About Mellody Hobson
As Co-CEO, Mellody is responsible for all firm-wide management, including strategic planning and growth as well as every aspect of Ariel’s business beyond research and portfolio management. Prior to her formal appointment to Co-CEO, Mellody served as Ariel’s President for nearly two decades and functions as chairman of the board of trustees for Ariel Investment Trust.
Ariel Investments is headquartered in Chicago, Illinois, and has offices in New York City and Sydney, Australia. The firm manages assets of retirement plans, college saving accounts, and personal investment accounts. With strong ties to the community, Ariel is focused on making investing accessible for everyone. Individuals are able to invest $1000 in the firm’s mutual funds.
She is Vice Chair of the Board of Starbucks Corporation, and also serves as a director of JPMorgan Chase and Quibi, a short-form video content company. Mellody is former Chair of the Board of DreamWorks Animation. As a Chicago-native, Mellody is involved in numerous organizations that focus on improving the city. She serves as Chair of After School Matters, a non-profit that provides Chicago teens with high-quality, out-of-school time programs. In 2017, Mellody became the first African-American woman to become Chair of the Economic Club of Chicago in its 90-year history, a two-year term which ended in 2019.
The interview discusses:
- Why having a diverse workforce is a competitive advantage;
- The changing media landscape;
- Why the business of content curation will be critical in the future;
- The reason why movie theatre companies will survive;
- A behind the scenes look of when Mellody’s husband George Lucas’s company, Lucas Films was sold to Disney;
- The sale of DreamWorks (Ms. Hobson what Chair of the Board) to Comcast;
- Characteristics of George Lucas that would surprise most people;
- How Ms. Hobson was selected to join the board of Starbucks;
- Why Mellody believes her board service has made her a better investor;
- And much more…
Available wherever you download podcasts
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Transcript of Interview with Mellody Hobson
Jonathan Boyar: 00:10
Welcome to The World According to Boyar, I am your host Jonathan Boyar. In today’s interview we talk with Mellody Hobson, co-CEO of Ariel Investments. Ever since Mellody gave a Ted talk in 2014 that now has over 3.8 million views, I have followed her career with interest. She’s had a fascinating journey that I wanted to share with you. She was one of six children raised by a single mother in Chicago. As a child, her phone was shut off, her car was repossessed and she was evicted from her home. Despite this, Mellody was able to get into Princeton, secured a job at Ariel investments where she’s now not only co-CEO but also the firms largest shareholder.
Jonathan Boyar: 00:59
As if this was not enough, she’s also on the board of JPMorgan Chase and vice chair of Starbucks. Mellody is also married to Star Wars creator George Lucas. Mellody, welcome to the show.
Mellody Hobson: 01:12
I’m delighted to join you.
Jonathan Boyar: 01:15
Well first, I’m really excited to have you on the show. Your day job is being co-CEO of Ariel investments. Can you briefly describe Ariel to everyone?
Mellody Hobson: 01:25
Sure. Well, we’re a Chicago based investment management firm. We specialize in equities only. We’re a long only equity manager. Yes, we still exist and we focus on value investing, so companies that are undervalued but show a strong potential for growth and we have two real sweet spots. We focus on US stocks that are in the small and mid-size asset classes and then we have a team in New York that focuses on global investing.
Mellody Hobson: 01:57
So global and international stocks around the world, all cap sizes when we do our international and global investing. So across all the cap ranges. And we’ve been doing this since 1983 and one of the areas of distinction for us, our longest running portfolio, our small cap value strategy has had the same portfolio manager since inception, which is almost 37 years. That’s unheard of these days in the investment world and he’s done that and added tremendous value to our clients, outperforming the benchmark by over a couple 100 basis points per annum since inception.
Jonathan Boyar: 02:34
In a previous interviews, you’ve stated the diversity of your firm is really the secret sauce. Can you elaborate a little bit on that?
Mellody Hobson: 02:42
I think that it’s a competitive advantage and it’s one of the things that’s unfortunately lacking in the investment management industry because we have a very very diverse group of people. I think we were able to look at investment decisions and really ponder questions from all sorts of angles that leads to a better outcome and ultimately has driven the results that we have. I often quote Scott Page who wrote the book The Difference. He’s a professor at the University of Michigan and he came up with the first mathematical formula for diversity and in this book he talks about the fact that if you’re trying to solve a really hard problem, hard, you want diverse perspectives, even diverse intellects.
