When he delivered the commencement address at the University of Miami’s School of Business Administration and College of Engineering on May 12, Gustavo A. Cisneros began his speech by quoting someone he described as “a great Miami businessman and, in many ways, the poet of our time.”
“ ‘Ask for money ... and get advice. Ask for advice ... get money twice.’ Yes, I wanted to be the first graduation speaker to quote Pitbull,” Cisneros said, delighting the crowd of 700 UM graduates.
Cisneros, who also received an honorary doctorate in humanities from UM that day, was smiling too. As chairman of the family business he took over from his father, Diego, in Caracas in the late 1960s, he has grown Grupo Cisneros into one of the biggest media conglomerates in the world. The company moved its headquarters from Venezuela’s capital to Coral Gables in 2000.
The company currently owns or holds interests in more than 30 companies in 90 countries, including Venevisión, the largest TV network in Venezuela; a film and TV studio that is largest independent producer of Spanish-language programming in the U.S. and Latin American markets; Cisneros Media, which distributes entertainment content globally; a real estate development firm currently building Tropicalia, a luxury resort in the Dominican Republic; and an interactive division that has acquired and grown digital advertising startups.
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Cisneros also became a billionaire in 2007, when he and his partners sold a little company they had acquired in 1992 for $500 million. That company — Univision, which has since become the largest Spanish-language TV network in the U.S. — sold for $12.3 billion to a consortium of investors.
In 2013, Cisneros handed the CEO reins of his company to his youngest daughter, Adriana, who currently oversees its day-to-day operations. The pair will discuss their business at a keynote fireside chat on Monday during the 2017 eMerge Americas conference.
Cisneros remains active as the company’s chairman and has funded various nonprofit, philanthropic and cultural endeavors with his wife, Patricia Phelps de Cisneros.
Cisneros sat down with the Herald for an interview at his company’s Coral Gables headquarters in May.
Q: You are one of the featured speakers at the eMerge Americas conference this week, along with your daughter Adriana. Why is that conference important?
A: Anything I can do for Miami, and a group like eMerge, which is going to put money and brains and work into the city, I’m happy to help. The entire world is becoming totally connected and wired, and the United States is going to have a major advantage, because this is the country where most of the creators are or want to come. Miami can play a major role in that. What we’re trying to do with this conference is to make the city as viable or as important as Silicon Valley. Can we do that? We should try. Miami has a lot of advantages. Banking is already here. Venture capital is coming in now. I know I sound like a Miami booster. But I am, always!
Q: You also delivered the commencement address at University of Miami. Do you get asked to do a lot of those?
A: Yes. Normally I would have said no. But this one hit home for me. I have had a connection to the University of Miami for a long time. I’ve been lecturing there for 20 years. So I have a soft spot for that school. Many of our executives graduated from there. Plus the fact that it’s Miami, it’s education and it’s hemispheric brought all my interests together. Education is extremely important to me. Everything starts in grade school. We need much more investment in Miami’s education.
Q: You own one of the most successful media companies in the world. How do you see the state of media today, especially the news media?
A: There’s going to be more fragmentation. I think that’s good, because in an ultimate democracy, everything is flat and everyone is equal. When we ran Univision, we had a very dominant voice. We were the editors of what people consumed. But now, Univision is just one signal out of 50 or 100, so you get to be your own editor. You have to sift through all the false news and stuff like that. You take in all this information and then you make up your own mind. If companies don’t adapt to this new reality very quickly, they are going to disappear. You’re going to have a lot of nice TV stations up for sale for a dime.
Q: How has the role media plays in people’s lives changed?
A: Today’s media is basically social media. Our lives have become very expansive in the sense that there’s no geography, no limits. The tablet and the telephone is everyone’s connection to the world. And there are no borders. Every content producer will have to take advantage of social media. It’s happening already. Most of our company’s growth comes from social media now.
Q: The Spanish-language TV market in the U.S. has grown so much in the last five years. Who is doing a better job now, Univision or Telemundo?
