The Energizer Bunny has nothing on Maurice Kanbar. For that matter, neither does the Road Runner. In my 10-plus years of interviewing business big shots, I’ve never come away from a conversation more impressed by one person’s energy, drive and confidence.
A longtime San Francisco resident and native New Yorker, Kanbar admits to being “over 60” (press reports say he’s in his early 80s). You’d never know it. Talking with him on the phone in mid-December, I could have mistaken him for a bubbly 25-year-old.
Kanbar is most famous for creating Skyy Vodka, known for a refined distillation process that supposedly lessens the affects of a hangover: "fewer impurities and zero carbs," as the ads say. Before that, he created the concept for the multiplex theater, a comb that takes fuzz off sweaters and a cryogenic cataract remover. After the sale of Skyy to global beverage brand Gruppo Campari, he capitalized on an obsession with films by producing the critically-acclaimed animated feature Hoodwinked in 2005. Years earlier, he’d given gobs of money to New York University’s film school, which now bears his name.
And he isn’t slowing down. Following Skyy’s three-year noncompete, he released Blue Angel Vodka, which can be found at almost every San Francisco watering hole. Today he is working on the release of Caffeo, a liquid drop that takes away coffee’s acid effects, and SooFoo (short for Super Good Food), a just-add-water meal of lentils, rice and fruit.
So you can imagine how excited I was to land an interview with Mr. Busy. Thinking he would give me exactly 10 minutes to chat, I readied my questions and dialed his number. It wasn’t until 80 minutes later that I realized he would've been happy to gab all day.
Last week I went to a movie at a cinema with 20 theaters in one building. Are you really the person who came up with the concept for multi-theater venues (a.k.a. multiplexes)?
Yep, that was me. I’ve always looked at things and thought about how I could make them better. In 1972, I owned a building in Manhattan that was 50 feet wide and 150 feet deep. The movie business was in terrible shape back then, largely because there were 1,500-seat [movie] houses and only 50 people would show up for a film. I started thinking that if the size of the theater met the number of people who went to see a movie, the houses would be more profitable.
From that idea, I built four theaters inside my building and on Oct. 1, 1972, I opened the first multiplex. Nowadays, I don’t know of many one-screen standing movie houses. They are all multiplexes. It’s a better and more profitable business model.
Your inventions or companies exist in a wide range of industries. How do you decide on your next project?
My projects usually stem from conversations with people. They tell me a pain point, and I come up with a way to make it go away. For example, the cataract remover idea came from a conversation with one of my physician friends. He was telling me about removing cataracts using liquid hydrogen. The process struck me as very dangerous, so I went home and came up with a way to make it simpler and safer for patients.
How did you come up with the idea for Skyy Vodka?
It all started back in the early 90s when I went to my doctor for my yearly physical. I didn’t look well; I was suffering from a Cognac hangover. My doctor told me I should forgo Cognac and just drink vodka. So for the next few months, I stuck to vodka and soda, but I was still getting headaches. Another doctor friend told me that hangovers had a lot to do with alcohol with high congener content. I looked into it and decided to create vodka with only 1 percent congener.
I wasn’t sure what to call it; one day I looked out my window and saw a magnificent blue sky and thought, That’s it!
How have you managed to maintain such a high level of energy through the years?
I think it is a gift. I know people my age that can’t walk. It might be genetics, but I also try to eat healthy.
How do you approach everything with such enthusiasm and so little fear?
There is no reason to be afraid because there is nothing wrong with failing.
Have you ever failed at a business venture?
Yes. A few years ago, I created a soda that was basically 20 percent regular Coke and 80 percent Diet Coke. I thought it was a great idea and called it 80/20 Cola. I sold it to local grocery stores and they even put it on their end-caps.
About 45 days later, I learned that it was an awful idea. I was losing money and realized that if it ever did take off, big soda companies would just copy me and bury my product anyway. I took a $200,000 loss, but it didn’t destroy me.
What advice can you give budding entrepreneurs?
Stay awake. Look at everything and come up with ways to make it better. Be convinced that what you are doing is right. Understand what you expect to accomplish. If you are confident that you can accomplish it, there is no fear involved.
What is the greatest lesson you’ve learned over the years?
To trust yourself and go for it. I was giving a lecture at NYU about entrepreneurship and told the class that they could take $20,000 and turn it into a $1 million film project if they worked hard enough. Right after I said that, a student raised his hand and said, ‘Mr. Kanbar, you are rich and might not think $20,000 is a lot, but as a student, that is a ton of money.’
I looked right at that student and said that I would give every dollar I have to be sitting in his chair at 20 years old. I told him to go find a way to raise the money, put together an idea and make the film of his dreams. I hope I got through to him.
Bottom line: You have to be honestly enthusiastic about what you want to do. That honest enthusiasm comes through. It is what will make you successful.
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