PY Gerbeau: Xleisure, Millennium Dome and EuroDisney

The man who rescued EuroDisney and the Millennium Dome projects from disaster shares his business philosophy


PY Gerbeau is energetic, loves to talk and swears like a trooper. But then without this passion and direct style, the man who made his reputation as the trouble shooter who helped fix EuroDisney may not have survived his Millennium Dome experience.

He’s largely credited for steering the major construction project through a tumultuous period and rescuing it from disaster. He tells Growing Business why he doesn’t have any regrets.

What did your time at the Dome teach about business planning?

I didn’t learn anything at the Dome because there was no proper business plan. What I have learnt in 15 years of corporate rescue it is to be humble with your numbers. Don’t try to make it up if you are not 100% confident. I design a business plan the same for every business, I have three simple scenarios: optimistic, realistic and pessimistic and I trash the first two and immediately look at the worst case scenario.

 
How do investors take to such a pessimistic approach?

When I raised that money in the city for the Dome we presented a five year plan which broke even after three years with three million visitors. You know what the city said? You’re too conservative, you can do more. I said we probably would but I’m not going to sign up to it, at the end of the day I can deliver three million with my eyes closed so buy into this business plan and you will be always surprised positively. If you have common sense and are completely humble and pessimistic with numbers you will never have any bad surprises.

You put up with a lot of interference at the Dome, how do you deal with people who want to meddle with your business?

I believe in giving people ownership. The more you tell someone to back off, the more interference you will get. The more you include them, the less they will interfere. I’m a big fan of corporate governance whether you are a 300,000 or a 3bn business you must be completely transparent.

To what extent do you have to go out of your way to ensure all the stakeholders are on board with their business strategy?

If you don’t have that you struggle from day one. You must make sure they buy into your vision before getting involved so choose your investors carefully – that is difficult at the moment because money is not easy to find. But I’d rather find no money than people who don’t buy into my business.

Apart from at investor level, how important is communication as a business tool?It’s crucial. The most important thing in a business is human capital. If you have five or 50 or 5,000 people they are all stakeholders in your business. If they don’t buy into you as their leader, as the person who will make them rich, happy and develop their abilities then you are in trouble.

You have infect your staff and your shareholders and your market with your passion. Passion is contagious, some people will call you an idiot or think you are dumb and wonder why you are positive when everybody is negative. But I’d rather be a clown than be a depressed suit. It’s not about how you are perceived but what you do and what you achieve. If you have a great track record and over and above that you are perceived as a guy who is fun to work with then fantastic. I’m attracting great people to work with me. I have been working with the same management team for the last 13 years.

And how does that work with a cleaner or someone on the lowest level of a business?

It’s the same thing whatever level, you walk the talk. The key thing I have learnt over the past 15 years is that management is to lead by example. Ninety-nine percent of us have been a cleaner or had a summer job but in the UK, Germany and France we are so hooked on status and recognition it is a disaster. It is a killer for any entrepreneur who thinks they need to drive a certain car, have a driver or something else to underline their status. Promotion is not about giving someone a bigger office and a window and a bigger car. It is about giving someone more responsibility, which is reflected by the fact that their market value has just gone up 30%.

Are you using the same skills in growing Xscape as you were when you were turning around the Dome?

The management discipline and best practice are the same but it’s a completely different environment. In corporate rescue you are dead if you make the wrong decision. The pressure is still the same whether you are building from scratch or doing a turnaround. When you are growing you have a few big events every week. Last week we had a big strategy meeting to tell the whole of our shareholders what we planned. This week we are launching it to the press. For the last two months we have been working on a merger.

What do you find most difficult in growing your business?

It is a question of timing that bothers me. In corporate rescue you are extremely impatient, if there is a problem you fix it and immediately see results. In growing a business things get in the way: planning permission, bank money, investors understanding your vision, these all take time and there is a gap between opportunity and execution. You know you have the right plan but by the time you implement it is six months later that’s the most frustrating thing – I have got an ulcer working here.

Entrepreneurs sometimes complain they are lonely and isolated as the head of a business…do you have that problem?

The biggest problem with entrepreneurs is they don’t delegate and don’t trust people. It’s a vicious circle. They say ‘its my business, its my vision’ and they think they know better than their clients. The best thing to do is throw the balls in the air but admit you aren’t the one to catch them, know your strengths and your weaknesses and find the right people to help. For me the CEO is like a conductor he is never going to play the violin as well as one of the orchestra, he is the one who glues it together so they are a fantastic and deliver a symphony.

