As a part of our series called “Five Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became A CEO,” we had the pleasure of interviewing John F. Ambielli, Co-Founder and CEO of The Palácio Corporation.
Ambielli is a serial entrepreneur, inventor and innovator. He has launched four successful businesses in his career and has a strong proficiency in product engineering and design, and entrepreneurial business finance and operations. A published author, he holds five US patents and 12 international patents; additionally, he has six patent applications currently with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) as well as the World Intellectual Property Office (WIPO).
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
Actually, this is my third career! I know that’s not a strange concept for the millennial generation. But for us Gen-Xers, it’s a bit unusual. After studying electrical engineering at Cornell University and receiving a master’s degree in that field, I was inspired to pursue teaching. Thus, my first career was teaching physics and chemistry in private schools in the Boston, MA area. I also coached JV soccer, and Varsity tennis and squash, both boys and girls at different schools. That was an exciting 12 years of my life for sure! Then, in 2005, I was presented an opportunity to join my family’s manufacturing business in New Jersey, thus beginning my second career as a practicing metallurgical engineer. To fortify my position, the company sent me off to get a master’s degree in Materials Science and Engineering from nearby Lehigh University. That was not easy! All along I had always a passion for entrepreneurism and had started several businesses in a full or part-time capacity. In 2016 the entrepreneurial pull was intense, and I left manufacturing to launch Palácio Corporation, my third career.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Like many of us, I think the most interesting story centered on the unfortunate reality of the pandemic hitting the globe in late 2019. We launched our luxury brand, Palácio International, with our patent-pending unique luxury accessory the QVONTUM in December 2019. This was about the worst timing in history to launch a luxury brand! As you likely know, the luxury industry was hit quite hard, and we were no different. After several months of progressively more intense lockdowns here in the US and around the globe, we realized that this storm was not going to subside. So, we had to quickly pivot the company and adjust to the reality of consumer needs and desires. Fortunately, we had a plan to diversify and launched two new divisions, Palácio Fitness and Palácio Innovations, both of which allowed us to offer a more diverse line of products which did not rely on a luxury marketplace. We designed two new product lines, wrote the patent applications, and submitted them to the USPTO as well as the WIPO so we have global protection in place, and redesigned our website to include these products.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
This is an easy one: my father. Unfortunately, we lost him in January of this year to a very aggressive cancer. It was a huge loss to me personally as he was on our board and was my main advisor and mentor throughout my life. I had the privilege of starting a business with him, before Palácio, and of course he was a major part of my career at his manufacturing business. We also participated together in several ventures where we provided angel investor money to start-ups. He was an irreplaceable titan in my life, imparted countless hours of his knowledge, wisdom, guidance and support over my life.
As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
I have always seen diversity as a blessing to any organization of any size. A diverse organization is a more productive, more creative and more enjoyable organism. The idea of discrimination of any kind is anathema to my values as all individuals deserve fair treatment in and outside the workplace, deserve equal access and opportunity for advancement throughout a company, large or small. For a business like Palácio Corporation where creativity and innovation are at the core of our mission, a diverse workforce enhances what we can invent, develop and bring to market.
As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative and equitable society?
Step One: Look in the mirror. How am I doing in my thoughts and actions in treating every human being with dignity and respect?
Step Two: Create, foster and support a culture within a company or organization where diverse ideas and creative product are celebrated, regardless of who presents it. Ultimately, ideas have real, practical results.
