September 18, 2008

By Paul Feinberg

Salvador ViramontesIf you want to manufacture a Batman t-shirt in Britain or use the Roadrunner to sell a sports car in Germany ... or Egypt for that matter ... you'll have to check with Salvador Viramontes ('96) first.

Viramontes, whose career previously took him from Mexico City to Los Angeles, is now based in London as Warner Bros., Consumer Products' new vice-president, sales retail and marketing for Europe, the Middle East and Africa (EMEA). When interviewed in early September, he'd only been in England for about five weeks, after a six-year stint in Burbank handling a similar position for Warner Bros. in Latin America. He is responsible for monetizing the varied Warner Bros. brands -- which include the DC Comics characters (Batman, Superman, Flash) and Looney Tunes stars (Bugs Bunny, Roadrunner, Elmer Fudd) among many others -- by licensing the properties as advertising "spokes-characters," to manufacturers and to retailers such as Euro-giant Carrefour. Viramontes and Warner Bros. also do licensing and branding for third-party partners, like popular futbol teams Manchester United and Barcelona.

Much of Viramontes' work involves deciding which companies with which to do business. There's much more to it than just a profitable bottom line.

"Since we're selling an intangible, it's a very delicate thing," Viramontes said. "We have to think about what impact a deal will have on the brand. Our brands like DC Comics and Looney Tunes are evergreen, they've been with the company for decades and they should remain highly valuable for decades to come." As a result, you won't be seeing Batman cigarettes or Superman vodka any time soon, no matter how many packs or bottles the company could sell.

Viramontes explained what he looks for in a partner. "It's not a question of milking (our properties), on the contrary, we strive to find good partners with good manufacturing quality and ethical practices." He added that a company's ability to adapt products to a local market is important and it is also important to partner with companies that are financially sound. Companies lacking solid financials might not be able to properly launch a product, resulting not only in lost revenues, but also damage to a particular brand.

But Viramontes and his team are not only seeking big multi-national corporations to do business with. He says they are just as willing to work with small, family-owned companies. "One interesting thing about this business is that no two contracts are the same. There are tailor-made contracts and negotiations for each deal," Viramontes said. What this means is, an entrepreneur with a proven knowledge of a particular market and good financial backing and a solid business plan has a fair chance of licensing Bugs Bunny for their product just like a multi-national, but anyone lacking the right backing or track record has little or no shot.

Warner Bros. employs a combination of fully owned offices and agents across the EMEA region, including emerging and developing markets. Their task is to seek out potential deals and to service existing ones. Some deals are brought to the agents, others are the result of knocking on doors. They negotiate deals which are then presented to Viramontes and his team in the London regional headquarters where final approval and vetting commences.

Not all deals involve manufacturing. In some cases, potential partners simply seek to trade on the image of a Warner Bros. property. "At the end of the day, when you are licensing, you are borrowing equity. When you want to communicate an idea using one of our characters might be a clear way to do it," Viramontes said. "Speed for example. In that case, using Roadrunner or The Flash makes your point clearly and succinctly."

Viramontes journey to Warner Bros. began at UCLA Anderson. As he was graduating, he was offered an internship through the Parker Career Management Center at Warner Bros., an internship he turned down due to a desire to return to Mexico City (the internship was in Burbank). But, he says, the Parker CMC had trained him never to close any doors, so he was as diplomatic as possible in turning down the position. He must have made a good impression, because three and a half years later a licensing position with Warner Bros. opened up in Mexico City and the same Warners executive who had done the internship interview called and offered Viramontes a position he then accepted.

After six years in Los Angeles, he's now ready to expand the Warner Bros. brand across new territory. He's looking forward to the challenge.

"The importance of licensing or merchandising has definitely expanded (over the years), competition has increased all over the place," Viramontes said. "More and more, brands or intellectual properties are being used by companies to communicate (certain) lifestyles (and) many (more) companies are getting into the business."

On a personal level, Viramontes looks forward to a new set of challenges. "I find myself having to quickly adapt to several business cultures (at once). I am based in London, but my responsibilities cover a large number of countries with very different ways of doing business. But this is what makes the position exciting -- adapting to new cultures, learning new ways of doing business and in turn opening my horizons both professionally and personally."

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