Content Guy's Note: "The MNB Interview" is designed to engage with business thought leaders who I like and respect, and who have something to say. It will run each workday from July 1-12, while I am on holiday, and has a simple format. I posed to each of the interviewees the same 13 questions and requested that they answer at least 10 of them; I told them that their answers could be as short or long as they wished, and as serious or irreverent as they liked. What I was looking for was a window into how they think and feel.
Today's MNB Interview features Gerardo "Gerry" Lopez, President/CEO, AMC Entertainment.
I have to think that I am one of Gerry Lopez's best customers. Twenty to 25 times a year, I drive from my home in Connecticut past more than a dozen other movie screens to go to the AMC Loew's movie theaters in Port Chester, NY. I don't do it because Gerry has become a friend. I do it because the sound is better, the digital projection is flawless, and the seats are more comfortable. The only problem is the parking - on Saturday nights, the place is jammed. Which says good things about the theater complex.
Gerry Lopez has a fascinating and challenging job. At a time when there is so much competition for the consumer's free time and entertainment dollar, his company has to find ways to attract people to the movie theater. Part of the equation, of course, is the movie - it doesn't matter how state-of-the-art the theater is if you're showing The Lone Ranger. But the theater experience itself has to be terrific, and since coming over to AMC from Starbucks, where he was executive vice president, he's done a terrific job of guiding the company through this new technological frontier. And here's the other thing - Gerry Lopez is a really good guy.
The MNB Interview...
What's the most important thing you've learned in your career?
Gerry Lopez: That values matter.
A Harvard Business School professor [Tom Bonoma, I believe he went on to lead Reckitt Benckiser for a while] once, on the last day of class, shared this wisdom: “Always, friends, keep some ‘walk-away money’ around. Because in your careers more than once your values and your principles will be challenged. and when that happens, you better have some ‘walk-away money’”. Boy, was he ever right. Only wish he had shared that on the first day of class!
Over the years I have learned that my time, my energy and my effort are all for rent. Companies have, over the years, paid me for those. Sometimes they’ve even paid me well.
But my values, and integrity are not for sale. Whatever I do, the next morning, when I shave, the guy looking back at me from the mirror, I need to recognize him. If I don’t, it is time to stop the train and get off. Once compromised, values are very difficult if not impossible to recover. Do not ever compromise those. And be ready with that “walk away money”, for as Professor Tom said, let’s not be naïve enough to pretend your values won’t be challenged. They will. What you do when that happens says more about you, to you, than anything else.
Do not confuse any of this with legal or illegal, by the way. Those are the easy calls. In those instances, someone else already decided that was right or wrong. Values are about all those other times when waters are uncharted, the grey areas where the sun does not shine.
What's the biggest - and in retrospect, the most important - mistake that you've ever made, and how did you grow from it?
Gerry Lopez: So many… tough to pick one. I’ve launched products before they were ready for prime time; changed strategies and tactics at the wrong time, downsized when steady state would have been better, or expanded at just the wrong time.
But probably the biggest one I ever made was leaving one of my employers before it was really time. I had been with one or the other division of this great company almost a dozen years, but grew frustrated and then the entrepreneurial bug bit me. It was at a time when I was not happy with my career progression and felt like my ideas on the business were being ignored. Plus, I found myself for the first time in a dozen years working for someone who I really thought had nothing to contribute to my development or the business I was responsible for. So I jumped, pretty much at the first thing that came along that sounded reasonably entrepreneurial. That job lasted all of six months.
The lesson learned was to never run away from a job, that instead, it is infinitely better to run towards an opportunity. Those are not the same thing. I was frustrated, and I wanted out, and so I ran away. Towards some empty promises, as it turned out. I learned to pay much more attention to what one is running towards. I learned running towards opportunity is much more rewarding than running away from boredom or frustration.
What is the most significant thing you do each week, and why?
Gerry Lopez: Spend time with the front line performers in our business, at any level. Typically, the closer to the action they are, the better.
The front line performers in our business are those interacting with our guests on the one hand; and our suppliers on the other. Sourcing product from roughly two dozen major suppliers, we serve 200 million people a year in 335 buildings coast to coast. It takes 18,000+ people to take care of them. We start nearly 9 million movies a year, or about 24,000 each and every day. There’s a lot of action going on, and it is not hard to find, if one is paying attention.
Spending time with these folks is critical because in an almost thirty year career, I am hard pressed to come up with more than one or two examples were a good idea came from a brainstorming session or a meeting or some exercise sitting in the office or some offsite.
Instead, for me, good ideas seem to flow much better, much easier, when out in the field, interacting with our people who interact with customers, or interacting with customers themselves. There are few things more beautiful that a big theatre under load, with 20 or 24 or 30 screens all firing off within minutes of each other, and thousands of people coming and going, anxious to get to ‘their’ movie. If you cannot get excited about your business when your people and your customers are in front of each other, when systems are at the maximum capacity they were designed for, when processes are working, when people are performing… do yourself a favor and quit. No wait, maybe you’re doing us a favor when you quit.
