Business Monday

Adriana Cisneros: the new face of Cisneros Group

Adriana Cisneros is the mother of young children, wife of an author, daughter of a mogul and now CEO of one of the world’s most interesting and powerful global conglomerate. While she is comfortable in all of those roles, she still is adjusting to the last one.

In making that adjustment, a lot is a stake.

If all had gone according to plan, Cisneros said she would be running a news agency somewhere in the United States that would report on Latin America.

Instead, she now occupies the corner office of a Coral Gables office tower from which she runs the Cisneros Group, a family-owned, multibillion dollar media and real estate enterprise. Its programming spans more than 90 countries and five continents.

When Cisneros ascended to the role of CEO last month, she became the third generation to run the 87-year-old company founded in Venezuela by her grandfather, Diego Cisneros. Only 33, she is candid about the pressure that places on her to create a strategic vision and succeed: “In family businesses, the third generation is the one that ruins the business. I think there’s only a five percent survival rate. I want to be part of that five percent. Not only that, but I want to be able to hand over something to the fourth generation that is healthy, stable and strong.”

While it may seem like a risk to put a young woman with only eight years experience at the helm of a global empire with revenues of more than $1 billion, nothing has been left to chance.

As Cisneros settles into her new leather CEO chair, she takes the next step in a carefully orchestrated five-year preparation process that her father, Gustavo Cisneros, described as “meticulously organized and properly planned.”

The process included hands on mentoring and academic reinforcement. Although she has an undergraduate degree from Columbia University and a graduate journalism degree from New York University, experts identified her leadership weak spots and customized a nine-month Harvard MBA program to bolster her skills in those areas. She also received one-on-one tutoring in finance from a Harvard professor.

Of course, Cisneros’ education includes years of shadowing her father as a young child and seeing a possibility that she one day would take over. She joined the Cisneros Group as an employee much earlier than she had planned. She thought she would join in her 40s, but said she realized it needed to happen at age 25 when job interviews at media companies went nowhere after hiring executives discovered her family business.

For the past seven years, Cisneros had lived in New York and carved a strategic niche for herself by creating Cisneros Interactive, the company’s digital media division. She focused on getting into mobile and online advertising networks, e-commerce, social gaming, and crowd-funding. “There wasn’t a clear road map, so of course I went straight into innovation,” she explained. “I started pushing for digital strategy and we were able to make some pretty radical changes within the company in terms of content and how we were thinking about media.”

Cisneros said she experimented with digital initiatives in Venezuela where the company controls the full cycle of the TV experience from production to broadcast to marketing. Some early wins gave the top leaders confidence to give her latitude.

Cisneros said her father and Steven Bandel, the longtime CEO, thought she was ready to move on from digital strategy to the CEO position long before she did. Behind the scenes, Bandel privately had groomed her to take over his job: “From Steven I have learned that patience is a powerful virtue, that passion paired with discipline is a winning combination, that human capital is the most valuable asset in our company. Above all, he has shown me that as an organization, we thrive on challenge.”

The first challenge came immediately in the company structure. When she stepped up to become CEO, Cisneros said she realized that she couldn’t lead the company the way Bandel has structured it. “He spent 30 years at the company; he could manage it perfectly because he grew up in it,” she explained.

The company’s diversified businesses in Latin America, the United States and Canada range from broadcast television, television production, and telecommunications to consumer products, travel resorts and a 6,000 acre real estate endeavor in the Dominican Republic. It has interests in more than 30 businesses.

Now, those companies have been restructured into three corporate divisions — media, real estate and interactive —along with businesses in consumer products and services. Each division is headed by a president who reports to Cisneros:

“We got rid of the silos and unified the units that should have been working more in unison.”

It will be Cisneros’ job to steer the company into the future, a tricky proposition at a time when the way entertainment is produced and consumed is evolving and media has become an increasingly competitive business: “We will have to figure out how to provide the best experiences for Hispanic audiences here in the U.S., and that goes from looking at e-commerce projects to the way we produce TV shows.”

Investment in new media initiatives will be a priority, she said.

Ana Maria Fernández Haar, vice chair of the New America Alliance, an American Latino Business Initiative, said the Hispanic audience has become varied and more segmented with more of them wanting their English language proficiency addressed in the media they consume. That creates challenges and opportunities for a millennial CEO like Cisneros, she said. “She’s leading at the right time. She’s the right age, from the right background… I would not be surprised if she institutes changes immediately.” Haar thinks we have just seen the beginning of how technology will affect media and that Cisneros will have to be willing to take risks: “Many things will be tried and they will flop, and others will succeed.”

Bandel said Cisneros has proved she will take calculated risks. “She is a leader who dares to bet on sectors such as online advertising and digital e-commerce as well as real estate development.” At first glance, some of her initiatives seemed to be a deviation from the company’s core business, he said. “But under her leadership, they are becoming fundamental pillars of the organization.”

Expansion has long been an unpredictable, high-stakes game. Of course, so has maintaining status quo in an evolving industry. Cisneros’s biggest focus these days is managing a large business while growing it even larger. “The company has been growing at a very fast pace for a long period of time. All that growth was driven by the incredible ideas my father had and a great team that helped him executive them. I find that daunting,” she said. She argues that she has the big ideas but needs to focus more on the execution.

