With a population of just over 30 million, or less than 10% of the population of the U.S., few would have expected Venezuela to become the launching pad for a major global media company. Yet that is exactly what the Cisneros family has accomplished, particularly under the leadership of 2015 Brandon Tartikoff Legacy Award winner Gustavo Cisneros, the chairman of the Cisneros Group of Companies (CGC).
The family fortunes began modestly in 1929, with Diego Cisneros buying a truck and launching a transportation business at the age of 17 in Caracas, Venezuela. But his businesses took off after he tasted his first bottle of Pepsi during a visit to the New York City World’s Fair, and launched a Pepsi bottling franchise in Venezuela in 1940. Profits from that enterprise funded a host of other companies, most notably the launch of the Venevision broadcast network in 1961.
“My grandfather was a fascinating man who was not only a pioneer in the TV business but a dreamer who brought the first yoga teacher to Venezuela,” recalls Adriana Cisneros, CEO of CGC, and Gustavo’s daughter.
After being named chairman and CEO in 1970 at the age of 25, Gustavo quickly displayed much of the same innovative spirit, bringing a more global vision to the company. “My father took what was a very established Venezuelan business group and made it into an international group,” Adriana Cisneros says. “He quickly realized that Venezuela was quite small for the businesses he wanted to do and began to expand internationally. By the end of the 1970s, we had offices in Miami, New York and Spain, which really helped us have a regional and pan-regional view of the world even though we continue to be very active in Venezuela.”
Those international operations would play a key role in turning telenovelas into a hugely popular global TV genre. “Gustavo Cisneros shares with the late Tigre Azcárraga [Emilio Azcárraga Milmo, former head of Mexico’s Televisa] the accomplishment of making the TV genre [of the] telenovela an extraordinary worldwide success,” says Miguel Dvorak, president and COO of CGC.
That success eventually would lay the basis for a program production and sales business that now supplies content to more than 100 countries, adds Jonathan Blum, president of Cisneros Media.
Gustavo Cisneros, says Blum, “was also one of the visionaries that understood the need to develop specific content for the U.S. Hispanic market.”
In 1992, when Hallmark put Univision up for sale, Gustavo Cisneros played a key role in putting together a $500 million deal for Jerry Perenchio, Mexican media giant Televisa and Cisneros to buy the Spanish-language broadcaster. Over time, popularity of Televisa and Venevision’s telenovelas on Univision made the broadcaster such a huge success it was eventually sold for $13.7 billion to an investment group led by Haim Saban in 2007.
“Gustavo, together with Televisa and Jerry Perenchio launched Univision and helped develop the U.S. Hispanic TV market,” says CGC cochairman Steven Bandel.
Later, Bandel says, Cisneros played a major role in developing the Latin satellite TV market by partnering with Hughes Electronics Corporation to launch DirecTV Latin America, the first all-digital direct-to-home satellite television service in the region, in 1996, and later became an early mover in the Latin- American Internet business.
Over the years, Gustavo Cisneros also used the company’s investments in newer technologies to further its philanthropic efforts, Adriana Cisneros says. In addition to setting up the Cisneros Foundation in the 1970s, the company created Cl@se, the first pan-regional educational television channel in Latin America, in 1996; it also launched Actualización de Maestros en Education, an online training program for teachers that has trained some 30,000 educators in 15 countries.
“There aren’t many people around who are always thinking big and actually executing on those ideas,” says Adriana Cisneros. “I think that is the coolest thing about him and why he is so deserving of this award.”