Giving Back: Cinemark's Walter Hebert honored as Variety's 'Texan of the Year'

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“I was born in Gilmer, Texas. I was raised in Little Rock, Arkansas,” notes Walter Hebert III, Cinemark USA’s executive VP in charge of global purchasing. And, no, they did not hold the latter against him, the 2018 “Texan of the Year” agrees with a chuckle. Hebert will receive this prestigious award from Variety-The Children’s Charity of Texas at the Wednesday evening gala during CinéShow.

“I am extremely honored,” he gratefully acknowledges. “And, I guess, a little in wonder about how and why they chose me. I certainly feel honored beyond belief that I was even being considered, knowing that previous winners were Lee Roy Mitchell and Frank Liberto and other such people of significant and real stature in the business.”

Although Hebert spent the first half of his career in Arkansas, “with the exception of a couple of years in service, and another few as a store manager for Dillard’s in Abilene, Texas,” one may say that he found his calling in the Lone Star State. “At that stage in my mid-40s, after 20 years at Dillard’s, I wanted something new to try. I heard from Cinemark Theatres and came running back to Texas as quickly as my feet would carry me.”

For Hebert, opportunity knocked as passion was calling. “I had always been attracted by the movie business and been wanting to own my own theatre… Starting from a family that was a very hard-working but extremely lower-middle-class at best, monetarily, I just could not do it.” Instead, he kept observing the business, and got to watch one of its very best. Lee Roy Mitchell, founder and executive chairman of Cinemark, is his brother-in-law, and Hebert witnessed the circuit’s evolution from a start-up to a global operator. “As they continued to grow, I just wanted to work out a position where I could get into the theatre industry, and hopefully, later, get into building my own theatres. Although I never did, that was my idea at the time, 25 years ago when I joined Cinemark.”

Hebert was immediately tasked with building…but not movie theatres. After Mitchell appointed him to Cinemark’s home-entertainment subsidiary, 2 Day Video, in 1993, he grew the chain from 13 to 21 stores in just 18 months. “Cinemark had explored offering video rentals and sales in their concession stands as well as around the movies, but that did not work very well,” he admits. “The challenge was to decide to continue, whether to expand, sell or close.” All the above, one might say, as Hebert’s portfolio also included three pizza places which were closed. “Cinemark had bought the video chain just prior to my arrival, and a year and a half of expansion later, we sold it to Blockbuster Video. At about a 13 multiple,” he adds with pride.

Videotapes and disks may be gone, but pizza is back with a vengeance, not only at Cinemark Theatres. Who would have known back then? Hebert agrees. “We kind of explored this for a while but never to the extent as we are doing now and doing much more successfully as well.” Hebert works closely with Phillip Couch, executive VP, food and beverage, whose department determines the actual selection of products to be tested. “We do continue to see a fairly wide breadth of assortment for our customers to select from.”

After the sale of 2 Day Video, then-president Alan Stock had offered Hebert a choice between joining Cinemark in an operations capacity or working on business contracts. “Frankly, I did not care. It was whichever one he felt that I would benefit the company the best. ‘Well, if you don’t really care,’ Alan said, ‘we’ll move you into purchasing.’ And I agreed that ‘I probably can be in more immediate assistance to you there.’ It has been very good for me and, hopefully, for the company.”

While “Cinemark has always belonged to and always been a supporter of Variety,” Hebert says he was not “as directly involved” early on. That changed over the years, of course—especially when “Variety’s Peaceable Kingdom actually became my favorite charity of any because of the children that we are supporting.” Hebert also took inspiration from Lee Roy Mitchell, he says. “I talked to him sometimes about why he was so involved and such a giving person, especially to Variety and a few others of his choosing. He explained his belief that those that give quite a bit do get quite a bit more back in return. And he was not speaking monetarily as much as about the richness of feeling.” With that, “I just hope I can be a worthy representative for the charity.”

Stacy Bruce, president and executive director of Variety-The Children’s Charity of Texas, wholeheartedly agrees. “What we see with someone like Walter is giving but also someone extending that support over the years, as kind of a cheerleader and ambassador for Variety and Peaceable Kingdom, one of our biggest programs. So, our ‘Texan of the Year’ award is about the commitment to stand up. To support, yes, but then also stand up and share the word about who we are and what we do and how we impact the lives of children with special needs and their families.”

The entire cinema industry has shown its commitment as well, Bruce affirms, giving a special nod of appreciation to Cinemark. “Variety of Texas has been greatly supported by Cinemark over the last several years, and that support continues to grow. With that, to be able to honor someone from Cinemark who has personally given so much and who has also supported us within the industry,” she says, “creates a very well-rounded picture of our support through the cinema industry and specifically from Cinemark.” They are Texas-based, she reasons, but Cinemark reaches much, much further. “Through their efforts of selling the Variety Gold Heart pin, not only are they supporting Texas in a very rich way, but they are also supporting Variety chapters across the United States. That is very important to note.” Beyond that, “They have a very kind heart toward our summer camp and retreats at Peaceable Kingdom. And every year for the last several years, we have also been a beneficiary of their golf tournament and gala,” she adds. “We are very thankful that they give nationally, but also that they give specifically to Variety of Texas and Peaceable Kingdom. This is a very important relationship to us.”

Bruce says the same holds true for CinéShow, where the award has been given out for the past eight years or so. “We certainly see that as a huge, huge partnership and very important—critical, in fact—for the funds that we raise year-round.” Attending CinéShow for the first time last year, she enjoyed the get-together. “We were given the opportunity to educate and provide disability awareness to the people that attend. We do have close relationships with many of the vendors,” she says, singling out The Coca-Cola Company as a “notable” one. “CinéShow provides a very good opportunity for us not necessarily to get involved in their business, but to promote the work that we do which does impact all of us across the nation. We all have people with disabilities in our lives.”

“I am not sure how successful our gala would be,” she admits in closing, “without the partnership of CinéShow and their leadership team, and without the people who attend the gala.” Last year alone, honoring Gena and Chuck Norris helped raise about $435,000. Since its inception, the CinéShow-Variety partnership has raised $2.7 million for children with special needs and their families.

“That impacts a lot of lives. To help people understand the number of the lives impacted,” Bruce points out how Variety served over 6,000 children last year through Variety’s Peaceable Kingdom Retreat. “We could not do that without the partnership of CinéShow and the people who attend this gala, whether they make a $5 donation or buy a $10,000 trip to Bali. CinéShow and the support of TOMA are critical, and while it is such a wonderful given that we are partners, it is more than a given: It is an amazing effort on CinéShow’s part, and TOMA’s executive director, Todd Halstead, and their entire board and volunteers.”