Adriana Cisneros becomes CEO of the Cisneros Group, a multilatina pioneer that is expected to focus more on technology.
BY JOACHIM BAMRUD
Last week’s appointment of Adriana Cisneros as CEO of the Cisneros Group of Companies represents several milestones. She is the third generation Cisneros to take the helm of the global media conglomerate. And the first woman. Last, but not least, the appointment had been expected for some time and represents a model transition of a Latin American family company.
“I am very proud to appoint Adriana as Cisneros’s CEO,” Cisneros Chairman Gustavo Cisneros tells Latinvex. “While the succession has been a natural step, this was a process that was well organized and properly planned. During the past seven years, Adriana has been preparing for this moment, and in her role as Vice Chairman and Director of Strategy, she has more than demonstrated this… I am sure this is the right moment and under her leadership Cisneros will continue to explore new paths, and with the support of a great legacy and the ideal team, she’ll successfully confront any challenge.”
The appointment has been well-received by close observers of the company. “She is a talented leader who has been preparing for this job for a long time,” says Moises Naim, a senior associate in Carnegie’s International Economics Program who served as Venezuela’s trade and industry minister in the 1990s.
The Cisneros Group owns or holds interests in more than 30 companies that combined serve 550 million customers in over 100 countries. Its businesses range from broadcast television, television production, Internet ad sales and telecommunications to real estate. Although Venezuelan in origin, the Cisneros Group now has its headquarters in Miami.
The 33-year old Adriana Cisneros started working at the Cisneros Group in 2006 and since 2010 she served as Vice Chairman and Director of Strategy. “Over that time period she has taken significant decisions such as the creation and development of an Internet strategy while supporting her father in the restructuring exercise of the Cisneros Group,” says Beatrice Rangel, CEO of AMLA Consulting and a former vice president at the Cisneros Group.
Gustavo Cisneros will continue in his role of Chairman, while Steven Bandel – the CEO of the Cisneros Group the past four years – will serve as Co-Chairman. Adriana calls Bandel “a great CEO who will continue as a member of my team of advisors.”
As CEO, Adriana Cisneros will focus on continued global expansion. “We are consolidating our global expansion, our incursion in the digital world, and our real estate development,” she tells Latinvex.
Cisneros plans to focus on four strategic pillars. First, consolidating new methods of distributing content while continuing to be a leader as an integrated multiplatform production company, spearheading the development of original content for Hispanic markets.
Second, diversifying risk with the creation of new business divisions and focusing on her three newest divisions. Third, investing in innovation by identifying entrepreneurial digital projects in the region, and exploring new ways of doing business. And fourth, having a dedicated vision to Corporate Social Responsibility.
As Director of Strategy, she oversaw the transformation of television programming into 360° concepts, via digital strategies.
“Over the past few years we have converted our television content into 360° concepts with digital strategies, allowing us to get even closer to our audiences and offer them better experiences through the different platforms,” Adriana Cisneros says.
She was responsible for the creation in 2011 of Cisneros Interactive, the company’s digital media division, focused on mobile and online advertising networks, e-commerce, social gaming, and crowd-funding. She is a private investor in NXTP Labs, an acceleration program that invests in Spanish-speaking technology startups that are pursuing global or regional opportunities.
Cisneros is betting big on digital advertising. Last year, it created RedMas, an online advertising network with 60 million unique users in Latin America and the U.S. Hispanic market and the exclusive representative of Yahoo! in Venezuela and Peru. In September RedMas acquired Argentine online advertising company Kontextua. Then in January this year, Cisneros acquired Adsmovil, the largest mobile ad network to serve the Hispanic community in the United States and Latin America in both Spanish and Portuguese.
Meanwhile, in April the Cisneros Group announced a $20 million investment in in Mobly, Brazil’s leading home furnishings webstore and part of Rocket Internet’s corporate portfolio. Mobly boasts more than 6 million visits per month after less than two years in operation.
Last year, the Cisneros Group also formed a partnership with Colombia-based Cuponidad to launch its online offer of services, products and travel packages at discounts in Venezuela. The Cisneros Group has also invested in Idea.me, a crowdfunding website that covers Latin America, and Queremos, a fans-funding site for concerts and events.
