Mark Cornell is CEO of Ambassador Theatre Group (ATG), the global leader in live theatre and the operator of 50 venues, including historic locations in London’s West End and on Broadway. A former British Army Captain, he radically changed direction to become manager of newspaper distribution for WHSmith. His next transition took him to France and the world’s leading luxury goods company LVMH. He transformed the fortunes of the Hine cognac and Krug champagne brands before becoming President and Chief Executive of Möet Hennessy USA. Tacking again, he had spells in the luxury yacht sector and headed up the European operation of Sotheby’s, the famous auction house. He joined ATG in 2016.
Auction House → Entertainment
“I’ve never been frightened to take on a totally new challenge,” says Mark Cornell, an ultimate convergence trailblazer and a leading figure in the international theatre industry. “I’ve never been frightened to get my head around something totally different.”
Cornell doesn’t frighten easily. He began his working life as a soldier with ambitions of joining the special forces. In his time in the British Army he learned operations and leadership skills which he has transferred to the world of business. “The Army taught me how to sell,” is how he describes the ability to persuade men to follow him into war zones.
After bringing his logistical talents to WHSmith’s vast news distribution business, he aced an MBA at Swiss business school IMD (despite never having been to university) and landed a senior role at the luxury goods conglomerate LVMH in Paris (despite not speaking French): “I had enormous fun charging around all the different brands, meeting lots of different people, and learning, learning, learning.”
He shocked his bosses by turning down number two roles with the iconic brands Möet & Chandon and Hennessy in order to make greater impact by revitalising the lesser-known cognac Hine. Then he did a similar job raising the profile of Krug champagne. As a result, Cornell was promoted to President and Chief Executive of Möet Hennessy USA.
“I’ve never been frightened to get my head around something totally different”
A gnawing desire to do something more entrepreneurial lured him back to Europe and a chance to run a super yacht company based in Monaco. It was, he admits, a huge mistake: “I had walked out of one of the greatest companies in the world, where I was probably the youngest and, if I may so, one of the up-and-coming rising stars. I was one step off the main board. I chose to step out of that, and stepped into something which was a disaster. I only had myself to blame.”
But Cornell believes that we make our own destinies and he looks back now on that fateful move to Monaco as a valuable lesson. It paved the way to a job heading up the European operation of Sotheby’s, before he moved on to the CEO role at Ambassador Theatre Group (ATG) in 2016. He oversees a portfolio of venues that includes London’s Lyceum and the Apollo Victoria, long-running homes to ‘The Lion King’ and ‘Wicked’ respectively.
The common thread which runs through this varied career is a striving for “perfection and quality”, he says. “From the world of fine wines, champagnes and great spirits to the world of extraordinary boats, to wonderful art, to now great performing art, the common denominator is this: the quality of what I’m selling.”
As for leadership, the two under-valued qualities that he identifies are good judgment and being a “beacon” of positivity. “You’ve essentially got to be a glass half-full person. People spot pessimists very quickly,” he says. “I think a great deal of leadership is about optimism and saying: ‘Where there’s a will, we will find a way, and we will get this thing done.'”