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The CFO plots how to extract the most cash from the TV network's mushrooming audience while toeing the line between short-term obligations and long-term opportunities.
David McCann, CFO.com | US
May 11, 2009
He's too young to qualify yet as a "lifer," but since graduating from Boston College in 1996, Javier Maynulet has known only one employer: General Electric. Already in his second CFO job within the company at age 35, he finds himself a central player in a business that wields the potential for explosive growth.
Maynulet was appointed in January to run the finance organization at Telemundo Communications Group, the Spanish-language network owned by NBC Universal, a GE subsidiary. Though Telemundo is seen in 85 countries and its shows are dubbed in 35 languages, the content is aimed specifically at Hispanics living in the United States, an ethnic group that has accounted for half of the U.S. population growth since 2000 and is expected to continue expanding vigorously for decades to come.
From a finance standpoint, Telemundo is the merest blip on GE's radar. It accounts for only about 3% to 4% of NBC Universal's revenue, says Maynulet, whose previous job was CFO of Universal Media Studios & Universal Cable Productions. That would have equated to a topline of about $500 million to $700 million in 2008, when, according to CapitalIQ, NBC Universal brought in a $17 billion sliver of GE's $182 billion pie.
But because of the demographic trend, Hispanic cultural awareness is a most valuable asset, sought not only by NBC and GE but by practically every big company in America. That puts Telemundo and the Puerto Rico-born Maynulet in a brighter spotlight than the operating unit's current size would otherwise dictate.
Maynulet says Telemundo's business model multiplies its growth potential. Four years ago, the network began producing its own content and repackaging it in various media and markets, rather than buying it canned from independent production companies, as chief rival Univision still does. Figuring out how to do that most profitably is Maynulet's main job, within which, he says, the biggest challenge is balancing short-term gains versus long-term opportunities.
Following is an edited version of CFO.com's interview with Maynulet.
How's the recession affecting Telemundo's business?
We own 14 local TV stations, and they're suffering the most. That also goes for NBC and across the television market. The automotive industry was a big advertiser, and the beating it has taken has hurt us.
How are you fighting that?
What we've got going to help offset some of that pressure is that our ratings are going up, which is very different from general-market TV, where ratings have been in a big decline for years.
What also helps is our international business. We're growing in the countries where we sell our content. If we had the same strategy we did five years ago, that would have amounted to nothing, because we didn't have any content to sell internationally. In the past, people were thinking about what that night's ratings would be. Now there's a lot more strategic thinking about the value of content beyond the network airing. How is it going to sell in Spain, and Colombia, and the rest of Latin America? Are there any digital or DVD opportunities?
That's a much riskier proposition, by the way. Producing good content usually comes with high costs, and you live and die by that content — if it doesn't work, you don't just get hurt in tonight's ratings; you also don't get to extract any value beyond that. But it's a way for us to insure differentiation from Univision, which gets all its content canned from Televisa in Mexico — it's good content, but they can't do anything else with it.
So do you help decide what content to produce, based on its sales potential?
I'm in my field because I'm not studio-creative, so I try not to get involved in the green-lighting of a script or a creative idea. But once the creative executives decide to make a product, we start looking at how much it's going to cost to do it at the quality [level] that they want, and we look at our options. Should we take the burden of the cost solely, or is there an opportunity to do a co-production or co-financing agreement? Or maybe there are ways to negotiate with the talent or the script owner to reduce the cost.
How great is the business opportunity in Hispanic television?
Our entire business is based on the growth of the Hispanic population. Not only is it the largest-growing segment of the overall population, but from an ad-spending standpoint Spanish-language TV is still only getting a very small share — about $2 billion in a total market of $40 billion — compared to the audience that it brings.
We think the 2010 census is going to be a game changer for us in terms of an awareness of how many Hispanics live in the United States and the growth of that population.
What's the toughest leadership challenge you're facing as a CFO right now?
The biggest conflict is looking at the business from both a short-term and a long-term point of view. We've got short-term commitments for what we need to deliver [financially], and a long-term view of what we think this business can be and grow to. Sometimes those two are not aligned. The biggest struggle is making the right decision strategically, even if it's at the sacrifice of a short-term gain, and trying to convey that to the senior leaders of our business.
Can you give an example of that?
There's our program grid. Say we've got what we think is an "A-list" show with great potential for ratings, but we were planning on airing it sometime — i.e., early this year — when we may not have been getting the best bang for our buck, with the advertising market not there to reward us for it. I don't want to waste good content when we're not going to be able to capitalize on it. We had to change a couple of programs because of that situation.
You're the CFO of a unit within NBC. Who do you report to?
In my 13 years with GE, I've always had a matrix reporting structure. My operational boss is Don Browne, the president of Telemundo. My functional boss is Lynn Calpeter, the CFO of NBC Universal.
When you're reporting on your financials to Lynn, what does she want to know?
First of all, how we're performing versus our commitments on revenues, operating profits, net income, and costs. Then she goes into the operations: our ratings, international sales, and programming. We get into some fairly detailed discussions there. Next are the business segments — just like NBC, we have the network, news, sports, cable, TV stations, digital media, and website.
What are the key metrics for assessing how the segments are performing?
After pretax earnings, she looks at cash from operating activities, plus capital expenditures and any type of investing activity.
How do the financial reports that you prepare for internal use differ from what they'd be if Telemundo were a stand-alone public company?
Not at all.
How is your access to capital?
We don't raise any externally. Working with NBC and GE, our access to capital and cash flow is fairly stable. If, God forbid, a transmitter in one of our stations were to blow up, I can replace it — as long as I can show the return. If I ask for a new table in my office, that might not have as good a return as something else would.
Where are you looking for cost savings these days?
There are some research contracts that we're re-evaluating and in some cases are planning to eliminate. In news, we're trying to work more closely with our local partners to gather news for our network news programs.
From a program and content creation standpoint, we're looking at ways to partner with other production entities in order to share the risk. That you have to look at carefully, because nothing's for free — you share the up-side too. Those kinds of partnerships used to happen frequently in the 1990s, but once studios started aligning themselves with networks, most of them fell by the wayside. Now we're going back to them for those strategic reasons and also because of financial constraints.
How important is Telemundo in the grand scheme of NBC and GE?
We're a small component of the overall business financially, but we play a bigger role than our numbers represent because of the business we're in. We bring a lot of value in our awareness of Hispanic culture and diversity, and our talent is frequently pulled over to do things for NBC Nightly News — for "We The People" segments, for example, or to talk about the census.