A: Telemundo is doing a better job. They have a better handle on the Hispanic market, which is what we had before. They’re really doing everything: investing in new programming, new people, new facilities and a new vision. And they believe in their vision. The owners of Univision now are more financial players. That’s fine. But Univision is just one more activity they need to check on. They are very good people and I would like to have them as my partners. But not to run a business.
Q: What do you think about what’s happening with Miami’s real estate market? Is it maturing in a way different than before?
A: I’ll tell you what’s happening, because I know most of those players. They all have homes here. They’ve bought houses on Key Biscayne or South Beach. Before it wasn’t that way. They would go to Palm Beach or someplace else. Now they have homes here because they understand Miami. It takes a level of sophistication to understand Miami. Now they get it. Now they say ‘Let’s invest there.’ [Related Companies] had a lot to do with it, because they were the first big New York group to do it. But now all those guys have homes here. Real estate people are very envious, in the positive sense. When they see something going on, they want to do it too. That’s a powerful motivator. And Miami, as a city, cares about these people. They treat them well and the banks like it here.
Q: How about Miami’s identity as a city for business?
A: Miami has arrived. It’s the nexus of the Americas. It’s really the bridge between the United States and the rest of the world. People here are bilingual or trilingual. There are a lot of people from Germany and France who have relocated to Miami permanently because of business. Before we had people moving here for the weather. Now they are working here. When you look at the balance sheets of every important U.S. company — PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, Procter, the phone companies — most of their good profits are made in Latin America. There’s a growing realization that Latin America is the best market, and the best way for U.S. companies to operate in that market is from Miami. The connections are very good, and now you have quality of life too — the symphony, the museums, extremely good schools. If you’re searching for a good city, Miami makes more sense than Los Angeles. It’s too far. San Francisco is too expensive already. It’s priced out. Miami has a competitive edge.
Q: What kind of effect do you think President Donald Trump will have on business?
A: I’m very bullish on him. He’s a businessman and he’s surrounded by business people. The financial markets have read it that way. They are going through the roof in expectation of things he’s going to do. He has his own style and not everyone likes that style. But for business it’s very good. The feedback that I’m getting from bankers and people who handle finances is that they had initially had some doubts. But I think now the expectations are much bigger.
Q: How has the political instability in Venezuela impacted your company?
A: Our family lives in Miami. We are a strong family. We live in Miami because we want to live in a democracy and we believe in all the things America stands for. That’s what we want for Venezuela. We are always working to bring the American dream there. We need change and dialogue and peace and progress and democracy. Everything we do is geared toward achieving that there.
Q: When you think about your grandchildren, what worries you the most about the future?
A: I concentrate on the positive. I concentrate on making sure they have the best education possible, so they’re able to deal with problems. I’m not smart enough to figure out what problems they’ll be facing 20 or 30 years from now. What I know is that education is going to make a difference. They will be able to deal with climate change better than we have. We have not dealt with the issue because we were not prepared. We didn’t have the smarts or the inclination. I think these kids have it.
Current job title: Chairman of Cisneros
Personal: Married to Patricia Phelps de Cisneros, with whom he shares three children: Adriana, Carolina and Guillermo. Age: 72
Education: Bachelor’s degree in business administration, Babson College (cum laude).
Awards and honors: He received the Advertising Educational Foundation´s “Lifetime Achievement Award” for his contributions to the entertainment industry and the role of the Fundación Cisneros to improve education in Latin America. In December 2014, he received the Brandon Tartikoff Legacy Award from NATPE (National Association of Television Program Executives).
Charity work: Cisneros also sits on the board of directors of Barrick Gold Corporation, where he is a member of the International Advisory Board and Compensation Committee, as well as chair of its Corporate Governance and Nominating Committee. He is senior advisor for RRE Ventures LLC; charter member of the United Nations Information and Communication Technologies Task Force; and member of the Advisory Committee for the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies at Harvard University.