HOMBRE Exclusive: HENRIQUE CISNEROS – Life’s A Movie. From Racing Cars, To Philanthropy, To Building A Global Brand
Coming from a heritage of iconic Latin American broadcasting companies, it makes sense that the life of Henrique Cisneros would turn out to be a movie. The son of billionaire businessman Ricardo Cisneros opted to bypass the drama of his father’s Venevision telenovelas, choosing his own path and crafting his real life script that combines the action, success, and excitement of an Ian Fleming thriller. All this happens while transforming his MOMO Motorsport into a global automotive brand.
Born in Venezuela and living in Miami, Florida, Cisneros began his professional career in finance at Bear Stearns & Co. Inc. He left before the market’s financial collapse to join his father’s and uncle’s (Gustavo Cisneros) Grupo Cisneros, a privately held conglomerate of media, entertainment, property investment, tourism development and consumer product companies which reaches 550 million Spanish and Portuguese-speaking consumers in the Americas and Europe. It also provides media content to more than 100 countries.
In 2008 Henrique and his brothers Eduardo and Andres split the Grupo Cisneros holdings and spun off into Cisneros Corporation. The company’s list of assets includes Cervecería Regional (Venezuela’s second largest brewer), Leones de Caracas (Venezuela’s premier baseball team) and other consumer good operations.
In this new facet he handled sales and marketing for Cervecería Regional. He did this while being a semiprofessional race car driver. And it was this love for racing that led him to launch the automotive business division which now includes MOMO, WELD, HiPer, ADV.1, CCW, Forgestar, Driven Motorsport and other brands.
On the racing front Cisneros has won the Championship title in 2010 and 2011 Porsche GT3 Cup race series. In 2013 he finished third in the competitive GTC class of the American Le Mans Series. He then moved on to the GTA class of the Pirelli World Challenge driving a Ferrari 458 Italia GT3 race car. In the just finished 2017 season Cisneros, along with co-driver Tyler McQuarrie claimed the Championship title.
His love for philanthropy and the sport led him to create the Motorsport Safety Foundation, a not-for-profit institution which is dedicated to improving safety standards in the motorsport industry.
On a rainy weekend over the summer we traveled to the Pirelli World Challenge in Toronto to bring you this exclusive look into the electrifying life of this multifaceted adventurer, businessman, and race car driver.
HOMBRE: Being a member of a giant Latin American conglomerate, why did you decide to race?
Henrique Cisneros: I always had a passion for cars growing up. I appreciated car design and engineering and was always attracted to anything with an engine. But I was never allowed to race. My parents just said no. I went to college but still never raced. Eventually I went to a driver’s ed class with my brothers and after a couple of laps I was hooked. I knew that’s something I wanted to do immediately.
H: When did you start?
HC: When I graduated college I started working and finally had a little bit of money to spend. I dragged both of my brothers into it. All three of us had Porsches at the time and we started going to the track and modifying them. We went to a track day in Miami with our personal cars and there was a small Formula 1 car on the track that I kept passing. The guy would make gestures at me so when we get to the pit the guy comes to me and I thought something was about to happen. But it was Ramez Wahab (current NGT Motorsports racing team owner) and he says ‘sit down, let me tell you what you did wrong.’ He had a race team, this was 2009.
H: What did he teach you then?
HC: That it’s a high performance machine, we had no idea what it involved. He hired three great coaches for us. By the end of the day he says to me, ‘I need you to race. You have the speed, the skills. Give me one race.’ I won my first race, it was a Porsche event. Immediately he said, ‘you got to do it.’ Within a few weeks I was signed up for IMSA which is the professional league of the U.S. in the Porsche GT3 cup category, the highest level for gentlemen drivers. From there the next step up is professional. That was my rookie year. In 2010 and 2011 I won both championships in the Porsche category. From there we kept moving up until I got to Ferrari and started doing the Pirelli World Challenge.
H: What did your parents say?
HC: We invited our dad to come see us race. As we started getting dressed he realized it wasn’t just a hobby. He said ‘you’ve made your decision,’ and since then he’s been our biggest fan. As time went by, my brothers dropped out for different reasons. We started racing in 2010 and I’m still here seven years later.
H: Who did you look up to in racing?
HC: For me Schumacher and all the Formula 1 guys were heroes. I always knew it attracted me but I wasn’t a fan of a specific series. But I was always attracted by the speed and competition. I’m a very competitive person and it gets more difficult to do team sports as you get older. This is something you can do by yourself.
H: And outside of racing who do you look up to?
HC: I’ve always had an adventurous spirit and my father has always been a huge adventurer. I admire my father. I would say also Richard Branson. He embodies that spirit that I would like to have. Not only business but his attitude about life. He’s always pushing himself but he does it in a humble way, caring for others, and he’s not arrogant. He finds time for himself, time for his family, and self fulfillment.