Mellody Hobson: 03:28
And the example that he gives that I think is so great is he talks about the smallpox epidemic and when it was ravaging Europe, all of the greatest scientific minds were stumped and the person who ultimately let them to the breakthrough solution was a dairy farmer who noticed the milkmaids were not getting smallpox. And to this day, the smallpox vaccination is bovine based because of the observations of that dairy farmer. And we really believe in that idea at Ariel when we think about diversity being a competitive advantage, we start to think about when we’re trying to sit around a table and solve the really hard problems that are natural to value investing. Some say value investors catch a falling knife. How do we make sure we catch the right side? It’s all of these diverse perspectives and opinions that allow us to poke holes at an argument and ultimately we think come to a better solution. In fact, we would say if we all agree there’s a problem.
Jonathan Boyar: 04:25
You have a research driven firm. You obviously spend a great amount of time analyzing each investment opportunity. Where in the process do you start to think about the diversity of the company you were thinking of investing in?
Mellody Hobson: 04:39
Early in the process because we want to be invested in 21st century companies and a 21st century company in our mind is diverse. At the top of the organization, throughout the organization and certainly board executives and the like. And that is the only way we believe that you can ultimately understand all the potential customers you may have, be it a business to consumer company or business to business company. We think all of those opinions shed light on the ultimate way that you sell the product or service.
Mellody Hobson: 05:09
And so at the end of the day when we think about owning 21st century companies, we think about diversity and if they don’t have it, we’re certainly going to agitate in that regard. Often because we own large positions, especially for our US stocks and we can really impress upon them the importance of having all of those voices around a table.
Jonathan Boyar: 05:30
Having a variety of viewpoints is critical. I certainly agree. What type of input do you have on the investments Ariel makes?
Mellody Hobson: 05:40
So what I would say is I’m not a person who is second guessing decisions and I’m there cheering them on in terms of what they do and how they do it. Because I recognize just right off the top, stock picking is very very hard and outperforming is even harder and we’ve been able to do that over time. And so it’s not about second guessing someone’s decision. What I do contribute is my Rolodex. And so the team often comes to me with specific requests or general requests and ways that I can help through the relationships that I have. Shed light on a stock or an idea. I’m actually doing that today for John with someone specifically.
Mellody Hobson: 06:19
So it might be this person you know, this person sits on a board with you, this person is a good friend. Can we do a call with them to vet this idea? And we do that a lot. And so, I’m brought into the conversation as a way of enhancing our decision making through relationships that I have. And we’re not trying to get any nonpublic information or anything like that. We’re looking for insights that will allow us to make better decisions.
Jonathan Boyar: 06:47
I’m really interested in your insights on the media landscape. You were chair of Dreamworks. You certainly know the space well. How do you see it changing?
Mellody Hobson: 06:58
Well, I think the world has changed in a major major way. We’ve obviously seen a media consolidation in our lifetime that is probably the most significant happenings in the world of media since the invention of the camera. I think that when you look at the fact that it’s very hard to be a standalone, just let’s talk about film companies. Dreamworks was bought by Comcast. You had Pixar that was bought by Disney. Lucasfilm that was bought by Disney. Even though those businesses and the content that they produced were outstanding. It became harder and harder for those businesses to compete as standalone companies against the media giants.
Mellody Hobson: 07:38
And so we’ve seen those giants consolidate and actually expand their content in such a way that has made them even more formidable in a way that I think actually serves the consumer very well in terms of what they continue to produce. The other thing we’ve seen is the streaming wars, and I think this is a real thing. I see it from the perspective of Quibi and I think our customers and just individuals in general have decided they want to get information when they want it, where they want it, how they want it, and the media companies have absolutely adjusted it to that. And so we’ve seen that take place in a way that I think is fundamentally changed how we take in content. But at the end of the day, I still believe the old idea that content is king and if you have great content, people will watch it, they will find it, they will consume it.