“Adriana Cisneros [is] quite savvy about the changing media landscape as the proportion of our lives that evolves within cyber space,” Rangel says. “This is key to a successful development strategy for entertainment services. As a conspicuous member of the pre generation C demographics, Adriana understands the entertainment cum information and education needs of our days which increasingly rely on cyber services to fulfill needs and aspirations in these areas.”
In April, Variety magazine included her among the 50 most influential New Yorkers who are currently revitalizing entertainment through constant innovation into the digital arena, through social media, mobile game apps and interactive television content strategy. “As a key exec of one of the largest media congloms in the world, the 81-year-old Cisneros Group of Companies, Ivy League-educated Adriana Cisneros has worked alongside her father, company chairman Gustavo Cisneros, to bring the Venezuelan conglom into the digital arena, adroitly tapping social media, mobile game apps and creating an interactive strategy for the company’s TV programs,” Variety said.
Adriana Cisneros also established the real estate division anchored by Tropicalia, a $2 billion sustainable tourism development in the Dominican Republic that is expected to create 14,000 jobs. She has frequently visited the project, including schools financed by the Tropicalia Foundation.
“Tropicalia is one of the four fundamental pillars of my strategic business plan,” Adriana Cisneros says. “It is one of the Cisneros’s most ambitious projects serving as the launch pad of our new real estate division. Just as I have been doing from the start, I will continue to work very closely with both the business unit team at our corporate offices and the team in the Dominican Republic to consolidate the project and its potential.”
Tropicalia is scheduled to open in 2016 with a Four Seasons Hotel and Tom Doak golf course. A second property, developed together with Auberge Resorts, is planned for a mid-2017 launch.
Multicultural and cosmopolitan from birth, Adriana seems to embody her grandfather’s original concept of “crosspollination” – that is the interaction of many different talents in developing any successful initiative, says Antonio Herrera-Vaillant, executive director of the Inter-American Competitiveness Experience Network. “In her case, she can provide a fluent and integrated approach that blends information, education and culture into new forms of communication that mutually strengthen each of these fields,” he says.
The Cisneros Group’s key asset is Venevision, a Venezuelan broadcaster that exports soap operas worldwide, including such far-way markets as Iran and Afghanistan. Its foreign partners include China Central Television.
In the United States, the Cisneros Group provides Univision, the top Spanish-language broadcaster, with 40 percent of its content. One example: The Eva Luna soap opera, which drew 9.7 million viewers to its finale on Univision in April 2011. It became the second-most-watched program in the United States in the coveted 9 p.m. time slot and the highest-rated domestically produced telenovela in history, according to the Cisneros Group. Cisneros previously owned a stake in Univision and played a key role in its recent success among US Hispanics.
Cisneros also owns the Miss Venezuela pageant, which is broadcast in more than 20 countries in part due to its successful track record for ultimately producing the most Miss Worlds of any country (winning six times since 1951, most recently in 2011 with Ivian Sarcos.)
Meanwhile, in a joint venture with investment fund Hicks, Muse, Tate & Furst and Latin American Internet company El Sitio, the Cisneros Group owns Claxson Interactive Group, which broadcasts content from Playboy TV to Latin America.
Cisneros also owns Cerveceria Regional, the second-largest brewery and beer distributor in Venezuela; Pueblo, one of the leading supermarket chains in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands; Venezuelan beauty products manufacturer Laboratorios FISA; Venezuelan travel agency SAECA, Venezuelan communications company Americatel and a stake in Venezuelan baseball team Los Leones.
Privately held, the Cisneros Group doesn’t publish annual sales numbers, but according to Bloomberg it posted 2010 revenues of $1.5 billion and employs 8,000 people.
“Cisneros is benefiting from a period of high growth potential in both the expansion into new markets and the diversification of its business divisions,” Adriana Cisneros says.
A FEMALE CEO
The appointment of Adriana Cisneros is expected to provide a boost to those advocating more female heads of companies in Latin America.
