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 Regina Garcia Peña.
Coming from a family of 13 children and seven, Regina Garcia Peña, CEO and co-owner of Philly Seafood, learned early on that teamwork is the only model. Philly Seafood began more than 20 years ago with very humble beginnings and starting out Regina had no formal training. With an entrepreneurial and “figure it out mindset” Regina has led Philly Seafood into becoming a multi-million dollar company and a national brand. The mother of seven began selling her family’s shrimp production out of the trunk of her suburban with five of her daughters loaded in the back seat. Being a woman in a male-dominated industry has not been easy but Regina’s perseverance and the support of her family has helped set Philly Seafood up for success.
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?
I appreciate the opportunity to be able to share my journey in becoming the CEO of Philly Seafood. As a young Hispanic girl from a large family, my father supported us by shrimping and owning shrimp boats in Palacios, Tx. My mother kept all of the books and managed our home while my brothers worked with my dad through the summers and later followed him into the shrimping industry.
When my husband and I got married we owned a childcare center which allowed me to be with our children (we had a fast-growing family) while still working. The business thrived but after seven years, my son, Daniel Phillip, passed away in a tragic accident and we sold the company. Soon after selling the daycare my brother Kenneth approached me with a desire to do something more with his extra shrimp inventory and asked if I would like to sell it directly to customers, without going through a middleman. I told him “well I don’t really know how” and he told me “ it’s easy, just say it’s the greatest shrimp in the world and it will sell itself”. I was naive enough to believe him. That’s really where we began, I would go into Houston to introduce myself to restaurant owners and chefs and tell them our family story. Before long, we had regular customers placing orders weekly. While coming up with a name for our company I knew I wanted to pay homage to my late son and for his name to always be said; from there Philly Seafood was born.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
The most interesting and scary thing that has happened to me while leading my company was that our inventory lost $700,000 in value, in one day. Being that shrimp is a commodity and the market took a dive, that caused us to lose money on our inventory. We were a very young company at the time and $700,000 was a huge devastation for us, making it the scariest thing that has happened in our business, thus far. Luckily, the market somewhat recovered and we were able to eventually sell through the crisis. I learned a lot about buying and selling commodities during that time period, which has helped me grow professionally. However, it was then that I realized I can handle the pressure of a business, I knew if I didn’t fold then, I could handle anything.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
When I first started, it was just me and my secretary and I did all of the purchasing and sales; I was scatterbrained, to say the least. It wasn’t funny back then but now that I look back at it, I can’t help but laugh at the time I called a company by their competitor’s name while making a sales pitch. It was extremely humbling and taught me to have notes in front of me at all times!
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?
In life, no one can be successful while doing everything alone. Luckily for me, I have such a supportive husband that has allowed me to grow my business while being a mother of seven. In the 35 years of marriage, he has truly picked up the slack in the areas that I am lacking whether it’s in business or in our family. He has made deliveries for me when I could not find a truck driver, after working 12 hour days at his job he has always been there not only as a husband but as a listening ear from a business perspective.
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?
As a double minority myself, I have faced these struggles throughout my life. I don’t look at my business or relationships through the eyes of race and gender. I follow the belief that we are all God’s children, and when it comes to business, I hire and work with people based on their talent and character. Having a diverse team, not only the executives, is important to me because it allows for different perspectives and opinions that are much needed in a company.
As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.
With my dad being in the shrimping industry for so long and being a woman working in a male-dominated industry, many people did not take me seriously because they thought everything was given to me. The great thing about this generation is there are so many more opportunities for minorities like myself. People need to be more patient and open-minded and stop viewing others by how they look. I would love to see people open their hearts and minds to see others for their abilities and potential.
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?
My role may be different from other CEOs since I am a co-owner of the company and we’ve built it from the ground up. I’ve had to wear many “hats” while being CEO of this company which has included dirty work (like heading and peeling shrimp), negotiating, relationship building (especially being a family-owned business), and being the spokesperson/ face of the company. Being a true leader means being on the ground with your team working beside them and picking up the slack when they need you. An executive takes responsibility for the wins and losses of their company. The buck stops with me.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
You don’t have to be the smartest or most talented person in the room to be the CEO. As a CEO it’s your job to see potential and pull the best out of your employees to let their talent shine.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
I never thought my job would be so pressure-filled. Selling a commodity is never easy.
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?
I do not think everyone is cut out to be an executive but you can teach yourself the traits it takes to be one. A successful executive should be a good communicator and be able to relate to people. If you can not take criticism you’re probably not cut out to be in an executive-level position.
What advice would you give to other business leaders to help create a fantastic work culture? Can you share a story or an example?
My advice to business leaders is to be open to listening to your employee’s needs and adjust to new company culture trends and benefits. Your employees are people too, they have lives, families, and problems of their own.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I truly try to bless my employees whether it’s monetarily, extra days off for their family or being flexible with their needs. Giving back and supporting the community we are from is huge for us. We always support where we can and when we’re asked. To support a community, you’re creating opportunities that, in turn, change the lives of the younger generations.
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.)
- I wish someone had told me that I would need to learn to handle pressure. With more responsibility comes more pressure, but the better you handle it, the easier it comes.
- I wish someone told me how to separate my business and personal life. Keeping work at work and home life at home is important.
- I wish someone told me how important it is to market yourself. Marketing yourself is almost as important as marketing your company. It’s hard for people to tell you no when they like you and know you personally; strive to be the most liked person in a room.
- I wish someone told me that in business relationships, people are just people. Everyone puts on their pants the same way in the morning and we’re all dealing with something.
- I wish someone would have told me that being in charge sometimes means being a peacemaker.
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.
If I could inspire a movement it would be to lead by example with integrity! If everyone did that then the world would be a better place.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My favorite life lesson quote is “be still and know” (Psalm 46:10) . Through my stresses and struggles in business, I know at the end of the day, it will be okay because God’s always watching out for me.
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.
I would love to sit and talk with Brené Brown; I just love to thank her for her life’s work that has offered me invaluable insight into developing relationships and understanding myself and the people around me.