Your favourite book is the Art of War by Sun Tzu…why do you read business books?

I love them because if you run a business you need to know what is new in finance and strategy. Learning is a constant thing. You always need to keep on challenging yourself because the day you think you think you are good you are dead and day you think you are doing well, you are really doing badly. Be challenged by people be challenged by books and you can keep moving forward and adapt your business style and your management style. It keeps you on your toes and you can get other people thinking.

Have you ever got bored of being portrayed as a figure of fun and not taken seriously for what you have achieved?

I have adopted a phrase from Walt Disney: ‘We are very serious people who don’t take ourselves seriously’. I think about that every day. I am very smiley but I am also ruthless. You come in to my office and you screw up you will get your ass kicked. I am very demanding in business because when you give a lot you take a lot.

How important is your own positive attitude in growing a business?

Entrepreneurs make their own luck. The stock market may be struggling but at the end of the day it is about doing deals. My share price may not be going up, but as long as I can find people with to do deals with then f*** the stock market.

You used to be in the media all the time do you miss the exposure and how much value did it bring to the business?

I don’t miss the exposure because it is was quite insane to be all over the papers. Press and PR is crucial for a business but you have to be prepared for it to be good and bad. If you take the exposure it will bite you, you can go from zero to hero and back again. It is hard not to take it personally when it becomes personal when they go after your ex-wife or your six your old daughter. But the way it worked was that I was getting shot at by the media and my 2-3,000 guys at the Dome could just deliver. Again this is management by example. The thing that held the glue together was that I was the leader or entrepreneur and risking my life, my money, my reputation and my career to make the business move forward so everyone held together and believed in what we were doing. A lot of businesses have the ivory tower syndrome…a central office in London, chairman walks the factory or the shop, and the employees that succeed are the ones who are quiet and don’t make a fuss rather than those who have a big mouth. It’s terrible. I do surprise visits all the time and I go and if I’m not happy I kick ass and sort it out. But that means that I am approachable, not some figure in a suit or a boring intimidating person.

How important is it to keep personalities and personal differences when it comes to business?

I can’t, I can’t keep the personal out of business, I hate to deals with crooks or people I don’t respect, I just can’t do it.

So would you stab someone in the back or play dirty to get a deal? I believe business is like life. You can’t leave your own personal values at home when you go to work. I have very strong personal values and make concessions in business. But I get to a point where I would prefer to be out of business than to cross that line. I always want to be able to look in the mirror and say ‘I like what I see’. The great thing about being an entrepreneur is you will always be something else.

What motivates you in business?

I’m in business for people: whether it is my consumers or whether it’s my employees. I’ll never be a millionaire. The thing that makes me tick is what is enough: if you have enough money to have a good life, sustain your family or treat your friends. I’m still a workaholic and I am passionate about my business but I’m not in business to make money…you probably shouldn’t write that because it is terrible to say. It’s not about being the richest it’s about achieving things. If you offered me a couple of million pounds or a job at Eurodisney then I would take Eurodisney.

Does these people-centric approach affect the way you do business? It must be hard in a turnaround when you are looking at costs, because cutting costs inevitably means losing people.

People are what make your business tick. People are the keepers of your brand and your product. Cost-cutters have an easy job. They come in, look at labour costs and of course your biggest labour bill is the people on the front line and they say get rid of 200 people. But look at the back office you always find fat. Two guys there are the equivalent to 15 on the front line. At the Dome it was never about cutting staff or attacking your product…the politicians told me to close the show down when the surveys said it was the only thing worth the money there. It is like corporate rescuers who sell the best asset. Why? Because you are closing and they have to save money for the banks. If you are in survival mode and not liquidation mode, don’t destroy your best asset, don’t get rid of the only thing that actually makes money. There is always a better way to look at cost-cutting before you look at people and product because if you touch one of the two you are done for

The biggest problem with entrepreneurs is they don’t delegate and don’t trust people. It’s a vicious circle.

PY Gerbeau – CV

1984 – 1990 Professional ice hockey player and member of French national team before his career is curtailed by injury

1990-1991 General manager and Coach of French National Team

1991 – 1999 Worked his way up to Vice President of Park Operations at Eurodisney with a $50m budget and 1,000 employees. Member of the turnaround team at the park in 1993-1995

1999 MBA from Sciences Po Paris

Feb 2000 – 2001 Chief executive officer, The Dome. Tasked with turning around the Millenium attraction which had become a national joke. Rewrites business plan, introduces cost-cutting measures and attains celebrity status while saving around 19m in costs.

Jan 2001- present chief executive, Xleisure

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