A veteran and highly respected member of the cinema industry, fourth-generation movie theater executive Ron Krueger II began his career at Wehrenberg Theatres, founded by his great-grandfather Fred Wehrenberg in 1906. After nearly ten years of serving as Wehrenberg Theatres’ president, Krueger moved on to VSS – Southern Theatres, spending four years as COO before adding “president” to his job description. With this year’s acquisition of VSS – Southern’s AmStar Cinemas and The Grand Theatres brands by Santikos Theaters, Krueger II becomes the COO of the combined chain, now one of the top ten largest in North America by screen count.
Over the decades, Krueger has augmented his cinema work with several philanthropy roles, both inside and outside the industry, including a turn on the Board of Governors at St. Louis, Missouri’s Shriners Hospital for Children and eight years in leadership roles with the U.S. arm of Variety – the Children’s Charity, where he served as president from 2016 to 2018; he currently sits on the board of directors of the Will Rogers Motion Picture Pioneers Foundation. Krueger has also been heavily involved in shaping the future of the cinema industry through his work with a variety of trade associations, including Theatre Owners of Mid America’s Regional Unit, the National Association of Concessionaires (president from 2009-2011), and NATO, where he has been a board member since 1994.
In recognition of decades of service, Krueger is this year’s winner of ShowEast’s “Salah M. Hassanein” Humanitarian Award, named after the late cinema executive and philanthropist. Says Andrew Sunshine, president of the Film Expo Group, “Ron defines what it means to be the Hassanein Award winner. His commitment to our industry and its charities is second to none. We are honored to recognize his achievements.” In advance of ShowEast, Kruger spoke with Boxoffice Pro about his storied career.
Did you ever get a chance to meet Salah Hassanein?
Sadly, I didn’t have the chance to meet Salah. However, my good friend and [VSS – Southern Theatres’] longtime film buyer Doug Whitford worked for Salah, back in his United Artists days. He shared [with me] some of the warmhearted stories about Salah, as well as some stories that demonstrated how shrewd of a businessman he was. Charity was always, obviously, a big part of his mantra.
Non-profits like Variety and Will Rogers are so entwined with the cinema industry. You can’t really imagine one without the other.
Exactly. It’s great that this industry is so focused on charity, whether it’s Will Rogers or Variety. The folks at St. Jude [Children’s Research Hospital, out of Memphis, Tennessee] are trying to make some inroads as well, with some onscreen promotional activities.
On the subject of charity: Santikos Theatres is a chain that’s highly involved in their communities. When I spoke to their CEO, Tim Handren, he cited cultural similarities between Santikos and Southern as one of the driving forces behind the acquisition.
Both organizations focus on taking care of guests and taking care of employees. Those are some definite commonalities. [At the] Grand and AmStar locations, we have some really amazing teams led by management, many of whom have been in the industry as long as I have. In our theaters, we continue to serve our guests well. I think we’re industry-leading, with 90 percent of our locations [equipped] with recliners and expanded food and beverage. And, of course, it takes a little liquor sometimes to [enjoy a night out], so 100 percent of our locations have some level of bar service. Given our Southern footprint, [our customers] love their daiquiris.
We’re excited about the acquisition by Santikos, which can help elevate those standards even further. The charity focus that we’ve been able to have in the Southern universe gets to continue under Santikos. We’re working with them on a food drive right now, and we’ll do a toy drive later this year. They’ve been partners with Variety on their Gold Heart program as well. So [you can] look forward to some bigger and better things for the combined organization.
As you’re merging the two chains, you really have to nail the fundamentals of customer service.
Right. If you have a greeter at the front door who doesn’t make eye contact with you and say, “Hi,” or has a little snarl on their face because they’re having a bad day—that’s not the best way [to do business]. Because guests are coming to the theater to escape, and they want a good experience all the way around. It starts with the employees.
Southern and Santikos have both been forward-thinking chains in terms of extra amenities; Southern got into dine-in early, and the same with Santikos and cinema entertainment centers (CECs). How do you, as a COO, approach risk management when it comes to new concepts?
It’s really about networking and staying aware of what opportunities are out there. In terms of the risk assessment process, we model our projects in a number of different ways with high, immediate, intermediate, and low-risk assumptions. [You have to] get comfortable with assumptions and double-check them with peers, if you will. If it takes visiting a site that has something deployed, we’ll do that and talk with that operator. Then, if it fits our investment criteria, [we] decide to move forward or not. Thankfully, with the acquisition by Santikos, versus the private equity ownership Southern had before, we feel we can take a longer-term approach to our investment horizon. That helps the opportunities that exist for the Grand and AmStar locations.
It makes sense. There’s a familiarity with the business that probably isn’t there with outsiders. If you tell someone not in the cinema industry that bowling is having a comeback, they might just discount it. But people in the industry know that bowling, as part of the CEC complex, has been in the wings for a while now.
Right. In the case of a couple of markets, or at least a couple of theaters, it would take some major renovation, demolition, and rebuilding of a complex [to add bowling]–and that’s a sizable investment. The private equity folks have a shorter time horizon on return. We’re going to be fortunate with the Santikos folks.
And the Grand and AmStar theaters are keeping their own branding.
These locations have been in existence [for] 20-plus years in a lot of these markets. There’s brand equity with those names. “Hey, we’re going to go to the AmStar or the Grand tonight to go catch a movie.” Why make a sign manufacturer—though we have lots of friends in that industry—why make them any richer when it’s really about the brand equity that’s already there?
Can you walk me through how your work with Variety got started?
Really, it started at one of my first ShoWests, 29 years ago, where I met Stan and Jody Reynolds. They were our insurance brokers at Wehrenberg at the time, but they talked about their excitement for what we were doing with Variety. There was a variety tent in St. Louis, so I was able to get on that board and expand Wehrenberg’s involvement with Gold Heart activities as well as… they were running telethons at the time, supporting those sorts of things. So it goes back 20-plus years.
Then, maybe 15 years ago, when I moved over to Southern, Stan W. Reynolds, their son, and Jody approached me, as there were some openings on U.S. Variety’s board. I had a chance to step up and help them out, to kind of work my way through the chairs there and start some initiatives with U.S. Variety. We’ve had a couple of presidents since my term there, but we continue to be relevant with the Gold Heart program and [with] sharing best practices, working with Variety International, helping out the tents in North America for the activities and initiatives that they have in place.
You’ve also been heavily involved with groups like NAC and NATO. If someone’s newer to the industry, what’s your pitch for participating in industry associations?
Simply put, if you’re in this industry for the long term, it’s the right thing to do, in my mind, to give back and be part of it. This industry gave my family its livelihood for over 100 years. Being part of these trade groups is a way to not only give back, but to keep a finger on the pulse of the industry, to drive initiatives that help the industry, and of course, to create relationships with some pretty amazing people across exhibition and the concession side of things. After 30 years, some of my closest friends are in this industry. Without those relationships and involvement, just in recent terms, I don’t know if we could have weathered the pandemic as well as we did. Sharing best practices and advocating for government relief the way we did, to help keep the lights on, in order to take care of our employees and guests.
My great-grandfather Fred Wehrenberg, who started Wehrenberg Theatres, was in a predecessor organization to TOMA. I found a photo of him in one of our family scrapbooks, of him on the cover of a magazine. It’s been in the family—it’s part of the expectation of giving back. I wouldn’t have it any other way.