. He was a true gentlemen – warm, inviting, and overflowing with energy and enthusiasm about what his department was doing.
- Ever wonder what it was like to drive a refuse truck all day? Well, so did we, so I did an all-day “ride-along” with Ken Fox. Thanks, Ken, for one of my most memorable days!
- In January 2005 a severe storm hit LA, knocking down trees, and those trees knocked down power lines and poles. Out we went with cameras in hand taking pictures of the LADWP crews repairing the damage.
- Jawbone Canyon? A City facility? Yep! We covered the new giant wind turbines that the LADWP installed out in Jawbone, near the Mojave Desert. I remember we were struggling to capture the enormity of the wind turbines themselves for a cover shot, so we hiked a mile or so out into the surrounding mountains and took a zoom shot with a couple employees on between us and the turbines: voila! Magic! A great cover shot and an amazing experience.
- As a dog lover (and cats!), it was a treat for me to do a series of stories on the LAFD and LAPD Service Dogs. We worked with LAFD Capt. Deresa Teller, who had brought LAFD cadaver dogs to work in the aftermath of the Twin Towers terrorist attack in New York City, on several of our stories. Recording that terrible event in our own pages was special.
- I’ll also never forget the cover shot of the late Paul Blount and the story of his mulch program, nor his stories of being a Special Forces Operative during the Vietnam war.
- In 2011, Robert Larios became the Sports Dude, creating the Club’s first-ever all-City sports program. Today it is run by our Noelle Kauffman, and still going strong as it returns from a temporary shutdown due to the pandemic.
- And then there is Doug Scarborough, an Airport Police Officer who made his first attempt climbing Mt. Everest in 2012. Then, he summited in 2013. But get this, he took an Alive! with him and got a selfie photo with it. But he didn’t just take a ripped-out cover, he took the entire 54-page Alive! Thanks Doug!
- And what an honor to interview Laura Biggie, the City’s first female Plumbing Training Officer. We even sat in one of her classes so we could see her in action. Thanks, Laura, for the memories!
- Iguana in a garage! This was another exciting ride-along, but this time with Animal Services. Incredible.
- For years we tried to catch Capt. Michael Barnes, Harbor, for a story, and finally got our chance in the October 2018 issue. He was famous for being the Captain of the City’s tour boat the Angelina II, a lost relic that carried many memories. I still keep in touch with the Captain as he travels around the world in retirement, and he writes a monthly travel column for Alive!
- Being a Veteran myself, it was a real joy every year to interview fellow Veterans for our special July issue. One of our World War II Combat Veterans just passed away, Joe Govea. I attended Joe’s funeral and presented his widow with the actual newspaper that featured Joe. What an honor it was to be able to tell Joe’s story as well as the other Veterans we interviewed.
- I am still in awe regarding one of the boldest cover shots. We were doing a story on LADWP Linemen and our Sales Manager/Alive! reporter and photographer Angel Gomez wanted to get a “top-down” shot of two LADWP Linemen working at the top of a pole. So what did he do? He got in a cherry picker and rose above them all and got the incredible shot!
- As I am thinking about it, I want to give a big shout-out to Eric Robles at General Services. For more than 30 years he has been “Oz.” pulling all the strings behind the scenes in creating the department’s special events. People knew that if they want to get something done, Eric is the guy to call. Thanks for all your help over the years, Eric!
- And then there is Dr. Ed Krupp, the world-renowned and respected Director of Griffith Observatory (he’s worked at the Observatory for something like 50 years!). We did two stories on him, with detailed interviews. Gracious, kind, and always fun to talk to, he had an amazing ability to take extremely complicated astrophysical concepts and realities, and help us understand them. He even gave us a personal tour of the incredible restoration of the Observatory when it was almost finished. As far as I know, we were the first to publish pictures of the restoration. That was a real moment for Alive!
- I’ll never forget Mr. Los Angeles, the greatest Councilman of all time, who also happens to have been a former City Employee, the aforementioned Tom LaBonge. Five minutes, well maybe fewer, into our first formal interview with him, he got an urgent message from one of his staff that there was a house fire in his district. First words out of his mouth were: “Come with me, guys!” And off we went, crammed into his staff car with cameras in hand covering every aspect of who Tom really was, a man of action, compassion, and the will of steel. Tom was also incredibly attentive on the day Howard Pompel died (see above). On that day, we closed our doors and gathered as a staff to grieve. There was an incessant knocking; it was Tom, delivering flowers. No one had told him we lost Howard. No one told him what we were going through. He just knew. He was a special man.