H: How is your training process?
HC: It’s something that you have or you don’t have it. The skill, the talent, the hand-eye coordination and the mental ability to focus at that level. Racing is a very physical sport, the G Forces affect the body, the heat, the stress, people chasing you down, the adrenaline makes your heart beat faster. You train to maintain that endurance of your body. You’re always studying the track, you’re studying video, you’re always trying to make it as technical as possible.
H: What’s next for you in racing?
HC: I’m very happy on this kind of level of racing. As a gentleman driver I get to compete against the best drivers in the world hands down. These are Ferrari factory, Audi factory, Cadillac factory and these are the best, so for someone who’s an amateur to even be running with them is special. And given the time commitment this is very rewarding.
H: How did your involvement with MOMO come about?
HC: When we started racing we said we have to find a way to pay or this. As you move up in Class it gets more and more expensive. That’s when my brothers and 2 other teammates went and we bought MOMO. It was the 2009 downturn so there was a lot of opportunity out there to get this iconic brand. It would be a great project to do and would be our racing platform.
Anyone who’s driving is obsessed and then to have an additional reason of purpose and business made it even more addictive. The brand is a company we knew and we knew well.
H: What’s the best advice your father has given you?
HC: He always said wait until the time is right, and trust your gut. Sometimes the timing is not there, don’t force it. Whether it’s with management, or acquisitions, or companies in general. For him it’s always been about the management, finding the right people.
H: What did he teach you about managing such a large work force?
HC: One of the things my father valued the most is how to motivate people. It was never a monetary motivation. Money is a result. It’s always about finding what drives people emotionally, whether it’s family, work, goals. That was the secret to his success. It’s taking that human element, it’s always about the people and a personal touch.
H: You’re very involved in philanthropy, what can you tell us about that?
HC: In my third year racing I was doing endurance races and I had a co-driver Sean Edwards. He had a terrible accident in Australia and passed away. He was basically like a brother to me. I was looking at that situation from the outside and analyzing it. The reaction from the sports community was to sweep it under the rug as just another accident. But it was obvious that there could be a fatality. There were issues with the track, the standards of the track weren’t up to par but yet they were holding high level races there. In his honor and kind of outrage in the lack of response I founded the Motorsports Safety Foundation. We’re in year 3 already.
H: What are some your initiatives with the Foundation?
HC: We’ve grown and focused on safety barriers. We have grants for university students on how to come up with low cost safety barriers.
We launched a school for driver coaches so they all teach the same base and from there they can add their touches to it, but at least there’s a shared baseline for everyone.
We also see a lot of driver accident because they don’t have the head and back restraints. Now we have kiosks at tracks where you can rent them. They can be $1,200. – $1,600. depending on the model and people always want to buy tires instead of safety. Now you can rent them for $30. a day which is a lot more accessible.
We’re training the marshals involved in medical research. Whenever there’s a crash we’ll find the doctors, we’ll find the engineers, and help analyze why it happened and provide the report. We work with the FIA which is he governing body of motor sports and we give them the official data.
It’s all very fulfilling. We have a long way to go still, but a lot of people have appreciated the work we’ve done.
H: How do you mentally overcome the risks involved in racing?
HC: It’s always a struggle. Especially through the Foundation I’ve learned the dynamics of a crash and I really understand where you can get hurt, and what the risk of fatality is. For me is education. That’s what we always preach in the Foundation. I think all drivers are a little bit off (laughs). We do like to go in circles all the time, so there’s obviously something wrong with us (laughs). We’re attracted to danger, the adrenaline, to the challenge.
H: You’ve had so much success, but what has been your most difficult times and how did you overcome that situation?
HC: For me it was when Sean passed way. There were lots of questions to be answered. It’s one of those personal struggles you want to overcome. How do I get beyond this? Getting back in the car, feeling comfortable again. I felt I had the support at home. I love my wife very much for that. She’s always supported me. She knows the key to my happiness is being able to do these crazy hobbies.
H: What advice can you offer aspiring businessmen?
HC: It’s important to find a mentor. Also you’re going to make a lot of mistakes, it’s important to be in a business where it’s okay to make mistakes. You have to align yourself with companies that allow you to make mistakes otherwise you’re not going to grow. I think success is all about experiences, what you can learn from your past and from your mentor, and your peers. You have to be able to take the risks, have the right people, and have a long term plan. Never look at short term results. We’re always thinking five to ten years with everything we do.
H: What’s next for MOMO?
HC: Bigger growth and getting into more areas. We’re pushing to get into original equipment. With our portfolio of brands we can go to any manufacturer and whatever car they’re building we’ll have something for that car. We’ll have the brands and the teams to be able to execute that. That’s the next step for us, to go from after market to original market.