“The appointment of Adriana Cisneros as CEO of such an important Group is excellent and very important for women in Latin America and frankly globally,” says Susan Segal, President and CEO of the Council of the Americas/Americas Society, which includes major corporations that do business in Latin America. “Adriana has become a role model for women throughout Latin America. Her leadership and achievements sets a standard for young women to follow. She is an important example of a woman who has been able to do it all: a very successful career, now a CEO, a wife and a mother. …A very important role model in a region where it is challenging to find female CEO’s of global companies.”
Carmen Gonzalez-Sanfeliu, a Venezuelan who serves as Vice President for Latin America and Caribbean for Intelsat, the world’s largest provider of fixed satellite services, agrees. “Gustavo Cisneros has made a clear “statement” to not only continue to keep his organization within his family, but he also bestowed one of his most important business decisions in the hands of a young Hispanic woman, setting a tone for all upcoming professional women who aspire to reach their highest level of success,” she says. “This decision is coming from a very successful business and entrepreneur who is known to take very well thought-out and calculated risks. Gustavo Cisneros determined Adriana was the best leader. What more significant message than this?”
However, even before her appointment as CEO, she was considered one of Latin America’s top businesswomen.
“That Adriana Cisneros is a woman is obviously significant, but not as surprising as it used to be,” Naim says. “While women are still under-represented in the ranks of top management, it is also true that in recent years, the number of female corporate leaders has increased. Adriana will be part of a still small but growing group.”
Rangel believes Adriana’s gender is actually a plus. “While corporate culture has imposed a thinking that leadership is gender neutral, I think empirical evidence destroys such tenet,” she says. “Indeed it will suffice to observe the salient features of Margaret Thatcher’s and Angela Merkel’s land marking leadership styles and compare them to those of William Clinton or Tony Blair to realize that gender does make a difference. As the first woman to head the Cisneros Group, Adriana will certainly bring to the table her negotiation skills; the strength of her character and the vision from a demographics that is increasingly becoming a significant target for entertainment services: women entrepreneurs.”
In the end, Herrera-Vaillant believes her talent rather than gender will be key. “Although absolutely female and feminine, I sincerely doubt she will measure her accomplishments in terms of gender, but rather as a very well trained human being, executive and team leader,” he says.
The appointment of Adriana as CEO clearly represents a good example of a smooth transition within a family business, thanks to the close relation with her father.
“Their outstandingly close relationship is sure to provide for a very smooth transition as a natural consequence of something for which Adriana has been training for several years, following a long standing family tradition,” Herrera-Vaillant says.
It comes after years of preparation. “Adriana has not only been exposed to the nuts and bolts of the entertainment services since her childhood but carefully groomed for this job at least over the past seven years,” Rangel says.
Naim echoes that view. “For a long time Gustavo Cisneros had made clear that Adriana was going to be the leader of the Group,” he says. “He also announced that a transition –which included Adriana’s exposure to the different facets and business units of the company– was under way. In this process she was working very closely with CEO Steve Bandel. I know that this was a carefully planned succession and I also know that Adriana has been working very hard in recent years.”
In an interview with Bloomberg in June 2011, Adriana revealed that she had thought she would work at the company when she was 40, not 25. “When I saw my brother didn’t want to take the position that he was groomed for, out of sense of duty I said let’s do it sooner than later,” she said.
Her brother Guillermo handles the Cisneros family finances.
Despite Adriana’s passion and unique background, she has her work cut out for her, starting with the comparison with her father. “She knows that she has big shoes to fill,” Naim says.
Adriana Cisneros acknowledges as much. “My greatest challenge will be to continue leading the company’s growth at the fast pace my father did,” she says. “His extraordinary ability to almost immediately envision the potential of a business deal was the key to success for this company.”
And it is no small legacy Gustavo leaves behind as day-to-day manager of the Cisneros Group. “Gustavo Cisneros… led the Cisneros Group from one of Venezuela’s great companies to one of the world’s great ones,” Dileep Rao, a professor in management and international business at Florida International University, wrote in a Forbes column this week.
Long before the phrase multilatina was coined or globalization was in fashion, Gustavo Cisneros turned the Venezuelan company into a global powerhouse.