- The LADWP’s Snow Survey Team. We drove to Mammoth, never once thinking about how we would get to the survey location until we saw the Snow Cats, the snow tracking vehicles. That was absolutely amazing.
- Our series of eight features on the LAPD Crime Lab, which connected me to my father’s career at the Sheriff’s Office. The LAPD used that series informally as an introduction to the Crime Lab for all its new hires. That was quite an honor.
- Hurricane Katrina featured many City employees sent by the Federal Government for Urban Search and Rescue duties. And the Alive! team was all over it – we produced very nearly 100 pages (in one month!) to cover this huge and important story.
- And so many, many others: the cargo ship interdiction … the Hoover Dam LADWP Yard … I will never finish telling all the stories.
I give great thanks to the original believers and founders of the Club:
Andrew Virzi Jr.
I am delighted that as I hand the reins to Robert, I will continue on as Club Founder and Training Officer, forming new Club hires to work toward our true goal, celebrating your lives. The overwhelming sense of gratitude of serving Club Members is the real joy that I will take with me. Taking care of your financial stability with insurance … celebrating your births … grieving your deaths … honoring your years of serving Los Angeles … and letting me help take care of you – that’s what it has all been about. Thank you, thank you.
Path and Pledge
Robert Larios, now President and CEO of LACEA and the Employees Club of California, addresses the moment.
By Robert Larios
As the sun sank behind the majestic mountains, stretching its shadows over the lush citrus and avocado farms of Pauma Valley, California, I found myself reminiscing about my childhood in a tiny agriculture town on the edge of San Diego County’s rich farming heritage. It was there, as a wide-eyed Mexican immigrant with big dreams, that my journey to where I am today began.
Back in the day, my sisters and I would hold fancy “board meetings” at the dining table, dreaming big dreams. We imagined an unstoppable factory, churning out mysterious goodies from its magical smokestacks. You see, living on a lonely farm without cable TV meant we had to get creative to keep ourselves entertained. But surprisingly, my true passion wasn’t factories – it was all about the fascinating world of people!
As I assume the role of CEO at both the Employees Club of California and the Los Angeles City Employees Association, I reflect on the path that brought me here. It’s a path marked with invaluable lessons, mentorship, growth and a succession plan years in the making. My story begins with my parents, Rafael and Carmen Larios, who raised me and my three younger sisters on a farm in San Diego County. They carried me across the perilous Mexican border into America when I was just one year old. They risked everything for the promise of a better life – a chance for a slice of the American dream.
My American journey began in 1976 in Pauma Valley. As a young immigrant boy, I dreamed of success, happiness, contributing positively to society, and leading a meaningful life. Today, I realize that these dreams would have remained just that without the support from my support network.
Here are some of those people:
My wife Patricia, the guiding star in my life.
My parents, Rafael and Carmen Larios. My sisters Ana, Norma and Patty.
Verne and Joyce Maynard, RIP.
My mentor Bud Bradford and my second mom, Penny, RIP. I miss you both so very much.
Heather & Nels Ortlund, Bradford Ortlund, Robert Ortlund, and Sumner Ortlund.
All my teachers at Pauma Valley Elementary School.
My 8th grade teacher Sherman Johnson (RIP), his wife Susan Johnson and their children – Michael, Matthew, and Jamie.
All my fellow alumni and alumnae I was honored to meet at Pauma School, including Tyler Allison, Brad Bradford, Jonathan Burgos and Brad Thompson.
All my fellow alumni and alumnae I was honored to meet at Fallbrook Union High School.
All my fellow alumni and alumnae I was honored to meet at the University of Southern California, including Paul Cicala, Enrique Diaz, Mario Perez and Reymundo Trejo.
All my professors and administrative staff at the University of Michigan and the University of Michigan – Stephen M. Ross School of Business.
All my fellow alumni and alumnae at the University of Michigan – Stephen M. Ross School of Business, EMBA19-Los Angeles. In my experience, the most influential figures in my success story are not only supportive family, friends and mentors, but also those who provided honest feedback and encouragement during discouraging moments. Their influence is immeasurable.
