Star turnaround: Preston Kevin Lewis gets the credit at Warner Bros.

Preston Kevin Lewis is the king of strategy | Photo: Kim Tonelli

His business may be entertainment, but it seems the force is with the market strategy of this canny managing director.

Ask his staff and they will tell you Preston Kevin Lewis is the king of strategy.

Speak to the man himself, and you’ll be treated to a master class on how to execute strategy in business.

Lewis is a career entertainment industry executive. His most recent strategic move has been turning around the focus and fortunes of Warner Bros. in Australia and New Zealand through his role as managing director.

Lewis joined the Time Warner-owned Warner Bros. in July 2006 after six years at HBO and three at MTV on the east coast of the US, and three years at Disney in Los Angeles.
After accumulating a broad set of skills at each of those entertainment houses, Lewis was appointed vice-president of international licensing at Warner Bros., also in Los Angeles.

He was cruising comfortably, but the one thing missing from his career was a stint overseas.

In November 2006 Lewis was set the task of assessing the Australian arm of Warner Bros. Was it time to turn it over to an agent, or should it continue as a wholly‑owned office?

After just four weeks on the ground, Lewis made the call: yes, Australia is a viable business, but it needs a complete turnaround.

“From a business perspective, the thing that absolutely blew me away was that a country of 22-odd million people could be so wealthy,” Lewis says. “But not only is it wealthy, it’s a country with such a healthy appreciation for entertainment.

“I went back to my boss in LA and said there were three things we need to do: we need to change the strategy we’re currently following in the market; we need to hire new people; and we need to change the organisational structure.”

For the next eight months Lewis commuted from Los Angeles – two weeks working in Melbourne, two weeks back home with his family – a regimen in keeping with one of his career mottos: don’t go for the easy stuff, everyone can do the easy stuff.

“It’s the hard stuff that challenges you, pushes you outside the comfort zone and gives you opportunities,” he says. “One of the reasons taking this opportunity was so fascinating to me was that it was a complete turnaround [of Warner Bros. Australia and New Zealand]. Even the office is completely different to the first time I came here.”

Lewis set about redefining what the market thought about Warner Bros. from a retail and licensing perspective.

No leader can drive an army they can’t rely on, says Preston Kevin Lewis | Photo: Kim Tonelli

No leader can drive an army they can’t rely on, says Preston
Kevin Lewis | Photo: Kim Tonelli

Building the right team was his starting point. He is an ardent believer that success is directly related to the quality, character, maturity and results-focus of the individuals within a team.

“You can have an amazing career with Warner Bros. but two things are critical,” he says. “One is results: we don’t get paid to work hard, to try ‘let me see what I can do’. No one’s interested in that. We are interested in hiring people who are great strategists and are delivering results.”

The second is integrity, character and honour. “If you’re delivering results and I can rely on your integrity and character and know that is not a moving target but is intrinsic to who you are, you can have an amazing career,” he says. “But let me tell you, if one or both of those is not happening, you won’t be long working for me.”

It’s a message Lewis delivers loud and clear to all interviewees as well as head-hunters in the industry.

It can scare off potential candidates, but Lewis is fine with that. After all, he says, this thing we do [running a business] is like war.

“And as warriors, you are at your best when you have the best army possible. No leader can drive an army that they can’t rely on, so making sure you have the best and brightest people you can rely on, that can deliver results consistently, is a critical part of our success.”

They sound like the words of a Jedi knight preparing for battle, but win over Preston Kevin Lewis and you’ve got a good man on your side.

He sees it as part of his responsibility to develop people’s careers at Warner Bros. And his passion for the job is infectious. A bevvy of career-long mentors have drummed into him the value of loving your job. “And you know, when you love something, you love the good, the bad and the ugly,” he says.

Once he had the Melbourne team in place, Lewis set about defining his strategy and communicating it to the team.

“I didn’t come up with this strategy willy-nilly, I came on it because I believe it is absolutely the right way to grow the business to where we want it go. You need people to know whether they want to be part of it or not and what role they need to play. If you don’t start with as much clarity as you can, you open up the room to make a lot more mistakes than you want in the overall scheme,” he says.

Lewis shifted the company’s focus to marketing and retail (“marketing is important in any job” is another of his mottos).

Preston Kevin's career timeline

Preston Kevin's career timeline

No leader can drive an army they can’t rely on.

Retail was one of the single most important aspects of the Australian and New Zealand business and he needed his staff to prioritise marketing opportunities for all brands across the categories.

To do that, Lewis says, the team needed to figure out how to make money and who their customers were in order to generate that revenue.

Customers ranged from retail buyers to the parents of babies and small children and their mums and dads, five-to-eight year olds, teens and tweens and adults.

Then there’s the themed entertainment companies, companies that do live shows, advertising agencies and, finally, the manufacturers.

“The strategy we had wasn’t just high-falutin’ business school 101,” cautions Lewis. “The strategy exists because these are the customers we have to impact. And we constantly go back to ‘who is the customer?’.”

Building partnerships was the next crucial piece in the puzzle. “It’s about building strategic alliance partners, so you are just as important to them as they are to you,” Lewis says.
“That way partners like that very quickly become steeped in the DNA of Warner Bros. They know Looney Tunes deeply, they know Superman deeply and they become great partners in delivering solutions in the marketplace.”

Lewis says the concentration of the retail customer in Australia was something he hadn’t encountered before and makes the job for his team that bit harder.

“It’s incredibly concentrated – there are fewer players and they’re huge. They each have the power to impact your business in monumental ways. It’s one of the most challenging aspects of the business here and it became a critical part of what occupied our day-to-day, because my guys are always thinking about what’s the right decision for that account. You have to because each one of these accounts means so much to the overall business,” he says.

Lewis says one advantage of the Australian market is its seeming economic resilience. “I look at Greece, the UK and America and they’re limping along, and somehow Australia just skates through,” he says.

Which the home office in Los Angeles is grateful for, as the Australian business continues to add to the profit column of the company’s books.

Australia is a growth market for Warner Bros. globally and one in which new programs and strategies can be tested.

Lewis’s efforts have reaped rewards, with revenue last year outstripping each of the previous 17 years.

At the time of writing, 2013 was on its way to surpassing that. What the actual number may be is a tightly held fact – Warner Bros. is not in the business of revealing sales figures.

That bottom-line success has led Lewis this year to take responsibility for the Indian market, which he describes as the opposite of Australia in that it does not have the concentration of retailers – but which, like Australia and New Zealand, needs a complete overhaul. Cue the strategy.

What I’ve learned

  • It’s critical to be passionate about what you choose to do with your life. There’s no substitute for that whatsoever. If you look at my career, it underscores everything I’ve gone through.
  • Build a story on integrity and character. The way people relate to you – potential partners, bosses, staff – is tied to that story of integrity and the value-led proposition about who you are.
  • Prioritise people and partnership – build great teams and partnerships.

This article is from the October 2013 issue of INTHEBLACK magazine.