I’ve always had an entrepreneurial gene. As a kid, I had a newspaper route and later started my own landscaping company. Even throughout college I worked two jobs. I was always a hustler; I always liked to work. My parents were born in Greece so I am a first generation American. The work ethic from my parents was always there.
I graduated from Northeastern Illinois University with a degree in English Literature before I decided to sign up to become a special education teacher. I finished the courses and I was getting ready to start student teaching when another opportunity came about. An uncle of mine was opening up a fur and leather store on Michigan Avenue called Elan Furs. He knew that I was a hard worker so he called me up and offered me a job. I was hesitant at first, since I was just about to start teaching but when he offered me a $60,000 raise, I told him I’d be there the next day.
I knew nothing about the fur and leather business but I learned pretty quickly and I ended up managing the store with the biggest sales in the country.
I think when $80,000 was thrown in my face as a 22-year-old, I thought, “I know nothing about it, but I will figure it out.” I was living at home at the time too so there really was no risk. I figured I could go try out the fur and leather business for 6 months and if I hated it, I could always go back to teaching. Teaching was kind of a safety net in my mind. I never became a teacher though.
Growing up, I lived in a 2-bedroom apartment with my parents and my two brothers. I give credit to my mom and dad. I always wanted more, but they were very conservative. They didn’t have a lot of money; my dad was a teacher and my mom stayed at home. I always remember going to get gym shoes and I’d have to get the cheaper ones when I really wanted the Nikes. My dad was always the type of guy to say, “Look, I’m gonna get you this jacket because you need a jacket but I’m not going to get you THIS jacket.”
I started to notice those differences at a young age—5 or 6 years old. And then I really noticed it when I started working at the fur store. People were coming in and buying furs for 40 or 50 thousand dollars and I was blown away. I was also going to a lot of events and seeing people donating crazy amounts of money and I remember wishing I could help someone out like that too. So just the little things I would notice growing up on the other side made me want to be successful and made me want to be able to give back to others.
My uncle was my motivation for business. My motivation for kindness comes from my parents. They were very giving people and my uncle, Nick was the same type of person. My parents weren’t business people, but that kindness sticks with me always. I believe in karma and doing the right thing. That’s how I live my life.
I’ve got what you call a “lion leadership” style. If you watch lions in their natural habitat, once they’ve attacked their prey, the first thing the lion will do is eat because he is proud of what he has done. But then, what he likes to do is climb on top of a little hill under a shady tree, relax and watch his family and friends come and enjoy the meal too. I like to start things, I like to be creative, I like to get things done but then I like to bring my family and friends in to be a part of it as well and we share.
I take the role of being a leader very seriously. I’m the person they look up to and they wait for me to make the right decisions. I definitely want their ideas and opinions, but at some point a leader has got to lead. That’s why you’re the leader.
Personally, I am a better leader than I am a manager. I’ll make the phone calls and tough decisions, I’ll talk to whoever I need to talk to, but at the end of the day, I need people in there to manage. A leader cannot be successful without the right managers. You could have the greatest idea in the world but if you don’t have the right people to manage it, the project is done.
Chicago really has given me all of my opportunities. I love this city. I go to a lot of high-level meetings with presidents of studios in L.A. all the time and everyone loves this city. They love it because it’s a true city. You’ve got the restaurants, hotels and shopping like any major city. From a filming and television standpoint, you’ve got good labor forces and great locations. The locations here in the city are like no other place in the world. There are sand dunes that look like the desert, there is Lake Michigan for water [scenes], you go downtown and you get the city look, if you go up north you’ve got the country feel.
First and foremost, you have to be honest. In the position that I’m in you can Google my name and you’ll see people talking [openly] about me. You really have to take the high road in everything. Do everything right and legally. Being a leader, you have to know that you will be a target [for public scrutiny]. Stay focused, stay on your agenda, and don’t let anything bother you.
I run the studio like a general in an army. You either respect the general or you don’t. There’s a sense of loyalty. The people that worked for me when we opened in 2011 are the same people here today. I like having that feel of a family business and being able to be close with each while still being strong. Someone has to take charge and make the decisions. And as a leader, I deal with the consequences.
I was in the real estate business from 2006 to 2008 and I start my own contracting company and was doing pretty well for myself. When the market crashed, I lost everything. I have four children and my wife and we lost our house, I lost my cars, I lost everything. That was the turning point in my life. I became very depressed but I knew I had to do something to provide for my kids. It was a very dark place—suicidal dark.
So I called my uncle in Toronto and convinced him to let me borrow money to buy the first building we started in. Then as I started coming back, I bought another building, then another, then another. But I won’t forget losing everything. I have my eviction notice framed and hung on my door which I always tell people is my diploma.
That whole time was traumatic for me. It’s made me want to let people know there’s a way to get out, you just have to find it. Never give up.
I’d tell myself not to give up. Like getting kicked out of my house or when my wife calls and says someone was there to repossess the mini-van and she can’t pick up the kids—these are moments I will never forget. Those are scary moments that people think will never happen to them. I had my back to the wall with four kids I had to take care of. I could’ve just gone to get a job selling shoes or try to make money but I called my uncle to help me start Cinespace. What you have to do is persevere and never give up.