While that could be a colossal mandate, Gustavo Cisneros pointed out via email that his daughter already has developed new corporate divisions during her time at the company and worked to strengthen rapport between business strategies and corporate social responsibility.

Gustavo Cisneros said her greatest challenge will be “to establish her own mark, to find new ventures for expansion while building on the legacy that supports her, and to step beyond the shadows of those who stood before her.”

Those shadows loom large. Gustavo Cisneros, who remains as co-chair with Steven Bandel, was only 23 when he took over the company from his father in the late 1960s and built it over several decades from a family upstart into a Latin American media powerhouse. Charismatic and an artful negotiator, he became known for his slew of international deals and forays into myriad sectors.

Many consider his most notable coup to be the sale of the company’s interests in U.S. Spanish-language TV network Univision to a private equity consortium led by U.S. billionaire Haim Saban for $13.7 billion in 2007. Cisneros Group still produces content for Univision from its Miami and Venezuela production studios.

As a child, Adriana Cisneros spent hours in Venevision television studios. At 14, she remembers tagging along with her father as he negotiated to bring DirecTV to Latin America: “He went country by country working with 12 different partners. I saw him put the deal together and it was life changing.” Now, she regularly consults her father by phone — some weeks more than others, mostly about big picture ideas: “When it’s new and exciting, my father wants to be part of it.”

With Bandel, who has an office in Miami, her conversations are usually in person and centered on feasibility. “He has so much experience. He will tell me, ‘Last time we had a similar idea this is how we assembled the team that could study if this would make sense or not,’ ” she said.

Over the decades, the Cisneros Group has had to ride the tide of the economic and political influences in its native Venezuela and Latin America. Eventually, instability led to the relocation of its headquarters and its subsidiary, Venevision, from Caracas to Coral Gables 15 years ago. “Things in Venezuela started getting really scary,” Cisneros explained.

Cisneros Group is one of the more than a dozen billion-dollar Hispanic family-owned conglomerates that do business in Latin America and the United States. Running a global family business is different, said Francisco Cerezo, a partner in Foley & Lardner in Miami and chair of the Latin America practice. “To continue to thrive, you need to expand. If not global competitors will take business away.”

Cerezo said Cisneros will confront the challenges of leading the business a generation or two after the original patriarch. “With each generation, the more educated and structured management becomes. It gets trickier to keep all the siblings on the same page in terms of strategy and account for the different roles they play. There is not one correct model for management structure or succession planning. It’s driven by the dynamics of each family and it’s complicated no matter what.”

While it has its challenges, Cisneros said the advantage of running a global family empire is perspective: “When we were going through the economic crisis in the past few years, we had an outlook that extends beyond five years. It’s a 20- to 30-year plan, and because of that, you can survive a crisis in a way that’s not as damaging.”

Along with its business component, the Cisneros family has encouraged a long-term outlook toward philanthropy. In the 1970s, Patricia Phelps de Cisneros, Adriana’s mother, worked in tandem with her father to set up Fundación Cisneros to encourage the creation of social capital in Latin America. Over the decades, the foundation focused its efforts on education and cultural programs.

As Adriana Cisneros spent more time at the company, she said she noticed employees were not relating to corporate social responsibility. So, she made it a priority by assigning a dedicated executive to tailor a corporate social responsibility campaign for each of the business units. Her strong commitment around corporate social responsibility is something she mentions often on her personal blog.

If the jobs of steering a giant company and giving back to communities aren’t enough, Cisneros has another important role, too. She has taken the lead of Endeavor Miami’s founding board along with her co-chair, Daniel Echavarria, director of Organización Corona. It’s a nonprofit that supports high-impact entrepreneurship.

Cisneros also is the mother of two. Already, she feels the pressure of the balancing act: “It’s my job to be a really great wife, a really good mom, cook a really good dinner and host a really good party.” She said she handles the conflicting demands by being “super organized.” Her husband, Nick Griffin, an author of historical novels, often travels for his job, too. “We have a great nanny and fortunately our intense travel periods haven’t coincided.”

Cisneros’ older brother, Guillermo, worked in the business for 15 years overseeing finances and the development of its Miami broadcast production facilities in Medley. Although he no longer gets involved in operations, he remains on the family council where he serves in an advisory role. Her sister, Carolina, is a full-time mother of five and also an advisor. “I work for my parents, my brother and my sister. The long hours and endless travel are for all of us,” Cisneros said.

Already, preparations are underway to groom the next generation. The three siblings have 10 children between the ages of three and nine. Through the Cisneros’ family council, experts have been consulted and a plan developed for succession. “We are organizing activities to create a bond and help them understand that family is important,” Cisneros said. “We want them to start having an inkling of what our family business is and what it means to be a good citizen when you belong to a family like this.”

Personally, Cisnero said, she takes succession into consideration on a regular basis as she musters the endurance to lead the family business for the next 20 to 30 years: “I really think about what kind of company do we want to be, and how are we going to engage the next generation. It’s a big unknown but I really do spend time thinking about those things.”

Still, for now, she said she respects the position she has stepped into: “Being a family business gives me a sense of purpose,” she said. “I don’t know what business we’re going to be in 15 years, but I know that it will still be our family business.”