After years of being on the outside in Hollywood, I finally had a seat at the table. A few years earlier, at a low point in my life, I had been lucky enough to glimpse the future. I had seen the first remote-controlled crane designed for making movies, and through a series of improbable twists, I had been part of bringing it to America.
The crane, called The Louma, was a big hit with Steven Speilberg and that led to a job for me at Panavision, then the biggest and best of the camera companies. After a lot of twists and turns, I ended up President of a PV division called Remote Systems, and several CEOs later, one of them asked me to move up to executive country and offered me the title of Executive Vice President, Technical Marketing and Strategy for Panavision Worldwide. Fancy right? My friends said, “You’re moving up to mahogany row,” and I was.
For some years then, I lived in the hallways of the palace as a member of the royal court. And one of the things I learned at the royal court is how humans work together in big groups, a very messy process. It seems that when you bring people together to accomplish a goal, they often have differing ideas about the best way to get there. And since there’s hardly ever enough resources for everyone’s best idea, there are always differences of opinion about how to use the available resources. Adding to that, in any business of size, the people are organized into tribes, each tribe fundamentally different in outlook and aim, and each tribe believing they know best how to move the whole enterprise forward. Among the tribes are Marketing, Sales, Engineering, and Corporate, and each one has its own culture. In theory, they all share the same goals, but each tribe has a different strategy for how to attain it, a belief that what they do is the essential piece of the puzzle and each is at least a little suspicious of what the others are doing on their behalf.
Another thing I learned during my time as an exec is that someone has to stand back and watch all the tribes from a distance. I saw that engineers were generally not the best people for creating relationships with the customers and that we didn’t want the marketing guys running to engineering and dictating to the engineers second hand what they thought the customers needed. I saw that letting Finance be more than a cautionary voice was a recipe for disaster and that for better or worse, the job of Corporate was to watch and lead all the other groups, to balance the competing interests while keeping one eye on the future and the other cocked over their shoulder towards the board, cause don’t ever forget the board. So Corporate measures and listens and urges the others, then decides how to apportion the resources among them, doing their best to supply the needs of all the groups in hopes of making the whole thing fly. It’s not a perfect system for sure, but for the most part that’s the way people do it.
So corporate is where you go to press your case and get your share of the resources and where you come to explain your successes and failures. Theoretically, by the time you sit down with corporate, it’s just logic and numbers, but in truth, it’s always about your narrative too. The reason there’s narrative is that corporate is made up of people, and to convince people, what you do is tell them a story about the numbers. If you have good numbers and a good story that usually gets you what you need, but sometimes it’s not enough. Here’s a story about how it works in real life sometimes.
I was still running the Louma division in those days, not yet the C level guy I later became, so I went up to meetings like all the other tribal leaders to present my budget needs and explain my results. Now budgets are the key to operating a corporation. I go in and tell corporate I want X million in CAPEX, that I’m going to spend it all in the first nine months to buy some new equipment. That revenue will start flowing from that expenditure in about six months and will ramp-up to full flow in a year and a half. And then the revenue will roll in for Y years, the good years. Corporate listens to me while I tell my story and then they interpolate that with the promises of all the other tribes presenting their needs. Thinking of it this way, you can get a pretty good idea of what Corporate does. They listen, and they assess your numbers, and then they think about how good you are at making things happen (or how much you bullshit), and then they think about what all the other guys want, and about what they promised the board, and then sometimes they test you saying … “Is that the best you can do?” They say that because they know it’s human nature to hold back a little on your promises, especially after you’ve burned yourself once or twice.
So I rolled into our revenue meeting well prepared for it. Rosey, my old partner and now VP at Remote Systems and I had worked on our budget for weeks building a strong case for giving us some money. In return, we were offering a promise that we would earn them a generous profit. By then, we understood that all the groups at Panavision had hopes and dreams, and we had a pretty good idea what kind of profitability they would promise in return, we knew we were near the top. We were ready.
So we sat down at the long table in the big conference room facing the CEO, the CFO, and the finance guys and we made our presentation. It went well. We were confident and poised, and we had an excellent story to go with our numbers. The CEO listened, and then he started drilling down. For a half an hour, he tossed us questions. What about this? Why doesn’t that revenue flow sooner? Why does this piece have to happen then? And we batted them back. Everything he asked for aimed at pushing us towards a smaller investment or a bigger return had an answer waiting for it. Finally, the questions stopped, and the room grew silent.
Then the CEO turned to me and said …“Frankly, Andy, I’m a little disappointed in you”… and that was the hard moment. This was no longer about business; it was personal, a question of my worth in his eyes and what I was prepared to do about it. I breathed for a long moment, and then very quietly, I said, “I’m sorry you’re disappointed,” and I closed my mouth.
The room hung suspended for what seemed like forever while everyone waited to hear the next move. Finally, he murmured “Well I guess we’re done here” and slowly the room came back to life. I was a little shocked that I had answered that way, but now I knew something new about how the game was played, and yes, we got our money.
Like this story? Here’s another one about my business experiences Win, Lose, Next!
You can see more of my pictures here
And here’s a link to some of the pictures I offer for sale; Pixels