Step Three: Make it clear that discrimination is not acceptable and that differences in thought, appearance, faith systems and life choices are a welcome reality of healthy organizational life.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
Wherever possible, I like to use analogies to explain concepts. I think this comes from my time as a science teacher where abstract and difficult topics can become more real with a reference. So, the role of a CEO is like the role of an orchestra conductor. When we look at a conductor, we see a person in front of a very diverse group of musicians, each with their own very specific set of talents and expertise. The success of the piece of music the orchestra plays depend not only on the individual excellence of each musician but also, crucially, on the leadership of the conductor. How does this happen? How, without speaking one word, can the conductor do this? What we see is a man or woman intensely and intently waving hands and a baton, looking at a section, nodding with his or her gestures. The result is a beautifully directed piece of music from a multitude of instruments or voices. As the saying goes, “The whole is greater than the sum of the parts,” and the conductor has a central role in facilitating this grand integration.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
Oh, there are loads of them. One persistent one is that the CEO has this cushy, high-paying job where he or she gets reports, makes occasional decisions, has a large office with no real day-to-day responsibilities. The myth is that the CEO delegates everything and thus has nothing directly to do with the organization. Another myth, from a slightly different perspective, is that the CEO directs and controls every aspect of the day-to-day operations of the company. This is also not true, although some CEOs struggle with the control thing. As I mentioned earlier, the key is achieving a good balance of control and involvement (which ultimately is about accountability) and delegation of duties and responsibilities to trusted individuals in the organization.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
In these days? I would say managing rapid and deep change. We had launched our luxury brand, Palácio International, in December of 2019, just when the pandemic was taking hold overseas. After some initial positive reception, as 2020 progressed, it was clear that the entire luxury marketplace was deeply hurt by the lockdowns and ours was no different. That was a totally unforeseen event and we had to quickly adjust our offerings to diversify outside the confines of the luxury products industry.
Do you think everyone is cut out to be an executive? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?
This is an excellent question! No, not everyone is cut out to be an executive. Honestly, some of the process of who becomes an executive and who does not is self-selective. Some people just don’t want the pressure and responsibility to leading a company, creating a culture, maintaining the vision and mission of the company. The important traits that I think will increase the likelihood of success are a staunch and unwavering commitment to ethical and moral leadership, a heart of a servant-leader, the ability and affection to be a conductor, not a micro-manager nor an aloof do-nothing, and a consistent and intense work ethic accompanied by a positive outlook that is infectious. It’s hard to limit someone from aspiring to be an executive. However, if I were to persuade someone to NOT be an executive, it would be someone who has an affinity to generally follow the lead of others, to want to be a part of a team but not lead the team, to be comfortable producing work for the organization, excited about its mission and vision but not wanting to create those things and manage people’s commitment to those things.
What advice would you give to other business leaders to help create a fantastic work culture? Can you share a story or an example?
Be yourself, be genuine, be humble, practice empathy and compassion and realize that everyone has a key role in the organization. Work culture can be created and defined but ultimately it is what the organization perceives is the actual culture of the working environment. That tone is set by the CEO. Whenever we hire a new person, one of the first things I tell them is: “We welcome ideas no matter how small or large, no matter how challenging they are to what we are currently doing. So be yourself at Palácio and we all will benefit!” When the person feels that they have creative freedom, almost without a single exception they are super excited to jump aboard.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
Gosh I sure hope so! I saw a great sign on a local builder’s billboard: “The world is improved more by my quiet example more than by my loud opinions.” This is what I strive to do, and I believe it’s working.
Fantastic. Here is the primary question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
1) Raising money is a constant part of your role. We are currently in a seed funding round using a Reg CF crowdfunding platform, www.netcapital.com/companies/palacio. This was a logical step for us in our current capital needs. The key is: Once the campaign ends in February or March, the project of raising the next round continues. Keeping the financial health of the company at the forefront of what a CEO does has real consequences, especially at the start-up phase. Neglect this ongoing role to your peril!
2) Commit to Plan A with all your heart and strength, but have a Plan B, C and D waiting ready to deploy in case A goes sideways. This has been crucial for the past two years with the changes in how people make product purchasing choices. We had launched in 2019 as solely a luxury personal products company. That was Plan A, and it was lined up for smooth execution. But then the entire world changed. So, we needed to broaden our offerings and even the nature of the entire company. Thus was born Palácio Fitness and Palácio Innovations, two new brands offering premium products and services, greatly diversifying Palácio as a company.