Mellody Hobson: 08:28
The one problem I think we have now is that because there’s so much content and all of it is not good, I think that at some point there will be organizations and my husband is the one who’s really convinced me of this, that we’ll curate that for you so that you can find your way through all of it that exists and so much does it exist today. So I think the future does have some form of curation attached to it. I think the future of streaming real and permanent, and I think we will see it in various iterations like Quibi that are doing short form content or obviously you have others who are coming in and new ways. Disney targeting children with Disney plus or clearly Netflix in terms of how they disrupted the whole industry with streaming to start with.
Jonathan Boyar: 09:15
The curation angle is really really interesting. How do you see that evolving? Is it artificial intelligence? How does this go and who’s the winner overall 10 15 years from now?
Mellody Hobson: 09:26
Well, first of all, I don’t know if there is a company yet doing this and the question is will the existing services, create some form of curation. I think the issue with that is that stays as a closed system and ultimately the question is will there be a curator that will look across all these platforms and help you navigate them? So I’m not sure exactly what form it will take. One would imagine that some form of machine learning or artificial intelligence will be involved and we see that already. Obviously Amazon does that very well. You buy a book and it says if you like this, you probably will like this. We’ve seen it with Apple, with music, so that’s not hard to imagine.
Mellody Hobson: 10:04
I just think that the question is who, what, when, where, we don’t know any of that yet. I don’t think that’s taken any form at all. The one other thing I’ll say about media that I think is important is I do think that there will still be, and again, my husband has really convinced me of this. We will still go to the movies. We will go to theaters because it’s a social event. Certainly at all levels of incomes now people have flat screens, they have big flat screens, but there’s something social about going out.
Mellody Hobson: 10:35
We can listen to a CD in almost perfect form of a song, but nothing competes with a live concert. And so this idea of media only being in your home, certainly we have a lot of opportunity to watch in the way that we wanted our home or on the phone or on an iPad or what have you. But there will still be a world of going to the movies and the question will be, can you uplift the movie experience like we’ve seen in some of the stadium seating and the movies that have the movie theaters that now have food at your table. All of those things, I think we’ll see more of that, more expensive but a better experience.
Jonathan Boyar: 11:15
This interview is about you and your amazing career, but if someone who grew up watching Star Wars, I have to ask at least one or two George Lucas questions. I mean, can you tell us something about him that most people would be surprised to know?
Mellody Hobson: 11:27
Gosh, people know so much about him because he’s been out there for so long. I think for me, the thing that I think was just the most amazing discovery very early on is just he has a really incredible sense of humor and it doesn’t come across, and I joke with him because he never smiles in pictures. And so when you see him in a picture, he has the straight face. And so people don’t really know. He’s just really really funny. Very very clever. And maybe that’s just the nature of being a writer. I don’t know. But that would be my number one thing that I would say that most people would not know about him. But I think the other thing is he literally watches television every day, every single day. I come home and he’s like, I’ve been watching a Fred Astaire marathon. I’m like, what! I mean, he’s a cinephile file. So he television or movies or when he worked on the Clone Wars, he literally watched the Sopranos every season from beginning to end cause he wanted to see how a really strong television show could work.
Mellody Hobson: 12:30
And he literally just sat for weeks and weeks and all he did was hour after hour, watch the Sopranos, he’ll do things like that as a form of research. And last last but not least as he’s learned. So he researched his subjects and he goes very, very deep and it’s something like I never would expect it, he’s like books on tape about string theory and I’m like, “What!” You never know how I might use that one day. And that was something I just had not expected. Super, super, super learned.
Jonathan Boyar: 12:59
Well yeah, I was recently reading Bob Iger’s book, which I highly recommend. And while reading it, I was really excited to see your name mentioned as you were present during some of the negotiations when Lucasfilm was sold to Disney. I guess it was back in 2011 2012 or so. Can you tell us a little bit of behind the scenes of what went on?
Mellody Hobson: 13:20
Well, I would say I wasn’t front and center in those negotiations, but I was on the periphery. I was there for the very first breakfast or lunch. No, it was breakfast that we had at Disney World where the subject was broached. It was funny, we went to the Brown Derby restaurant and it was closed and it was just the three of us and an entire restaurant, which I was like, this is strange, but ultimately Bob Iger brought up the subject of, what are you planning to do with your company? So then, it made sense that no one else was around as we were having this conversation. And then along the way, I was obviously there for everything as it was occurring. I remember when George went to sign the papers in Los Angeles.
