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Alumni Success Stories

Jim Breen, M.B.A. '79
Umbrella Entertainment Group

What kind of business did the entrepreneur start?

Umbrella Entertainment Group develops and executes marketing campaigns for specific events for their clients. This involves customer research, development of a marketing strategy, and design and implementation of all aspects of that strategy at various events across the country.

Umbrella Entertainment Group consists of two subsidiaries, Umbrella Food Systems and Umbrella Event Marketing. These two arms of the company work together to develop and execute event marketing campaigns for independent clients. Umbrella Event Marketing pursues clients, designs the campaigns and strategies, and interacts with both the clients and the coordinator of the events. Umbrella Food Systems executes the campaign designed by Umbrella Entertainment Group. Umbrella Food Systems is responsible for the field market information, including setting up and running the sponsor booths and the sale of merchandise to the event spectators.

Past projects include Knudsen’s presence at the LA Marathon, a highly publicized boxing match sponsored by GM, and promotions for 1-800-COLLECT, Kraft, Red Baron Pizza, Pontiac, Kodak, and MetLife at air shows across the nation. Currently, Umbrella Entertainment Group is focusing its efforts on developing an organized network of air shows throughout North America.

What is the background of the entrepreneur?

Jim Breen was born and raised in Edgewater, New Jersey, and is the youngest of four boys. His father was a general in the Army Reserve and the town’s Postmaster.

Jim received an undergraduate degree in accounting from Manhattan College in New York City. Before continuing with his education at the University of Southern California, Jim did a six-week internship at Price Waterhouse in the winter of 1977 during which time he discovered that he did not want to be an accountant.

Without much work experience, Jim Breen entered the MBA program at the University of Southern California and, after arriving at USC, he learned of the school’s unique graduate Entrepreneur Program. He actually failed the entrepreneur personality profile test and had to petition his way into the program.

Upon graduation from the University of Southern California’s MBA Entrepreneur Program in 1979, Jim worked for several companies, including Sambo’s Restaurants, and Jaeger Management Consultants. In January of 1979, he took a job at the restaurant chain, Sambo’s, as a financial analyst. He remained with the company for 11 months until he was fired after a takeover by another company. From this experience, Jim developed a need for independence and control of his career. In 1980, he worked as a turn-around consultant for Jaeger where he learned how to negotiate with creditors, a skill that later proved to be very useful at Umbrella Entertainment Group.

How did the entrepreneur get the idea for starting this business?

Umbrella Entertainment Group evolved out of Jim’s Chipwich ice cream distribution company, which he started on April 1, 1983. His original business distributed and marketed the East Coast based Chipwich ice cream in California.

When Chipwich filed for chapter 11 in 1986, Jim examined the business and its assets that he had built over the previous three years. He discovered that through marketing the ice cream at fairs and other events, he had developed a key core competence; access to a captive audience. His experience, knowledge, and contacts resulted in a company very different from what it was three years prior. Jim turned his company into Umbrella Entertainment Group, an event marketing company.

What did the entrepreneur do to start this business?

To make the transition from a Chipwich distributor to an event marketing firm, Jim took action. There was not a formal business plan for Umbrella Entertainment Group, rather it was an evolution of the original business plan for the ice cream company.

In mid-1986, Jim and his partner, Paul Waterman, talked about this opportunity of being in a position to offer a full package of services to various clients. They established roles, Jim responsible for the sales, and Paul for the corporate strategy.

In the weeks following, they brought on a third manager. George Van Valkenburgh was hired to design and manage the company operations. George had worked for the Oakland Coliseum, and brought operational experience to the team.

In late 1986, as the operation designs were finished, Jim researched leasing companies for the equipment needed to begin operations and found that they were unable to secure the capital to buy the equipment and were forced to lease it.

Jim found that his role was really two-fold selling, he had to sell his idea of complete show management to both the air shows as well as to potential sponsors. In early 1987, Jim cold called the air show coordinators at the Davis Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, Arizona. His objective was to convince them of the benefits of contracting with Umbrella Entertainment Group to bring in sponsors and manage the concessions at the air show.

The second aspect of his selling involved securing a sponsor which occurred through a contact he had met while in the Chipwich business who helped him to win the business of Dove Bar ice cream. Jim brought the Dove Bar brand name to the air show coordinators, and after one or two meetings was able to convince them that his proposal would financially benefit the air show. The coordinators took a leap of faith and contracted with Umbrella Entertainment Group to manage not only the ice cream concessions, but all of the concessions of the show as well.

The next three years, Jim spent most of his time courting new clients and had to educate them about the company, air shows, and their demographics. Most sponsors took six months to a year of presentations and meetings before they would commit. Through Jim’s persistence and investment spending to groom the company, Umbrella Entertainment Group won Pontiac as a sponsor in December 1988, and several of the Kraft brands in 1991.

What major problems did the entrepreneur encounter during the startup of this business?

Jim Breen’s major problems stemmed from being under capitalized to finance the fast growth of the company, as well as underestimating the length of time and expense of gaining contracts. During the first two years, Umbrella Food Systems lost money due to debt payments on equipment. Additionally, they lost money on their first air show in April 1987. This contract was bid on the expectation of being able to bring in several sponsors; however, Dove Bar was the only sponsor contracted at the time the air show took place.

During these years, Umbrella Entertainment Group stayed one step ahead of its creditors. Jim’s experience as a turn-around consultant was crucial to the survival of the company at this time. He was able to negotiate with creditors and remain open and honest, which won the trust and leniency of the creditors.

By 1988, Umbrella Entertainment Group was generating enough cash flow from the sponsors to keep the business running. By 1990, it finally had sufficient cash flow to get financially caught up with creditors.

