“If you think you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re not going to be successful.” This was told to me by Russell Allen, the President of Allen Theatres, Inc. – a family-owned theatre chain founded in 1912 by the Allen family. They serve 12 locations across New Mexico, three in Colorado, and two in Arizona. Russell went from tearing tickets at 11 years old to overseeing 112 screens across 13 cities with over 300 employees. Despite all that success, Russell maintains a mindset of humility, telling me the key insight that if you think you’re the smartest in the room, you’ll never make it.
RUSSELL’S PRINCIPLES FOR SUCCESS:
“WHATEVER YOU DO, DON’T SELL THE THEATRE… IT WILL SUPPORT THE FAMILY.”
Russell’s great-grandfather Frank was a “serial entrepreneur.” He set up in Farmington in 1912 and started operated everything from a motel business to mail delivery. Eventually he would open up a movie theatre. When Frank died, his son (Russell’s grandfather) had the theatre passed down to him. Russell’s grandfather soon put in the latest sound equipment at the time – allowing the first talkies to be played. When WWII began, Russell’s grandfather worked as a projectionist showing training films to soldiers, and when he returned home the movie theatre was his primary focus. On his deathbed, Russell’s grandfather told his wife: “Whatever you do, don’t sell the theatre… it will support the family.” Russell’s father, who was brought up living with his parents and four other siblings in an apartment above the lobby of that theatre, would eventually buy the theatre from his grandmother. Soon that apartment turned into an office, and the rest is history.
Colt: At 11 years old were you excited to be tearing tickets? I’d feel so important.
Russell: I still have a pretty good memory of it. You’d walk down Allen (they named the street after us), and it was just a big white wall, and I remember walking and holding my dad’s finger to go to the office, and feeling the summer heat coming off that white wall. At 11 he told me “it’s time to go to work” and had me handling tickets in a light-blue three piece suit with a tie, and I wore that suit, making $1 an hour.
Colt: Would you watch a ton of movies as a kid?
Russell: Oh yeah – and partly because I went on to work one of the drive-ins we had when I was 14. I’d work from seven at night until one in the morning. It’s interesting too because during the pandemic we put up a temporary drive-in – and the smell of it all flooded me with memories of when I was a boy.
LITTLE KNOWN FACT #1:
Russell does not care for horror films. “Life is too short,” to watch them.
AS A BUSINESS LEADER, YOUR STAFF IS EVERYTHING.
“I think a successful business leader uses the assets they have, but also understands that a huge portion of your assets are your staff… You have to use your staff to be successful, but your staff won’t be productive if you don’t respect and listen to them or don’t give them the tools to be successful.” Having now over 300 employees, Russell knows the value of a well-functioning team. Russell also mentioned to me that this last summer was the biggest summer they’d ever had —it kept everyone busy! I asked him what he thought about the idea that because of the uptick in streaming services, if movie theatres will eventually go away. Here’s what he told me: “People have been saying they will for a while. When television started, people thought movie theatres would go away. When cable television started people thought movie theatres would go away. When VHS came out people thought movie theatres would go away. And now, with streaming, people say movie theatres will go away. I don’t think they will – they’ve stood the test of time.”
YOU’RE RESPONSIBLE FOR SAVING YOURSELF.
-- I was very struck by Russell’s conviction that if more people worked at taking care of themselves, managing their own well-being and prosperity, nobody else would have to come save you. We can help others by helping ourselves: “There’s just so many people out there who are taking the easy way out… There’s too many people who are fully capable, but taking resources from people who truly need help, and we suffer because of it.”
Colt: Why do you think more people don’t save themselves?
Russell: Well, there’s a lot of easy alternatives to real work now. I don’t think people are inherently lazy. Everyone has potential, but you have to focus on teaching them, training them. Instilling discipline. Everything is made too easy. Life is hard. We weren’t put here to slack around.
LITTLE KNOWN FACT #2:
Russell was diagnosed with Type-1 Diabetes when he was 15 years old. Having an incurable disease changed his life in many ways: “it has separated me a little bit – I had to grow up and mature much earlier than a lot of other people, I think. My background wasn’t exactly care-free, you know?”
Colt: An idea I think a lot about is that suffering can be a gift – it sounds like that’s kind of what you’re talking about.
Russell: Yeah. I’ve had the disease 41 years this month. I believe it has given me a different perspective on things.