While Jorge Lemann and his Brazilian 3G capital has raised eyebrows for its recent purchases of three symbols of Americana (Budweiser beer, Heinz ketchup and Burger King), the Cisneros group owned Spalding, which invented the first basketball in 1895 and remained the world’s top basketball maker for years, for more than a decade – from 1984 to 1996.
While Mexican mogul Carlos Slim has been in the news for his recent attempts at buying a European telecom company (Dutch-based KPN), Cisneros bought Galerias Preciados, one of Spain’s top retail chains, 30 years ago — in 1983.
“At a time when most Venezuelan — and indeed Latin American — business leaders were concentrating in their home markets, Gustavo Cisneros pursued a bold international expansion,” Naim says.
In the 1970s and 1980s multinationals were almost exclusively a developed-country phenomenon; very few companies based in poor countries operated abroad, he points out.
“The concept of emerging markets had not been coined and globalization was far from being the common idea that it is today,” Naim says. “Protectionism and barriers to international trade and investment were rampant. In this context Gustavo Cisneros used his group’s base in Venezuela to pursue business opportunities abroad and infused his company with a strong international orientation. In this sense he is undoubtedly a pioneer.”
Gustavo became CEO of the Cisneros company in 1968 at the young age of 23. However, he was still older than his father Diego when he founded the Cisneros group in 1931 at the age of 20. Diego had started out his career by acquiring a trucking company two years earlier. During the subsequent years, Diego expanded the company into auto repair parts, ice cream production, soft drink bottling and TV broadcasting.
Gustavo is credited with taking the legacy of his father and expanding it strongly both at home and abroad.
“Growth is undoubtedly an outstanding accomplishment of Gustavo’s leadership of the Cisneros Group since he took over from his father … at a very young age, and multiplied their dimensions exponentially in a very short time, breaking fully into the multinational arena, and joining the big leagues of global business,” says Herrera-Vaillant, who ran the Venezuelan-American Chamber of Commerce for 16 years during the 1990-2006 period. “Vision, agility, flexibility and boldness also come to mind as he took his group into ever expanding and evolving areas of business, always seeking and identifying opportunities and synergies that could bring growth, strength and experience to the organization. But I would also add focus, because it is my belief that – even as he led the group into several fields and took on new challenges in completely different areas – his underlying focus and core interest seem consistently inspired in an unwavering faith in the unlimited potential of combined media, information and technology, starting from a platform of local television and escalating into all of the stunning range of new options that are now available and that will continue to multiply in the future.”
In 1984 Cisneros acquired Spalding & Evenflo companies. Spalding was one of the top sports equipment producers in the world (especially in basketball and golf), while Evenflo is a manufacturer of infant and toddler car seats, gates, and bathing products. The company was sold to KKR in 1996. In 1996, the Cisneros group created a joint venture with Hughes Electronics to bring DirecTV to Latin America, and two years later a joint venture with AOL to bring that brand to Latin America.
While Gustavo Cisneros often resold assets he had acquired – mostly at a hefty profit – he did not purchase at a whim. Instead, he spent considerable time to prepare for the purchases in cases like Univision, Rao points out.
“Gustavo has been a visionary leader transforming the Group into what it is today,” Segal says.
Asked about what he himself considers his key legacy, Gustavo Cisneros tells Latinvex: “Primarily, having bolstered Cisneros’s international expansion, thanks to a strategy based on diversification and synergy, was one of my greatest achievements. Even during the seventies, I had a clear vision of where we were going, and we started laying down the foundation that would allow us to take the decisive step of becoming an authentic multinational company in the eighties.”
The period started with the acquisition of the American Bottling (ABB) in 1981, the Cisneros Group’s first experience in LBO [leverage buy-out], a phenomenon that would change the face of Wall Street forever, and the purchase of AAB reflected that transformation, he points out. “One by one, Spalding, Evenflo, Galerías Preciados were added to our portfolio. Of course, one of our most successful operations was the purchase of Univision in 1992, which we later sold in 2007.”