3) People or systems? Both! In my second career, as a practicing metallurgist in a critical component manufacturing company, I worked closely with quality assurance. A colleague of mine, who hailed from South Korea, was a staunch advocate for a systems approach to quality assurance: If we set up very structured systems (procedures, protocols, contingency plans, detailed manuals, etc.) then it doesn’t matter which person sits in each role at the company. He really thought the individual person, with his or her idiosyncrasies, habits, personalities and proclivities was irrelevant. This is too extreme. On the other hand, it has great value because training, relying upon, and loading up an individual person with tons of responsibilities because they have the bandwidth to handle the extra scope, is very dangerous. If that person leaves or dies, the company is in a very dire place. We had made them irreplaceable due to their strengths as an individual. A system, a structure that allows people to move in and out of roles is a healthy counterpoint to finding and promoting strong individuals. It’s a both/and thing.
4) The Peter Principle is real! If you’re not familiar with this principle, it was introduced by Laurence J. Peter and its premise is that people in an organization get promoted to a higher position based on their performance and success. But then in the new role, they face new challenges that require different skills, and they fail or display incompetence. They will no longer be promoted as they are not seen as successful at the company. They reach “Peter’s Plateau.” This has happened to Palácio in at least two cases and it’s painful for both the company and the individuals, where the promotion was given too soon or was not proper and we set them up to fail in the new role. It’s a tricky balancing act because we need to provide advancement paths for employees, yet we also need to protect the health of the company.
5) Getting enough rest and recuperative separation is as important as putting shoulder to wheel. Performance coaches will agree that the idea of working all the time, noble as it sounds, is just not healthy for the longevity of the executive and the effectiveness of the company. It is actually harmful to both! This is a real challenge for us creatives, with our Type A, get-it-done-no-matter-how-hard-the-workload personalities. Honestly if you really love the company and its vision and mission, it’s very hard to not be thinking about it all the time and throwing your whole self into it every day. However, taking real, actual breaks from it, not just by not being present 24/7 but in my mind, with my focus, has proven to be very healthy. Letting go of Palácio on a regular basis (whether a whole day off on Sundays), or during the week, where I actively disconnect for a few hours and let my mind be occupied with something productive but completely unrelated to Palácio, produces a better work product for the company when I rejoin, refreshed with new energy and perspective!
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I have a dream to create a movement that inspires and unites many, many people. It centers on the concept of recovering from mistakes and disappointments. I am working on it so I can’t reveal all the details, But I think it has explosive potential in these challenging and uncertain days.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I love quotes and use them and rely on them to teach and when I speak so thank you for asking! One of my favorite actors, Denzel Washington, has given many public speeches. Many of them are incredibly inspiring and one has stood out for me. It was a commencement speech he delivered at Dillard University. You can look it up on YouTube as it’s been described as an “epic” inspirational speech. His number one exhortation to the graduates? “Put God First.” This quote is what motivates me daily, in the big and small decisions, both personally and professionally. As a man of faith, I rely greatly upon my brothers and sisters in the Faith for support, inspiration, coaching and modeling. Denzel is such an example to me of boldly and lovingly living one’s Christian faith no matter the negative feedback or haters.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
Yes, indeed you are blessed! I appreciate the influence Authority Magazine has and your readership is truly impressive. You are doing great work! Wow, this is not easy as there are so many. How about I name eight, two for each category? As you might guess, Denzel Washington for an entertainer. Another in that industry: Angela Basset because she is so widely accomplished and outspoken about her faith, not easy to do in Hollywood. In Business, I would have to say Jørgen Vig Knudstorp (because my two sons love Legos!) or Cher Wang (founder and CEO of HTC). In VC funding, it would be Sir Richard Branson or Kevin O’Leary since both are just super interesting characters with so much experience. Sports? Tom Brady (okay I’m not the greatest quarterback of all time, but we’re both over 40, we both have two sons and one daughter, AND we’re both married to women of Brazilian heritage; I think we could share great stories!) or Russell Wilson (I have always appreciated his humility).