Thomas W. Stephenson Jr. Featured

5:36am EDT April 25, 2006
Imagine running a company where your success depends almost entirely on what another industry manufactures and how consumers react to those products. Welcome to Thomas W. Stephenson Jr.’s world as president and CEO of movie theater chain Rave Motion Pictures. He has no control over the movies flowing out of Hollywood or how viewers will react to them, which presents a challenge to growing his company. But because he cannot choose his inventory or control the top line, he focuses on details to ensure customers can view movies in the best possible atmosphere and are treated to the highest level of service. This approach is paying off — the company is adding about six theaters each year, and annual revenue hit $115 million last year. Smart Business spoke with Stephenson about how he plans and manages Rave’s growth.

Know where you want to go.
To start a company and grow it, you have to have a vision and you have to know where you’re trying to take the company. But the world has a way of not working out exactly the way you plan it, so you have to have that vision, that passion, that goal for what you’re trying to do, but I think you also have to let the real world intrude on that.

You have to learn from what you’re doing, from your successes and your mistakes. You have to have a vision, but you have to temper that vision with real data from the world.

Try to do the best you can by your customers, by your employees, by your investors, by your vendors — the people that have a real vested interest in your franchise, the people that you have great relationships with. You do the best you can with each of those groups. If you do that well and conduct yourself as honestly and truthfully as you can, then you’re going to have a pretty good company.

Grow with a purpose.
You don’t want to ever grow for the sake of growth. You want to grow because you’re filling a market niche that exists. The best way to grow is because you’re answering or fulfilling a market void out there.

The first thing to look at is, are you really growing because there is something you’re doing better for the consumer than some other way he could get that good or service? If you are, that’s pretty healthy growth. If not, you have to scratch your head and ask why you’re trying to grow.

The second thing I think is equally important is you have to be able to manage that growth. There are all sorts of companies that had great ideas, that expanded too fast and couldn’t really manage the growth. When we grow, we look at two things. We look at new units, but we also look to get better and better performance out of our existing units so that we’re growing internally. You have to be able to manage that growth well and not just put up new units.

Managing growth is difficult because, by definition, you’re taking on more and more responsibility. Your people have to do more and more. You’re still looking outside to bring people into your organizations, so managing that process is not easy.

Success brings success. We’ve had all sorts of people come to us and want to join our company because they like what we’re doing and see what we’re doing in the markets. They say, ‘You do whatever it is better than my company, and I’d really love to be a part of the team.’

The better you did, the more people want to be a part of that process. I love getting e-mails from people saying, ‘I lived in Pensacola and I moved to Destin or Cincinnati or Fort Wayne, and I loved your theaters and I’m so happy to find you have a theater in the market I’m going to.’

Create a strong corporate culture.
We started from scratch. We started very small. We tried to grow internally as much as we can, but we’ve also tried to look around our industry at businesses that are similar in some way ways and try to attract the best people we can and bring them into the company.

We have to do a good job of training our people, helping them all step up to the next level but also looking around from time to time for people from the outside.

We try to recruit smart, aggressive, active people that really want to be a part of a great company. We provide them with terrific managers, with different seminars and management meetings during the course of the year, and then we have a group of senior managers that travel to all our theatres on a very regular basis.

We try to do as well as we can every day. We want to make this a great place to work. We want to make this a great place to go to the movies. We want to create the best environment that we can, so we try and create a really wonderful place to work.

Nobody has to come to work for us, or anybody else, every day, but that’s the difference between a really good company and a not so good company — they keep, they get and they retain really good people.

What we try to do is attract the best people we can and create the best working environment we can so the best people want to stay here and don’t want to go somewhere else. This is a great place to work if you want to be the best. It’s a lousy to place to work if you don’t.

It starts with the way you treat them. We try to treat everyone here with respect, with understanding, with compassion — you want a place where you feel good about coming to work every day. Beyond that, bonus programs, benefits programs, equity in the company, good working environment.

This is a great place to work if you want to be the best. It’s a lousy to place to work if you don’t.

How to reach: Rave Motion Pictures Inc., www.ravemotionpictures.com