Over the years, the Cisneros group also has attracted some of Venezuela’s top talent. In addition to Rangel (who had served as chief of staff of President Carlos Andres Perez) they include people like Jose Antonio Rios, Chairman and CEO of Celistics, and Eduardo Hauser, who served as executive vice president for AOL Latin America for six years before founding news generator DailyMe in 2005 and ran it until its sale to ePals in 2011. Rios, a former high ranking executive with Telefonica and Global Crossing, spent 13 years as corporate vice president at the Cisneros Group before continuing to work indirectly with Cisneros as CEO of DirecTV Latin America. Hauser worked as Managing Director of the Cisneros companies for more than a decade after starting out as an intern while studying law in Caracas.
Although Gustavo Cisneros no longer will be involved in the details of the day to day operations, he is expected to continue working closely with Adriana on strategy. “He most certainly will continue to provide vision and strategy inputs to the group’s development,” Rangel says.
And, not to be underestimated: Providing a “Golden Rolodex” of key contacts worldwide. During the past 45 years he has built an impressive roster of friendships and relationships with a Who’s Who of political and business leaders around the world, including the elder and junior Presidents Bush, Henry Kissinger, Mexican mogul Carlos Slim, the late Italian mogul Gianni Agnelli and the two wealthiest people in the United States, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett.
He has often used those contacts to help promote ideas such as free trade and better education in Latin America.
“Gustavo’s legacy is also one of Hemispheric leadership,” Segal says. “He sees and understands the opportunities and challenges that face the region not just as a businessman but as a statesman. That makes him very unique.”
However, Gustavo Cisneros emphasizes that Adriana will be running the company. “I am a firm believer of the right of the younger generation to do things their own way,” he tells Latinvex. “As the second generation, I worked with what my father left me and lead the company through a period of successful international expansion. Now, it’s Adriana’s turn. She has accepted the family legacy. She has embraced the principles and values we have instilled in her wholeheartedly and instinctively. She has started her executive career on the right foot and she has a very clear and innovative vision as to where the company should continue to expand.”
FEARLESS AND PROFESSIONAL
Adriana Cisneros will likely resemble her father in key ingredients for a thriving leadership such as understanding of a multicultural world; size and density of networks and talent to produce successful content, Rangel says.
Gustavo adds another trait that both he and Adriana have. When explaining to Forbes columnist Rao why he chose Adriana as his successor, he responded: “Because I am fearless, and she is the same.”
Gonzalez-Sanfeliu remembers meeting Adriana Cisneros three years ago at an event in Miami. “You could immediately tell that Adriana was indeed going to end up being the new head of the Cisneros long run family empire by how comfortable and professional her demeanor was,” she says. “She has a distinct presence about her.”
However, Adriana Cisneros will also likely set her mark by focusing more on technology. “While her father Gustavo will continue to provide his vision to the Cisneros Group Development; the enterprise led by Adriana will most probably become a stronger player in cyber space,” Rangel says.
In the interview with Latinvex, Adriana Cisneros expressed her passion for technology. “In my new role as CEO I will continue working on the plan developed as head of strategy spearheading our endeavors in the digital world,” she says. “The most fascinating thing for me is how to conceive new successful businesses that are at the forefront of technological developments and still satisfy the present needs of the general public as this impacts their means of communication. I am really passionate about anticipating how all the pieces of the puzzle come together in order to identify and integrate new acquisitions and platforms. That is why I established Cisneros Interactive, a business division that integrates everything digital, which at the moment includes ad networks, social gaming and e-commerce, and it will be the force behind of our new strategic developments.”
This is the second time in its history that the Cisneros Group selects the right leader to guide it through a corporate transition, Rangel points out. “First was when Mr Diego Cisneros passed the mantle to Gustavo his son,” she says. “Now Adriana will further its globalization.”
Segal concurs: “Gustavo has shown great judgment and leadership in choosing Adriana.”
Adriana Cisneros herself is bullish on the outlook for the company she now leads: “We have a great future ahead of us,” she says.
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Spanish version on Venevision
Gustavo Cisneros: Now It’s Adriana’s Turn
Adriana Cisneros: Passionate About Technology