Q&A with Guy Primus

Guy Primus is the chief operating officer of Overbrook Entertainment, the film, TV and transmedia production company founded by producer James Lassiter and actor/producer Will Smith. Primus will be giving his keynote presentation at the IIE Annual Conference Monday, May 20. 

Tell us about your role and responsibilities as COO of Overbrook Entertainment.

The primary thing that I do is help the co-founders – we call them partners here – execute on their vision. James Lassiter and Will Smith co-founded the business, and Jada Pinkett is another one of the partners. It’s my job to help them execute on how they want to see the business in 10 years and how they want to grow the business. They’re all big thinkers and I’m the guy that helps them get it done. So that’s the primary thing. From there, I manage the staff – we have 30 people here at Overbrook – and coordinate business affairs [including] working with our attorneys and making sure that when we work with a writer that all the i’s are dotted and the t’s are crossed. I work with our business management [team] to make sure all the bills are paid and we get paid on time. And then there’s coordinating business development as well. As you can imagine, the industry is changing pretty rapidly, just like every other industry, so we want to stay on top of things managing business development and strategic investments.

How has your industrial engineering education and experience helped you in your career?

The biggest way is that it’s given me a systems orientation, so understanding how pieces fit together and how those individual pieces really impact the whole – the whole of a company, the whole of a process, the whole of interactions. That’s probably the biggest thing that industrial engineering has done for me.

On a day-to-day basis, there are things like process improvement. Obviously, you want to optimize in industrial engineering wherever you can, and I think that a lot of people think that always has to do with plugging in some mathematical program and coming out with an answer. And what I’ve done is taken the mathematical approach and applied that to a creative industry, so making sure that processes are … running at their peak efficiency. Beyond that there are decision support systems, which was something I was really focused on as a graduate and undergraduate student. I understand how you can create those decision support systems so that when you’re confronted with a challenging situation, you can come out with an answer really quickly.

The final way is that it has helped me quickly identify the key drivers of any business. I worked as a consultant for five years, and when you implement some industrial engineering philosophies you can quickly – just by spreadsheet analysis or linear program or whatever way you approach the problem – identify what the key drivers of the business are and focus on those things as opposed to worrying about things that don’t have as great an impact on the business.

I did a project for National Public Radio when I was a consultant. I really rely on the things that I’m good at, and I think a lot of people do that. Fortunately, one of the things I’m good at is analysis, and that’s highly valued in corporate America. [For] NPR, I built this really robust spreadsheet model that had a visual basic front end. And instead of walking into the boardroom and talking to all these station managers and executives at NPR [saying] here are some ideas and thoughts that we had, I could actually tell them, well, if we increase the pricing of “Morning Edition” by X-thousand dollars for these stations based on these criteria, what effect that would have on the public radio system in general. And that was when a light bulb went off for me – when I saw the power of sitting in a boardroom being able to change the variable or parameter, having an answer and then seeing how people responded to that. It really gave me a lot of power.

What do you think about the direction of industrial engineering?

Industrial engineering and industrial engineers are being recognized on the highest levels. It’s not just by luck that two of the biggest companies in America and around the world are run by industrial engineers – Tim Cook at Apple and Mike Duke at Wal-Mart. That’s not just chance that those guys are running these big, complex multinational companies. Their success is shining a light on the discipline on the big stage. It’s also going in a good direction just because of the evolution of technology. Computing power is a lot cheaper than it was, and bandwidth is cheaper and just the power that people have in their hands. And then the user interfaces that people have been able to develop, it really makes industrial engineering concepts more accessible and relatable to a lot more people. The ability to communicate complex ideas is a real differentiator, and it’s become easier and easier. It’s something I would encourage everyone to pay attention to and focus on.

What do you plan to discuss in your keynote presentation?

Entertainment is a field that everyone can relate to. Everyone’s seen a movie; people understand what a movie is. What I’d like to do is take this field that everyone can relate to but really don’t know how it works and discuss how tools that IEs have been using for years can be used in this field. When you think industrial engineering, entertainment doesn’t come to mind. I really want to focus on the use of tools, systems and technology in entertainment. As this industry evolves, just like every industry is, I think there are more opportunities for industrial engineers and industrial engineering applications. I want to highlight some of those and how I’m doing it here at Overbrook and some of the opportunities I see on a broader industry level.

What would you like attendees to take away from your presentation?

To find opportunities that are hidden in plain sight and to take what we’ve learned as industrial engineers and apply those techniques to every field of human endeavor. It doesn’t have to be mathematical. It doesn’t have to be a numerical equation to optimize. There are opportunities to optimize, opportunities to improve processes, opportunities to create systems that make life better, and that’s really what I would hope that people do in their daily lives.

For more information about Guy Primus and the other IIE Annual Conference keynote speakers, go to the Keynote Speakers page at www.iienet.org/annual 

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