Mellody Hobson: 14:01
I was in Chicago that day and I kept saying to him, are you okay? Are you okay? Because I thought, that’s very, very, very hard, and ultimately everything worked out. And Bob was very very kind and thoughtful. Every step along the way. I have a lot of respect for him and not only how he’s run that company and the tremendous success that they’ve had there and the vision that he has, but just how he dealt with George and how he included me in the conversation.
Jonathan Boyar: 14:30
And he kept his word on how the franchise would be treated.
Mellody Hobson: 14:35
Yeah. He’s a pro. He knows what he’s doing and as I said, certainly, they’ve been very fortunate to have him as a leader and we remain a shareholder, a large shareholder of Disney. And a lot of that is because we know that Bob is such an excellent steward for the shareholder.
Jonathan Boyar: 14:58
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Jonathan Boyar: 15:06
So I would imagine in many meetings you attend outside of Ariel, you’re both the only woman and the only person of color. Does that add a tremendous amount of pressure on you? Do you feel kind of a weight that you always have to be on your game and great?
Mellody Hobson: 15:30
I’ve always felt that, but it’s not a weight, it just is. So when you’re black and you have a mom like mine, she made it very clear what you’re up against. She made it very clear what I was up against at a very young age and she conditioned me and so I don’t walk in thinking about it. It just is. I have a friend, Holden Lee who used to be the head of HR at Pepsi. He was on the Starbucks board with me, is so smart and Holden once I was talking to him about these issues and he said, “Mellody, how long have you been black? How long have you been a woman?” It was just such a funny comment and it really perfectly crystallized it for me. It just is. So no, do I walk in carrying a weight or something on my shoulders or burden. No.
Mellody Hobson: 16:13
I walk in knowing this is just life and me and situations that I’m in are often very unique and hoping to do a good job so that the next version of Mellody that comes through is received very very well.
Jonathan Boyar: 16:27
Well, your Ted talk, which has been viewed 3.8 million times and counting was certainly received well. The title of the talk was colorblind or color brave. I highly encourage people to watch it and it’s entirety. But if you had to pick one or two takeaways for people to have, what would they be?
Mellody Hobson: 16:48
The number one thing is what the title of the talk was about. And so I said, color blind or color brave. I was really speaking to the countless number of times that people have told me over and over again that they’re colorblind and I really decided I wanted to challenge that because those who often said it to me were the ones who are in the most homogeneous environments. And so I said, you know what, if you actually could, instead of not seeing race, see it. Because if you saw it, you would see that it was missing in your life. And so I am asking people instead of being color blind to actually embrace the idea of race, embrace the idea of speaking about it, noticing it, talking with others about it, and ultimately, as I called it, being color brave.
Jonathan Boyar: 17:29
So in the speech you describe an incident involving yourself and Harold Ford, would you mind retelling it?
Mellody Hobson: 17:35
It’s a funny story, but it’s also sad at the same time. You have to keep a certain sense of humor about these things in life or else you’d be a little bitter. But Harold had called me, he was running for US Senate and he was, a very well known Congressman from Tennessee who came from a family of political leaders and Harold a young, black guy running for US Senate. He called and he said, Mellody, we’re early in our careers and he says, I need help finding and getting some national press. Can you help me at all?” I called a friend that was a big deal at one of the biggest media organizations in the country. And I went to her and I said, is there anything you can do to help? And she said, let’s do an editorial board lunch for him with a bunch of people.
Mellody Hobson: 18:26
She says, but you come to New York with him. So we both fly to New York, we’re in our best suits, we look like shiny new pennies as I described it in my Ted talk. And we get to the building and we’re directed upstairs and we see the receptionist and we said, we’re here for the lunch. The reception has us follow her through this long meandering hallway. And Harold and I are not paying much attention because we’re talking to each other because we haven’t seen each other, and we’re very excited. We’re excited for the whole experience. So we finally ended up in this room and we get to this room and it’s barren. And she turns to us and she says, where are your uniforms? And we look at each other and we’re like, wow.
Mellody Hobson: 19:07
And just as it was happening, my friend runs in recognizing that we’ve been detoured not to the lunch but to the service area and she’s just red in the face. And so I joke with her, I say, this is exactly why we need more than one black person in the US Senate, because at the time we had only had one and I did it in a joking and funny way, but it was just to suggest, the situation underscored who see people, particularly people of color through a certain lens, can’t see us in all the ways that are possible. And so, it was a stark moment but it certainly put a finer point on the reason for the lunch.
