For Western alumnus and the newest business mogul on Dragons' Den, Vincenzo Guzzo, being an entrepreneur is like running an extreme marathon: you’ve got to test the limits to reap the rewards.
Guzzo — the president and CEO of Cinémas Guzzo, the largest movie operator in Quebec and third largest in Canada — believes that the difference between a successful and non-successful entrepreneur is their ability to handle unease through adrenaline.
“You know that butterfly feeling, that not sleeping at night? That’s actually fuel for me and not necessarily a negative,” says Guzzo.
The entrepreneur has used this adrenaline to expand his father's cinema business into an empire. He’s also created a construction contracting business, two fine-dining establishments and a chain of Italian pork restaurants called Porchetta.
Guzzo’s cutthroat perspective shines through on Dragons' Den. It's especially evident in the second episode of season 13, when a heedless Vancouver-based fitness trainer asks the Dragons for a $200,000 jumpstart for a rhythm rowing app. Guzzo is quick to tell him off.
“You sound like some guy who’s built a 20 million dollar company or something.… You haven’t built squat,” Guzzo tells them unsympathetically. The newest Dragon is quick to interrupt those entering the Den in order to share his thoughts, even if that means shoving a sullen opinion down their throats.
“While I can be blunt sometimes, very Kevin O'Leary-ish, the difference is that unlike Kevin — who will just throw an insult at you — I will say, 'Look, what you’re proposing to me is just stupid, and I’ll tell you why it’s stupid,' ” says Guzzo, who is brutally honest in his business approach. “I have enough empathy to tell you why you’re stupid.”
His frank attitude and no-nonsense demeanour are the reasons why some call him Mr. Sunshine; warm some days but overbearing on others.
“There’s this duality with Mr. Sunshine: I can be super nice, but I can be a real prick. It’s the same sun: the one that you loved two days ago just gave you a burn. Now you hate it.”
Things weren’t always this glamorous for Guzzo though.
Graduating from Western with a bachelor’s degree in economics in 1991, the business mogul spent his two-and-a-half year stay in London grinding day and night with an overloaded course schedule each year — even through the summer.
“When I left to go to Western, it was like the end of the world for my mother. She thought I would fall in love with some girl and never come back. So I had to basically do what I could to appease her sadness,… I took summer classes so that I didn’t have to do three years here. I could do two-and-a-half.”
Following his stay at Western in 1991, his unease and adrenaline started to kick in when he returned home to Montreal to some unfortunate news.
His father — who had come to Canada from Italy in 1967, opening Cinémas Guzzos in 1974 — told him that he was thinking of closing down the family business. Feeling concerned, Guzzo told his father to hold off while he studied law at the Université de Montréal.
“Anything that had to do with competition law, civil law, anything that had to do with litigation involving private corporations, that’s what interested me. I was there to get the tools so that I could turn around and fight the big guys and get the movies,” says Guzzo, who was using his time at school to prepare to fight the Canadian cinema industry over their monopolistic practices.
Guzzo finished his schooling in 1996. Two years later, the company filed complaints with competitions bureau against Canadian cinema companies — Cineplex Odeon and Famous Players — for the right to show first-run movie releases at Cinémas Guzzos. His abrasive attitude and wit were the reasons the company reached an agreement with the cinema titans, allowing independent movie theatres to distribute first-run films.
Ever since that victory, he has built the movie chain into a Canadian entertainment empire: 141 screens, nine IMAX theatres across 10 locations and three IMAX theatres on the horizon, creating an empire for himself and reaping the benefits of his risk-taking.
But Guzzo's not all business. He and his wife, Maria, who serves as vice-president of philanthropic and community affairs for the company, fund cancer nanotechnology research at the Jewish General Hospital in Montreal through the Guzzo Family Foundation, which was founded in 2007.
While he might have learned the tools for business success at Western, he doesn’t think that students can be taught this entrepreneurial attitude: for him, you’re either born with it or you don’t have it.
“I’m still on the [fence] on whether or not universities should have entrepreneurial classes. Should there be a class trying to teach me how to be inspired? I don’t know if that’s possible,” says Guzzo.
Whether or not you are born with the competitive, confident and determined mindset to take on an empire or not, Guzzo believes that students should embrace those characteristics in order to feel the freedom that comes with the success of becoming an entrepreneurial tycoon.