David Ownby: Creating value for shareholders, great experiences for customers

Business Journal Regal Entertainment CFO David Ownby inside downtown Knoxville’s Regal Riviera. (Photo by Adam Lau)

Business Journal Regal Entertainment CFO David Ownby (Carson-Newman class of 1992) inside downtown Knoxville’s Regal Riviera. (Photo by Adam Lau)

Story by Carly Harrington, courtesy of the Knoxville News Sentinel

Not long after Regal Entertainment Group’s chief financial officer Amy Miles had been approached about becoming the chief executive, a similar conversation was held with her longtime co-worker David Ownby.

Ownby, who Miles hired in 1999, says he never set out to become CFO of the nation’s largest movie circuit. He simply enjoyed his job and the people with whom he worked.

“I’m more of a guy who tries to make the right decisions every day and hopefully that leads me to a good place,” he says.

More than four years into his CFO role, the 43-year-old Sevier County native has managed through a challenging economic environment. Ownby is credited with improving margins, evaluating potential opportunities to increase sales and recently playing a key role in the acquisition of two theater companies that resulted in record second-quarter revenues in fiscal 2013.

With the ability to think strategically as well as operationally, Ownby is an effective CFO, who is “a tremendous asset to Regal and to me personally as CEO,” Miles says.

For his part, Ownby says Miles and other Regal executives made sure he was “exposed to the right things” to ensure a smooth transition.

In his first meeting with Wall Street analysts after the announcement, Ownby recalls telling them that he would try to communicate “in the same clear and credible way” as Miles and Regal founder Mike Campbell and “in the same Southern accent as well.”

“If I didn’t do anything else, I wanted to make sure I continued that tradition for Regal of providing that kind of communication to Wall Street, and hopefully I’ve done that,” he says.

In some ways it has been a natural transition for Miles and Ownby, who have risen together through the company’s ranks.

Miles had been with the company about six months when she interviewed Ownby for his first position with the company.

“We had lunch at the Bel-Air Grille in Halls, and we’ve been friends ever since,” Ownby recalls. “We’ve seen a lot of the same things, and I say this a lot, but there are plenty of guys who are probably just as smart as me and work just as hard as me, but I was lucky to have Amy there along the way. And it’s been a really fun ride to do that together.”

A whirlwind opportunity

Ownby, the eldest of two sons, grew up in Sevierville, where he says his first business lessons were learned while working in the family’s nearly 60-year-old hardware and building supply store, Carl Ownby and Co.

“I think my granddad in his lifetime got to know his customers. He tried to help out his customers when he could, and I think that built a lot of loyalty which is why we’re still there today,” he says.

At the old-fashioned store with wood floors and “nice people,” Ownby jokes that “family had to do the hard jobs.” He remembers stocking shelves, selling paint and working on the delivery truck — fond memories because he got to work with his dad, brother and cousins every day.

“It was a fun place to go to work,” he recalls. “That’s one thing that’s really stuck with me. I think it’s really important that — and don’t get me wrong, at Regal we work hard and we do what we’re supposed to do — but I think a good way to motivate people is to make sure they have fun, too.”

Ownby had taken some basic accounting classes in high school and admits that the logic that debit and credit always had to equal appealed to him.

After graduation, he headed to Jefferson City, where he attended Carson-Newman College, mostly because it was the only school that would let him play basketball.

His first professional job took him to the public accounting firm Ernst & Young in Chattanooga, where he worked as an auditor for seven years. His biggest client was Aztec Industries, a manufacturer of road paving equipment.

“Being that it was a smaller office in a smaller city, I got to work with some companies that were growing really fast. They were growing through acquisitions, which was good education for later,” he says.

But Ownby knew early on that he didn’t want to stay in public accounting so he began to look for a new opportunity. In a whirlwind week, he found it.

On a Monday in 1999, Ownby remembers getting a call from a headhunter, who told him of an opening at Regal. The next day Ownby drove to the company’s headquarters for an interview. By Wednesday, he had an offer and on Thursday he accepted because “it just felt right.” He put in his two-week notice at Ernst & Young on Friday.

At 29, Ownby became Regal’s director of financial projects, in charge of financial analysis of new theater sites. Soon after, he became vice president of finance.

“It was fortuitous that I got there at a time when there were a lot of opportunities to do a lot of different things. Even though that was my first job I was really able to step right in and work on lots of different things,” he says.

A quick turnaround

From an accountant’s perspective, the movie business can bring a certain level of excitement to the profession. But with it comes the ebb and flow of uncertainty of a content-driven business.

“We’re a rare business where we don’t control the product. Hollywood controls the product. So that does make it challenging from a finance perspective sometimes because it’s hard to plan. It’s hard to plan for what’s next when you may not have a good handle on what your revenue might be for next month,” he says. “We think about our business as pretty stable over the long term, but definitely, in the short run, it can present some challenges when movies don’t do as well as you hoped.”

Ownby had been with Regal for three years when the decision was made to file for bankruptcy protection. Regal emerged from it in 2002, and Ownby became senior vice president of finance, a role he maintained until he became CFO.

Meanwhile, investor Phil Anschutz had gained control of the company in the bankruptcy process, and Regal went straight from bankruptcy to merging with two other circuits, United Artist Theatres and Edwards Theatres. Then within a span of a few months, Regal went public.

“That short stretch of time is a career for a lot of people, and it happened in six months for us,” he says.

Ownby acknowledges it was a difficult period for the company but says he knew from working in the finance department that there was nothing wrong with the core business.

Like a lot of companies in the industry, Regal had grown very fast during a time when stadium-seating theaters were being built and digital projectors installed. But “you could see light at the end of the tunnel,” Ownby says.

“A lot of times when companies file for bankruptcy, that’s hard to do. It was a little bit easier for us because we could see we had a chance to turn it around pretty quickly, and fortunately we had a lot of talented people in the right positions to get that done,” he says.

Once Regal went public in May 2002, the company had a chance “to operate the business we really wanted to.”

“We got back to what we did best which was growing the company by acquiring and building theaters, rewarding shareholders and by making sure our customers have a great experience at the theater,” he says.