Jonathan Boyar: 19:48
So you certainly have an extremely demanding day job, being co-CEO of Ariel. And I guess in your spare time you’re on a bunch of for profit boards. Why did you join a board?
Mellody Hobson: 20:02
Because it’s an area of interest. I feel like I can contribute and learn and those things are exciting to me and they’ve often been companies with leaders who are well known for their excellence and I want to be around excellence.
Jonathan Boyar: 20:20
You were formally chairperson of the board of Dreamworks. You were young when you initially joined the board and other members of the board were David Geffen and Jeffrey Katzenberg. How were you able to get appointed to such a prestigious board so early in your career?
Mellody Hobson: 20:35
Well, it’s a more interesting story that doesn’t start with Dreamworks. It actually starts with Starbucks. And I received a call one day from Bill Bradley who I had worked with very very very closely when he was running for president. And it didn’t work out obviously. And he called me one day and he said, “Mellody, I’m going on the board of Starbucks and I’m taking you with me. And I said, what? And he said, you don’t know this, but there’ve been a number of times you’ve been on the phone with Howard Schultz and I’ve told them how diligent and hardworking and smart you are and that they really should think about you for the board and now he wants to meet you.
Mellody Hobson: 21:15
And so through a series of interviews that took place over a couple of years, I ultimately was selected to join the board. And from there, Howard called me one day and he said, “Mellody, I’m going on the board of Dreamworks and I’m taking you with me”. I was like, “What!” I mean, it was one of those crazy calls and he said, “Dreamworks is going to IPO and Jeffrey Katzenberg is looking for board members and I told them you would be great. And so, it’s interesting, part of it was just doing a good job where I was. So with Bill Bradley when he was running for president, I work so hard on that presidential campaign and I was very very very focused while working at Ariel. And I would split my day into two parts and work six, seven hour days at both organizations for a couple of years, seven days a week.
Mellody Hobson: 22:05
But I’ve worked as if it was a job, it was not a job. And ultimately that commitment and that devotion was the reason that Bill recommended me at Starbucks. And then when being on the Starbucks board, once I was there, I poured my heart into it. And that led Howard to recommend me. So the big takeaway that I tell people all the time is whatever you’re going to do, you want to be a team player and you want to do it very very well. I had no idea that volunteering for Bill Bradley would lead to being on the board of Starbucks and ultimately vice chair of the board. But it was because I just put my head down and did the work and it was all about being a good teammate to Bill. And this idea of being a good teammate was something that John Rogers had always stressed to me. John Rogers is the person who founded Ariel. He had always stressed to me from the very very beginning of working at Ariel. He always said, the more you help your teammates, the more you help yourself. And the way that the Bill Bradley relationship and Dreamworks and Starbucks all played out is a testament to that statement.
Jonathan Boyar: 23:06
And that’s an amazing story. And basically you had two or three full-time jobs at once and did a great job for each of them. I mean, you must have extraordinary time management skills. I mean, how do you organize your day?
Mellody Hobson: 23:22
Well, that’s a really great question because, I spend a lot of time asking people how they organize themselves because I’m always looking for an edge in a way to be better. I can’t quite get to Jeffrey Katzenberg point where he only needs four hours of sleep. He’s one of those like 10% of people on the planet can live on four hours. But he basically jokes, he gets an extra day every week, which he does because I worked with him for a long long time and I know it to be true, but I can’t do that. But what I do spend a lot of time thinking about is how to be efficient. So everything from one of the things I do at Ariel is I have office hours, which I learned in college.
Mellody Hobson: 24:00
I said, why don’t we do this at work where there was a stated time every day that you could go and see a professor without making an appointment. And there’d be a line outside their door, but they were their office hours. I do that at Ariel and we set that time up on my calendar for people to know when they can communicate with me on small issues that … Actually, it’s 15 minutes or less. It’s not a meeting but it’s not a phone call or it could be a phone call if it’s office hours when I’m outside of the office. And so that’s one way to organize your time so that you don’t have people coming at you all day long because we have a very open door policy at our firm. And so we want to be approachable and accessible to all of our teammates. But the downside of that is just being interrupted constantly. So by coalescing everyone around the office hours, that helps make me more efficient as one of many examples.
Jonathan Boyar: 24:55
Just switching topics a bit. You serve on a bunch of corporate boards. What do you think the biggest responsibility of a board member is? Also you were chair when Dreamworks was sold to Comcast. Can you discuss how a sales process like that works?
Mellody Hobson: 25:11
I think the most important role of a board member is to understand the leadership of the company, succession and capital allocation. To me those are top top top of the list. In terms of the sale of Dreamworks, it was a fascinating process. It was a once in a lifetime experience. It was fun and grueling at the same time and it started with a phone call that I got one day from Brian Roberts. He started by calling Jeffrey Katzenberg first and Jeffrey had super voting shares of Dreamworks and for that reason could not in any way negotiate anything related to the company because he had this special class of shares and all shareholders in that kind of transaction must be treated equally.
Mellody Hobson: 25:52
So Jeffrey said, I can’t talk to you but you can call our board chair. So it’s 6:00 AM in the morning on a weekday, it’s actually a Thursday I remember. And the funniest thing about it is that when he called my husband answered the phone, he called the home phone and I had already come back from my workout and I was actually literally taking a bath and my husband made the joke, you want to take a bath with my wife, which was just completely inappropriate, of course. I told you about that sense of humor. And so he hands me the phone and Brian Roberts, whom I met but didn’t know really well, said, we have an interest in the company. And so it just sort of started there. And that immediately went to an in person meeting in Los Angeles that Saturday. And then it just played out over the next couple of weeks. I mean, all day negotiations an back and forth and up in the middle of the night.
Mellody Hobson: 26:47
And during that period my baby was a baby. And so because I was doing calls throughout the night for about a couple of weeks, this went on for about two weeks and we did a deal very fairly quickly because I was doing these calls in the middle of the night. I slept on the sofa in the family room because my guest room was my baby’s room. So I slept on the sofa. And the big joke that I had that the people who worked in my house must’ve thought that I had a bad marriage because every morning they’d come and see this pillow and this blanket. But I slept on the sofa so I didn’t wake everyone in the house up because I was doing these calls all night. So it was crazy and it was very very invigorating.
Jonathan Boyar: 27:30
How did your board service made you a better investor?
Mellody Hobson: 27:35
In every way, every way. A better leader, a better investor. I think a better person. And that’s because I’ve had one jobs since I graduated from college. I’ve only worked at Ariel, this is 28 years now. So that could be a very insulated experience. That could have been a very insulated experience, but it hasn’t been because I’ve had these other outlets and by serving on corporate boards, I can tell you in no uncertain terms that it’s led to Ariel being run better because I get to learn everything from internal audit to a whole host of things that you can bring back to your organization and make you better. But you also have experiences in a board room that are not the same but certainly are suggestive in terms of issues that we confront with companies that we own.
Mellody Hobson: 28:26
You can say, I remember this in one of my own experiences and how it might relate to something that we might see with one of the companies in our portfolio. And then also just understanding board dynamics. That’s very enlightening when you think about the issues that companies confront on a day to day basis. What are they thinking? How are they dealing with this? Who’s in charge? All of these things are really informative. So Warren Buffett is the one that said, being involved on boards made him a better investor and a better leader. And I’m 100% in agreement of that point of view. It’s been a gift.
Jonathan Boyar: 29:03
Well, Mellody, you’ve been more than generous with your time. Thank you so much, and it was delight having you on the show and hearing about your fascinating career.
Mellody Hobson: 29:12
Thank you so much for having me and have a happy holiday.
Jonathan Boyar: 29:19
I hope you enjoyed the show. To be sure you never miss another World According to Boyar interview. Please follow us on Twitter @boyarvalue, until next time.
Disclaimer: This interview does not constitute a complete description of our investment services and is for informational purposes only. It is in no way a solicitation to buy or an offer to sell any securities or investment advisory services. Any statements regarding market or other financial information is obtained from sources which we believe to be reliable, but we do not warrant or guarantee the timeliness or accuracy of this information. Past performance is no guarantee of future results and there is no assurance that any targets or forward-looking statements will be attained. This interview represents the views of Boyar Asset Management as of November 13,th 2019 and may change without notice. Boyar Asset Management may own shares in any of the companies discussed during the interview.