From a small boy who thought he was Superman, to a man who actually is, the life story of Dragons’ Den star Vincenzo Guzzo, the Canadian son of Italian immigrants, is one of curiosity, intellect, perseverance, caring, passion and kindness, along with the triumphs and tragedies that have shaped this successful entrepreneur, entertainment mogul and philanthropist.
“On a recent episode of Dragons’ Den, they asked me what the dumbest thing is I’ve ever done,” says Guzzo in a recent revealing and candid interview with Dolce. “I was four years old at the top of the stairs in the stairwell of an apartment building in Montreal. I decided to play Superman and I jumped and I hit the bottom stair, lost my balance and crashed through a glass door, cutting the ligaments in my right arm. So, in 1974, as a result, I was the first ligament reattachment surgery in Canada. After that, I lived a very protected life, and for my parents, I was the centre of their universe.”
Young Vincenzo was an only child due to the tragedy of his parents losing four other children in infancy due to a rare medical condition. “Every Christmas I only wished I could have a brother,” recalls Guzzo. “So, I made up that sibling relationship in my mind. Today, I don’t understand when my five kids don’t get along, and they tell me I’m delusional because they say that’s how real siblings interact. And I don’t understand that because my sibling relationship was make-believe.”
Guzzo’s parents emigrated in 1967, and he recalls growing up in Montreal he was always classified as “the Italian.” “In a way, that protected our heritage, as we were always reminded we were Italian,” says Guzzo. “So, I actually learned Italian. I can speak and read it, though I’m not very good at writing it, as I’m dyslexic. It’s funny because Montreal Italians like to make fun of other Italians in Canada, because we either spoke English or Italian — we didn’t mix the two like in Toronto, where they might speak Italian and throw in a few words of English.”
Describing himself as both an introvert and extrovert (but leaving out the fact he is also affable, engaging, enthusiastic, expressive, an unbridled optimist, and storyteller par excellence), today, Guzzo is the president and CEO of Cinémas Guzzo, the largest independent operator in Quebec and the third-largest movie exhibitor in Canada. He also owns Groupe Guzzo Construction Inc., a successful general contracting outlets in Quebec, as well as Giulietta, a fine-dining Italian pizzeria, with currently two locations and a third one expected to open this spring. But, like so many entrepreneurs, Guzzo’s path has held many twists and turns along the way to the success he enjoys today.
That path led him to business school and then law school, but he always paid close attention to the family business, which was owning independent movie theatres in Quebec, a business his family began in 1974. In the entertainment business, what is popular sells, and Cinémas Guzzo was having a hard time landing first-run movies from the big studios in Hollywood, which preferred to show movies in the big movie chains, rather than the smaller independent theatres.
“I saw growing up the anxiety, stress and worry this problem had on my father and mother, and I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to be a litigation lawyer in New York and be my own boss with some stability,” says Guzzo. “But, when I got my law degree, my father sat me down and said if I wasn’t going to take over the family business, they’d probably have to sell. So, we agreed I’d give the family business a shot for six to 12 months before I went to New York. And after three months, I realized there was more arguing and litigation to be had in this business with the L.A. studios, and I started to really like the industry.”
In 1998, Guzzo put his skills as a litigator and his effective negotiating capabilities to good use when he sued the biggest movie competitor in Canada to gain equal opportunity for “the little guy” to show first-run releases. He won the case, and by showing the biggest and latest movies, allowing the business to soar.
Ever the opportunist and innovative thinker Guzzo realized that in order to expand the family movie theatre chain, they had to build more, and contractors would be their biggest expense. Guzzo thought a way to bring those costs down was to build the theatres themselves, bringing the contracting in-house, so he went and got his general contractor’s licence. Today, Groupe Guzzo Construction Inc. builds all its theatres, and owns some real estate in which they are located. The chain now has a total of 145 screens, nine of which are IMAX with 10 more locations set to open over the next three years.
Then came the pandemic and with it the lockdowns. Unlike in other businesses severely affected, like the restaurant industry, “curbside pickup” in the movie theatre business is, to its detriment, online streaming. Statistics Canada shows the movie theatre industry’s operating revenue in 2020 dropped by 70.6 per cent, compared with 2018. A monetary solution had to be found to combat dark theatres. Here, once again, Guzzo showed his creative side and entrepreneurial ingenuity.
Before the pandemic, Guzzo had again expanded his operations in 2019 by opening his Italian pizzerias, Giulietta, which allowed him to now pivot to direct-to-consumers selling through LoveFoodToGo.com and eventually through Cinémas Guzzo locations, as restrictions are lifted. He also entered the retail food space with Good Pantry, Giulietta@Home and Mr. Sunshine popcorn, a natural fit from the theatre business, which will be available in major grocery stores such as Costco, Metro and Sobeys.
Guzzo’s Dragons’ Den platform has allowed him to go on speaking tours to universities, and it was through this experience that he gained insight into the ups and downs of his own “entrepreneur experience,” an experience he found somewhat contrary to what is often portrayed in the media, or in business schools and business books.
“Speaking the truth to students about entrepreneurial careers allowed me to do an almost-therapeutic analysis of my entrepreneurial journey, as it forced me to do an introspective look at what I went through,” he recalls. “There’s two things I take away from my journey that were unforeseeable. Firstly, you can’t be everything to everybody; you have to fail at something, so choose what you want to fail at. Secondly, not everyone will understand your entrepreneurial journey because they’re not living it, and whether you like it or not, you will become an introvert, as you won’t always want to share your anxieties or worry with others. Ultimately, what happens over time is that you end up being somewhat alone, having less and less people you can share stuff with, because very few people understand the journey you are on.”
This is very intelligent, insightful and careful thought coming from a person who, as a four-year-old kid, decided to jump off the top of a stairwell wearing a cape and misjudged the nonexistent wind.
“YOU CAN’T BE EVERYTHING TO EVERYBODY; YOU HAVE TO FAIL AT SOMETHING”
True to their nature, Guzzo and his wife, Maria, are renowned philanthropists, donating to many hospitals and establishing the Guzzo Family Foundation in 2007, which is aggressively investing in cancer nanotechnology research at Montreal’s Jewish General Hospital and McGill University, contributing to image departments and advocating mental health.
“At first, we wanted to give to children because of losing my four brothers and sisters, but we decided that was too personal and wanted instead to focus on the greater community,” says Guzzo. “That’s when the mental health aspect crept in, because when you are told you have cancer, that’s a lot of stress and anxiety. And we wanted to point out it’s OK to talk about that. We’re all fighting something and we need to talk about it. And when we give to hospitals, we give to the Imaging Department, because that’s the funnel of the whole medical system, because without imaging results, they can’t diagnose treatment. And when we’re donating for new imaging machines, we insist the old ones be kept operational, so, therefore, we’ll have twice as many results coming out.”
Guzzo’s contributions have been internationally recognized, as he is the recipient of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal, was knighted by the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic and is a distinguished member of the Order of Malta.
When asked how he describes la dolce vita, or the sweet life, without hesitation, and in his true character, Guzzo replies, “To have the privilege to do what I want, when I want, how I want, without hurting anyone in the process.”
Vincenzo Guzzo has indeed lived a life as fast as a speeding bullet and more powerful than a locomotive, but he has also used that speed and that power to influence, create, donate and effect positive change where and when it has been needed most — the very definition of a superhero.