Seat of Honor: ICTA salutes Seating Concepts veteran exec José Letayf

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Technology

José Letayf Sr., the 90-year-old chairman of the board of San Diego, CA-based Seating Concepts LLC, will be honored with the International Cinema Technology Association’s “Distinguished Service Award” during the ICTA’s morning seminar at CinemaCon on Thursday, April 14. It’s a well-deserved salute to the longevity of this seating pioneer who still reports to the office each day.

There’s no doubt that José’s son, Juan Carlos, president and CEO of Seating Concepts, will be beaming with pride during the ceremony. Juan Carlos represents the third generation of this durable company, which began in 1925 as a small, start-up furniture factory in Mexico named Industrias Ideal, taken over in an investment deal by his grandfather, Fernando. Industrias Ideal started with three employees and eight laborers; by the end of year one, it had delivered 5,000 wood-based auditorium seats. The company’s reputation and output grew significantly over the following decades.

When Fernando died, his three sons took over the business, with José eventually emerging as its sole leader; under his guidance, Industrias Ideal became the largest seating manufacturer in Mexico.

By 1964, the factory was working at full capacity, necessitating an expansion. The company also forged a major deal with the Ford Motor Company for the outsourcing of select automobile components. Four years later, it supplied seating for the key stadiums and Olympic Village venues for the 1968 Summer Olympic Games in Mexico City.

By the 1980s, Industrias Ideal began looking beyond the markets of Mexico and Latin America. In October 1982, Seating Concepts was incorporated in California, and the Letayf family started selling their products in North America, Europe, Asia and Africa.

Current CEO Juan Carlos Letayf has been with Industrias and Seating Concepts for more than three decades. “I grew up working summertime at the factory, since I was ten or eleven years old,” he recalls. Along with the family trade, he learned lessons in kindness from his father. “What I always admired about my dad was that he always treated people equally. You could be in the highest position in the company or people with minor responsibilities, and he would treat them the same way. The time disappears when you are with him—he dedicates his full attention to you. Another quality that had a big impact on me is that he is always positive, he always has a good attitude. For instance, during the economic crisis of 2008 when all the companies were impacted, he was always positive, he was always saying, ‘No worries, the industry is going to go up again.’”

Today, while Juan handles the day-to-day operations of the firm, his father comes in for several hours a day and attends to public-relations matters and entertaining clients. Juan believes his dad’s continued involvement with the company is “one of the secrets of his being healthy.”

For his part, José Letayf (also known as Pepe) reflects, “With the motive of turning 90 years old, I can share that I have had a life full of happy moments—moments that have increased with the love of my children and my wife. My greatest personal achievement is that my children are the third generation of Industrias Ideal, which is also celebrating its 90th anniversary, having been founded by my father, Fernando S. Letayf.”

CEO Juan Letayf observes, “Ninety years is a long time, and we really need to celebrate being the third generation, with all these economic cycles, crises and booms, and being able to sustain the company for 90 years.”

Asked the secret of his company’s longevity, Juan responds, “It’s a couple of things. To be adaptable, in design and doing business. I have seen big changes in the cinema industry. Two of the biggest ones were when theatres changed from the slope floor to stadium seating, and the recent change from traditional seats to recliners. You need to adapt to those changes really fast, along with the way you do business with your clients: service, prompt response, communication, and building a team that can support adaptability and change.”

The hot new trend in seating is power recliners. Juan notes, “I was not really buying it [at first], but after a few experiences, I could see that this was going to be a real success. But I don’t think you can apply [recliners] to 100% of the industry. There have to be recliners, premium chairs, and then the traditional chairs. You have to be very specific.”

The rise of circuit-branded premium-large-format (PLF) auditoriums has also been a boon to Seating Concepts’ business. “My personal opinion is that variety creates a stronger incentive to go to the cinema,” Juan attests. “It’s very nice to go to a theatre and have the option to have recliners or big-format theatres or a traditional theatre. For some pictures it’s necessary to see them in these bigger formats; for others, no.”

Seating Concepts is one of a growing number of manufacturers who create a more “moving” experience for cinemagoers via seating that integrates sound waves. “They’re doing great,” Juan reports. “I don’t think that it’s a general product to implement, but it’s very important to have it. In a lot of cinemas with 12 to 16 screens, they have one of two auditoriums with this system. You can notice right away the difference. Some clients place them in two or three rows of each auditorium, just to give the option. It’s a very good trend, it’s something different, something very nice that you can feel. But it’s [just] one segment of the market.”

As for his own favorite products, Juan says, “I love the retractable rocker, even though it’s been around for 20 years. I think it’s really, really comfortable as a traditional chair. Then there’s the premium line that has dining tables and lights—it’s a much bigger chair. These two are my favorite models. And, of course, the recliners.”

Today, Seating Concepts employs some 850 people and caters to roughly 40 to 50 theatre circuits of all sizes, around the globe. Along with chains like Carmike, Cinemark, AMC, Cineplex, Santikos and Russia’s Karo, clients have included the famed Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, the Kennedy Center Opera House, Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, the Culinary Institute of America, Mexico City’s Palace of Sports, and the University of Notre Dame.

Juan Carlos Letayf has strived to preserve the spirit his father brought to the firm. ‘We’re proud to be a corporate company with family values. That’s my biggest challenge as CEO, to try to keep the values and philosophy of a family-owned business, to treat the people well—all the stakeholders, our clients, our vendors, our people, but to also act as a corporate company.”

Giving Back

Along with his success as a businessman, ICTA honoree José Letayf has always been a caring member of his community. In 1943, at age 17, he volunteered with his local fire department, participating in several rescue and support operations. In 1955, he founded the Lions Club of Naucalpan and became its first president. He also launched construction of the Lions Club Hospital, which currently is the Red Cross of Naucalpan, Mexico.

Beginning in 1965, Letayf became an active member of the Variety Club, serving as president from 1968 to 1969. During this period, he significantly impacted education in the State of Mexico with the construction of the Variety Club Schools. In 1970, he was named VP of the Lebanese Center, helping to improved living conditions in marginalized communities.

In 2002, Letayf established a relationship with the ONG Board of Private Assistance of the State of Mexico, becoming one of its major donors, equipping hospital wards and school auditoriums and supplying materials and goods for workshops in social rehabilitation for Mexican artisans. And in 2008, he formed the Fernando S. Letayf Foundation, establishing a permanent entity for his charitable work.