What is the most irreplaceable or essential piece of technology you own, and why?
Gerry Lopez: My smartphone. With my even more irreplaceable assistant at her desk, I can run the company from anywhere on the planet if I have her and my smartphone. No joke. Ask any of my team. Somebody else is doing the analysis, looking forward to forecast, looking back to understand. I’m just communicating, connecting, coaching people and making decisions. The smartphone, and Julie, help me best with connections.
Kirk or Picard? And why do you prefer one's management/leadership style over the other's?
Gerry Lopez: Early in my career, Kirk. Hey, it was the 80s, ok? Kind of the wild, wild west. At least to those of us coming up during the last twenty of the twentieth.
But since the 2000s, Picard. Seriously, “you have the Bridge, #1;” “engage” and “make it so”… those are priceless. The mental gymnastics, the complexity of what he and his crew faced, “Next Generation” stands above the first series. Jean Luc is the more complete leader the 21st century requires. He was never afraid to unleash power, and fought the most formidable enemy - the Borg - from inside out… and won. Plus, Jean Luc enjoys a good wine. Any definition I know of “work-life balance” includes a decent glass of wine.
Who has been the most influential person in your business life, and why?
Gerry Lopez: My wife. She has a radar for people that is far superior to my own, or anyone I know. And she is grounded. Money, meeting celebrities, nice trips… of course we all enjoy those perks. But she is completely unimpressed by all of it. It’s not what defines us.
At the same time, I have been fortunate to have many mentors; starting at a very early stage with my corporate-trained father and entrepreneurial grandfather. And, over the years I have been fortunate to work for many leaders, some great, some less so. Along the way I managed to learn from all. Some thought me what to do and how to do it. I wanted to be like them. Others taught me how not to be. I learned what behaviors not to emulate.
The better leaders set targets, held me accountable, were part of my team (as opposed to me being part of theirs) and gave me freedom to develop my own style. They listened, gave me a chance to learn, let me decide and coached the whole way through. These leaders who influenced my career know who they are. To this day I am touch with many of them. I would work again for any of them at the drop of a hat.
Keenest insight (so far) from your life and/or career?
Gerry Lopez: Marry well. Save some money. Always keep some powder dry. Heck, always have powder. Figure out what really matters, and then chase it hard. Make no excuses. Don’t whine and don’t feel sorry for yourself. You’re wasting your time when you do that. Don’t compromise, lose, trade-in or otherwise shortchange your values.
When it comes to food, what is your greatest pleasure and your greatest weakness?
Gerry Lopez: Weakness? That I enjoy food too much. I do. And I enjoy all aspects of it… from sourcing to retailing, to preparing to… well, eating. I really enjoy a good meal with family and friends, at home, ideally. With a good bottle (or two… we’re home, remember?) of red wine. There is no greater joy than the company of good friends and family over a shared meal.
But, to be clear, I am very happy out on a farm, in the backroom of a store or the kitchen of a restaurant. The organized mayhem of a busy kitchen at dinner time is ballet to me. Harvest time on a farm? Busy, but fun. That’s where our business starts!
Most memorable meal? Where & what & why?
Gerry Lopez: Two of them. First, anytime I can persuade my wife into Spanish cooking at home. Simple to say, takes all day to prepare: gazpacho followed by paella. The tomatoes have to be just right. The seafood, fresh. The rice has to be short, bomba, from the old country, preferably, like the wine.
Second, and very recently, Adolfo Restaurante, in old Toledo, Spain. There was nothing that was not perfect about it. Every course, every wine pairing. Superbly prepared. They have been at it a long time, and it shows.
Favorite place to go to eat/drink, not your home?
Gerry Lopez: It’s not the place that makes it, it is the company.
That said, I’ll make one observation. The quality of restaurants in this country has advanced in remarkable ways over the last twenty years. It is now hard to imagine the days when traveling outside NY meant sticking to burgers or steak for fear of running into bland and boring. Today? We’re blessed. From Miami to Seattle and San Diego to Boston, there is not a city without three or four top notch dining experiences, in any number of cuisines and different price points.
What is the thing that you haven't yet done that you would most like to do?
Gerry Lopez: Take a month or two off and sail the Caribbean from one end to the other.
Other locations are more exotic, but they are not home. And other activities crowd my to-do list, but none are more relaxing and challenging, at the same time.
If you had to define the most important aspect of leadership, what would it be and why?
Gerry Lopez: IMHO, the most critical aspect of leadership is decision making. This goes by many names, from “priority setting” to “team building.” Those are mere plays on words. Decision making is what leadership is about. Having the courage to make them, the intellect to understand choices and consequences, the integrity to pick from the former and live with the latter. Decision making, plain and simple.
Friday: Senator Feargal Quinn.
- KC's View: