From Honduras to Miami and encompassing three generations in the exhibition business, the Younger family looks forward to a bright future for Cinema Equipment & Supplies.
By Daniel Loria
Guillermo Younger Sr. greets me with a warm laugh when I call him at his office. It's well after 6:00 p.m. on a Monday and, despite a long day at work, he seems cheerful --like he's actually looking forward to speaking to a reporter for a half hour in between a full day at the office and the Miami rush-hour traffic. The interview begins with the regular pleasantries: How are things? How's the weather? And so on. But before we can dive in to the questions, he catches me off guard: he doesn't seem to be in any kind of rush. "How did you get involved in this business, Daniel?" Before I know it, I'm five minutes into telling him my life story.
I should've seen it coming. When Kelly Samardak, marketing manager at Cinema Equipment & Supplies (CE+S), the company Guillermo Younger Sr. founded in 1982, got in touch with me to schedule the interview, she suggested a time block of 45 minutes for what I estimated would be a 15-minute call. As anyone who has had the pleasure of meeting him can attest, a business conversation with Guillermo Younger Sr. more closely resembles catching up with an old friend. The talk often digresses to anecdotes; Senior, as he's affectionately called, often refers to people in the exhibition industry by their first names, abruptly pausing mid-sentence to mention their last names and adding, "You know him, right? Of course you do! Everyone knows him!" before continuing the story.
"He's like the godfather of the business; everyone seems to know him wherever we go," confesses his son, Guillermo Younger Jr., or Junior, as he's known around the office. Fifteen minutes into our conversation, I come around to delivering my first question --asking Senior to take me back to the beginning of the family business, when the Younger name first became associated with exhibition. "Oh my God." He exhales. "This goes way back ..."
Senior's father, Geza Younger (or Papa Younger), was a Hungarian immigrant with a small dentistry practice in Honduras. Geza ran a side business as a gold merchant, periodically traveling up to the United States. In one of his trips, as the story goes, Geza met another Hungarian fellow who manufactured Holmes projectors in Chicago. The meeting ended with Geza returning to Honduras with a couple of vintage projectors, setting up a bedsheet in a big yard, and screening whatever films he could get his hands on. Shortly thereafter, Geza abandoned his career in dentistry and became a full-fledged exhibitor; a couple of locations in smaller towns eventually led to bigger theaters in the capital city of Tegucigalpa, including the country's first tri-screen cinema.
Geza moved to Miami with his wife and six children while still managing his exhibition circuit in Honduras. "I was small at that time, and my dad's vision was always to have us educated in the U.S," recalls Senior. "He started selling parts and equipment back then while operating these theaters in Honduras." By the time Senior was starting high school, however, his father realized he needed help running the family business. "I was the oldest in the family, so he said he didn't want me to lose my Spanish and had me go down to Honduras for high school, and he put me to work at the theaters. It was no free ride. I did it all, from selling tickets to running the projector, you name it. Sooner or later I became the general manager and ran the theaters in Tegucigalpa."
The toppling of Nicaraguan president Anastasio Somoza brought a period of instability to Central America, and by 1982 Senior had moved back to Miami with his own wife and children. For a brief moment, it looked like the Youngers' days in the exhibition business had come to an end. "I graduated from the University of Miami as an electrical engineer, and my first instinct was to go to Florida Power and Light and ask them for a job," says Senior. "To this day I'm very thankful they didn't hire me." Instead, he continued the family tradition in Miami, repairing projectors from his garage on weekdays and working as a projectionist on nights and weekends.
"Someone asked me the other day what my first childhood memory was, one that I could pinpoint an actual date to," recounts Guillermo Younger Jr. "It struck me because I remember explicitly watching Return of the Jedi at the movies, and that was 1983 --I was only three years old. That's one of my first vivid memories, being scared seeing the Death Star up on the big screen. My father couldn't afford a babysitter and was taking me and my brother to the cinemas where the owners were cool with us running from auditorium to auditorium watching movies."
Business soon picked up for the Youngers as Guillermo's wife, Carolina, took charge of the company's finances and kept the business afloat. "It was real hard at the beginning, but it paid off in the end," says Senior. "I did a lot of work for Wometco, which used to be a big chain down here in Miami. I managed to do repair work for them and sell them some equipment. I started befriending all the vendors in the industry, all the manufacturers, and I started to travel throughout Latin America." It became the foundation for a strong used-equipment business, which Senior highlights as the first great period for his company, Cinema Equipment & Supplies. "Regal used to sell me a lot of used equipment, I mean a lot of used equipment; we're talking trailer loads of used equipment. I had some good engineers and we'd fix everything up. I got a lot of Latin American exhibitors started with our used equipment."
As the business grew, so did the newest generation of Younger children. Carolina would often bring the kids, Alex and Guillermo Younger Jr., into the office, and the two of them spent summers doing basic maintenance at the company. "I remember being put to work cleaning lenses; it was a task my father would always put me in charge of. It gave me a real roll-up-the-sleeves attitude to working," says Junior. The two brothers have played a major role in helping Cinema Equipment & Supplies become the company it is today. The digital cinema boom represented an opportunity for many equipment dealers like CE+S, but the Younger brothers had the foresight to recognize a bigger opportunity within their grasp. In 2009, Alex Younger led the company in creating Cinevise, a remote monitoring solution that was the first of its kind in Latin America. A short time later, Guillermo Younger Jr. left a job at Unilever in New York City to devote himself to the family company full time. "I remember sitting at the dinner table with the family, talking about the new opportunities digital cinema would bring and all of the growth markets," says Junior. "I came back into the business thinking, how can I help take what we've done into the next level? How can we achieve the full value of digitalization?"
Guillermo Younger Jr. had always planned on returning to the family business. His application essays for the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business detailed his plans to apply the skills of the MBA program to the exhibition business. Junior's return to Cinema Equipment & Supplies heralded the development and deployment of Cielo, a cloud-based proactive monitoring and support solution for exhibitors. Cielo has quickly gained traction in the market and is poised to become the next big phase in the Youngers' involvement in the exhibition business. Guillermo Younger Senior's long ties to Latin American exhibitors have opened the door to expanding the business; CE+S has a satellite office in Brazil and maintains close ties with many of the region's top exhibitors. "A lot of it comes from my father making those personal connections throughout the years. It's a relationship business everywhere, but those nuances are magnified when dealing with Latin America. You need to be very personable," explains Junior. "Fortunately, with Cielo we've been able to use a lot of those relationships to build out the product." Cine Colombia was recently announced as the latest circuit to sign on to the Cielo platform and will be deploying the technology across the 280 screens in its 42 locations. Meanwhile, Cielo has also found great scale in North America through numerous partnerships with U.S. exhibitors. Earlier this summer, Marcus Theatres began a rollout of Cielo across 681 of its screens, and in early September they signed a deal with Goodrich Quality Theaters' entire circuit.
CE+S has grown from its roots as a family business. The company has expanded to include a leadership team that drives the company forward and manages and staffs an additional office in Brazil to better serve their Latin American clients.
"It's very satisfying for any parent to have their kids continue what you have sweated for. I'm very proud to say that my sons can continue this business for the next 40 years," says Senior. "I'm not saying it would be impossible for me to come up with the innovations they've contributed, but it would definitely be a lot harder!