In 1990, once Umbrella Entertainment Group became profitable in the air show business, management opted to reduce indebtedness through operating cash flow as opposed to seeking outside equity. Jim and his partner set a goal of becoming debt free prior to further expansion of their business.

Who did the entrepreneur use for help and guidance during the startup of this business?

During the startup of his company, Jim looked to friends from USC for encouragement and support. This network of friends understood his situation and the trials of a startup. Jim also found inspiration in a friend’s father, who himself was an entrepreneur. He once told Jim that "it’s more fun getting there than it is being there."

Jim mostly relied on the support of his partner, Paul Waterman. During the start up they kept each other focused and motivated.

Finally Tom Urban, the National Sales Manager for M&M/Mars proved to be a valuable ally to Jim. Tom believed in Jim’s entrepreneurial vision, and supplied Umbrella Entertainment Group with its first sponsorship and much encouragement. Tom helped Jim land his first major account, Dove Bar, and the three-year deal with Dove Bar helped Umbrella Entertainment Group secure other sponsors. The deal also allowed Jim to tell potential clients that "we do business with Mars," giving validity to their company.

What advice would the entrepreneur give to someone thinking about starting a business?

Jim Breen agreed that the fun is in the journey. His advice could be summed up in one word: "perseverance." Jim reiterated that it is so easy to give up because a startup always takes more money and more time than originally planned. However, he insisted that you must stick with it if you really believe in the idea.

He also emphasized the importance of networks. Both friends and business acquaintances can make the difference between growth and stagnation of a startup.

Why was this entrepreneur successful at getting into business?

The article "Effable Invention" by David N. Perkins and Robert J. Weber looks at the creativity of inventions from three perspectives: the search perspective, the psychological perspective, and the social perspective. According to this framework, Jim Breen’s success with Umbrella Entertainment Group may be attributed to his educational preparation, his characteristics as a person, and his social network. These aspects have given Jim the attitude and ability needed to succeed as an entrepreneur.

Jim Breen’s search for the right idea began with his education. His accounting background prepared him for a career in business. His graduate work at USC in the Entrepreneur Program gave him the foundation and the option to work for himself instead of someone else. Furthermore, his experience in the restaurant industry as financial analyst for Sambo’s, and his experience as a consultant, exposed him to the inner-workings of many types of businesses.

"Effable Invention" would define Jim Breen’s search for his entrepreneurial idea as systemized chance. Jim systematically surveyed the opportunities for his company when Chipwich filed for bankruptcy. By carefully searching the set of opportunities available, Jim and his partner found that their company had valuable assets that were not fully realized. They took these assets, an audience, experience and contacts, and developed a new vision for their company.

Jim Breen as a person also contributed greatly to the success of Umbrella Entertainment Group. "Effable Invention" defines this as the psychological perspective. The article pinpoints several characteristics common to inventors. Intelligence, ingenuity, and articulateness are characteristics Jim possesses and which the article emphasizes.

Furthermore, persistence is identified as a crucial trait for the inventor. Jim’s persistence and belief in his idea proved to be a crucial combination that kept his business alive. These traits gave Jim the motivation to find solutions to problems instead of giving up and also helped him to persuade others to take a leap of faith and contract with his company.

Jim is a very persistent and hardworking man, is confident and enjoys the challenge of a risk. These attributes have kept him competitive and driven. His ability to work well with people and solve problems has also helped his business to grow and to succeed. Most importantly, Jim’s flexibility has allowed him to react to the business environment and adapt his company to the changed circumstances.

Jim Breen’s attitude allowed him to take risks with his entrepreneurial venture without dwelling on the consequences. He said that when starting his company, he had nothing to loose. He was young, did not have a family or a house payment, and could always go work for someone else if his business failed thereby giving him personal freedom, which allowed him to take risks without large consequence.

The third aspect defined by "Effable Invention" is the social perspective. The article emphasizes that invention is social, requiring people to interact in teams, as leaders, and with colleagues and contacts. Jim fit this description as is evident in his leadership and personal selling skills.

He and Paul Waterman worked together to discover a new entrepreneurial vision. This social support in the search phase is congruent with the findings of "Effable Invention."

Jim took a leadership role in his company and, as such, he was intelligent and humble enough to realize he could not do the job alone. He shared substantial responsibility with Paul Waterman and subsequently understood his limitations and lack of experience in operations, and brought in George Van Valkenburgh as the operations designer and manager. Jim’s leadership created this team which was forced to work socially with a common goal.

Jim’s social skills proved invaluable in selling his vision to sponsors and the various air shows and he was able to interact with key people to sell his idea. He cold called, made presentations, took meetings, and made phone calls. This encouraged many companies to sign on with Umbrella Entertainment Group before it had a proven track record.

Finally, Jim Breen’s social network of business acquaintances kept him motivated and helped him land accounts, specifically, Tom Urban from M&M/Mars became a valuable ally. Tom offered critical guidance to Jim and Umbrella Entertainment Group and gave the company its first sponsor, Dove Bar. This social network also led Jim to Paul Waterman, who was a colleague at Sambo’s, and George Van Valkenburgh, who was a business acquaintance from his Chipwich distribution company.

Jim’s educational and work background, characteristics and network of friends are all responsible for molding him into a successful, risk-taking entrepreneur. These aspects not only prepared him for the opportunity when it presented itself, but also gave him the ability to reorganize his business as the environment changed. Jim’s entrepreneurial talent enabled him to turn a small ice cream distribution company into a highly specialized event marketing company.

Over the next few years, Jim will be leading Umbrella Entertainment Group around another corner. Based on Umbrella Entertainment Group’s expertise in marketing and its understanding of the Air Show demographics and logistics, it is poised to achieve its goal of linking air shows together as a major entertainment property, just as Nascar has done with auto racing.

- Jennifer D. Malloy