The LACEA and Club staff I’ve known from day one – your hard work continues to impact Members and society to this day. You never cease to inspire me. Thank you.
To the Board Members, past and present, thank you for your support, mentorship, empathy and leadership.
And Now to John Hawkins
I began my career here 26 years ago under the guidance of our former CEO, John Hawkins. He wasn’t just a boss – he was a mentor, guide and friend. He believed in my abilities and supported my personal and growth, setting the stage for my journey within the organization. His forward-thinking led to a well-thought-out succession plan, ensuring the organization’s success for years to come. As part of this plan, I made the decision to attend the prestigious University of Michigan – Ross School of Business, known for its world-class MBA program. Remember the Discount King, the Sports Dude, and Chef Larios? These vibrant personas that took over the pages of Alive! and other marketing materials were part of the strategic plan. It’s all part of the master plan! This entire transition was carefully crafted to ensure a seamless handover and the continued success of our mission. And first-rate customer service, too, of course. It’s a case study that business schools should take note of.
This entire transition was carefully crafted to ensure a seamless handover and the continued success of our mission. And first-rate customer service, too, of course.
— John Hawkins, Club Founder and Training Officer
On a lighter note, the tie I donned for the cover photo bears a sentimental value. It is the same one I wore when I first interviewed with John.
Before executive coaches became mainstream, John served as my executive coach, guiding me through the intricacies of leadership. Together, we identified critical focus areas, built strong rapport with staff and Members, and fostered a culture of mutual respect and collaboration. We understood that our employees were our greatest asset and invested in their growth and development. We also recognized that the trust and satisfaction of our Members were paramount to our success, and worked relentlessly to meet and exceed their expectations.
I ask that each of you take a moment to thank John Hawkins. He is a visionary leader, innovator and a champion of integrity. How do I know? I worked side by side with John for 25 years, and in those years, I witnessed his unparalleled ascent from middle management to becoming the first Chief Operating Officer and then the second Chief Executive Officer in the 95-year history of the organization. He had charismatically transformed a dormant $3 million company into a bustling and innovative $35 million industry leader – yielding a 900 percent return on investment within 23 years. Through navigating intensely difficult leadership decisions, he spearheaded a strategic campaign that boosted the membership base by more than 350 percent during this time as well. He could have chosen to lead any other private or public firm but found profound satisfaction in rolling up his sleeves and witnessing firsthand the impact he made on his company employees, Board of Directors, business partners, customers, and the communities he served throughout California and the rest of the country.
A Pledge of Service
As I stand on the cusp of this new chapter, I am reminded of those early dreams forged in Pauma Valley. The factories of my dreams may have been replaced by people and their potential, but the ambition remains the same. I am committed to leveraging this opportunity to serve our employees and members better and to continue the legacy of service and excellence that defines our organization.
As I embark on this new leadership role, feelings of gratitude for the journey so far and anticipation for what is yet to come fill me. The lessons from our past have paved the way, and the vision for our future shines brightly.
To our devoted staff, I affirm that our collective journey is merely at its dawn. The legacy of mentorship and personal development, which has been a foundational pillar of our organization, will continue under my stewardship. Your growth, innovative ideas and well-being remain at the forefront of my priorities.
To our respected Members, I extend my heartfelt appreciation for your enduring trust in us. As we advance, our pursuit of excellence, guided by serving your needs and expectations, will not waver. Our pledge to provide exceptional service and deliver unparalleled value is stronger than ever.
While the transition may present novel challenges, it simultaneously uncovers fresh opportunities. United, we will steer through this invigorating chapter, leveraging our shared history while eagerly anticipating a future filled with continued growth and prosperity. Our journey thus far stands as a testament to the transformative power of mentorship, strategic planning, and collaboration, and I am thrilled to guide our organizations into the next phase of our narrative.
As we flip to a new page, let us bear in mind that each conclusion heralds a fresh start. Here’s to a seamless transition and the commencement of a new chapter in our shared journey.
BEHIND THE SCENES
Club COO Summy Lam photographs John Hawkins and Robert Larios for this month’s cover story on the completion of the LACEA succession plan.