It's not uncommon for Gian Fulgoni to be told how much he looks like
, or even to be mistaken for the Academy Award-winning actor and pressed for an autograph.
It happens at least once a week. When it does, the typically gregarious, outgoing Fulgoni, whose first name is pronounced Jan, will smile politely, shake his head and move on.
"Do you think I've never heard that before?" he asks rhetorically. "Why do you feel a need to tell me that when you don't know me?"
But his wife, Sarinda, points out that sometimes -- typically at one of the 40 to 50 conferences where he speaks each year -- people approach Fulgoni, 64, to ask, "Hey are you Gian Fulgoni?"
After 40 years in market research and now as executive chairman of comScore, Fulgoni is well known as an online data guru who can crunch numbers, articulate the results and build businesses around the combination.
If you've heard a statistic about how consumers act online -- say, where they like to buy airline tickets, or what websites they frequent for clothes shopping -- chances are good it came from Fulgoni and the database he's built with his team at comScore.
The firm's data can influence what kind of discounts online retailers offer during the holiday shopping season, or what kind of ads shoppers see as they browse the Web for back-to-school deals. ComScore data crowned social-media darling Pinterest as the fastest independent website to reach 10 million unique visitors in one month. After bruising comments by
about the effectiveness of Facebook advertising, the tech company commissioned comScore to prove that marketing on the site really does have an impact on sales.
A publicly traded company based in Reston, Va., and employing nearly 100 in Chicago, where Fulgoni is based, it also provides data and software to measure and analyze consumer behavior online and off. "Publishers, advertisers and agencies in the middle -- those are our three constituencies, and their interests are not always aligned," he said. And times are increasingly challenging, too: Competition has spiked, and their stock price has fallen.
Fulgoni started figuring out in college that he had a knack for translating difficult concepts into widely understandable language. Studying physics, he noted that his brilliant professors couldn't communicate well. They didn't assign textbooks, so students who were slow taking notes or missed lectures or just didn't understand were simply out of luck.
He also spotted an emerging trend: the rise of data.
"We're in a day and age where it's all about big data," he said. "Nerds are the new heroes."
Fulgoni started comScore in 1999 with Magid Abraham, his former employee at Information Resources Inc. (IRI), the market research firm where he was president and later CEO for nearly 18 years.
Before leaving to launch his own startup in 1995, Abraham had been Fulgoni's chief operating officer, and with their team they had built a sizable business at IRI, taking the company public and growing the company's revenue at an annual rate of 40 percent to more than $500 million.
Now, Fulgoni and Abraham are known as the yin and yang of comScore. While Abraham figures out the technology, Fulgoni is the storyteller who interprets data and communicates it to clients and the public.
"Maybe I'm fortunate in that I can combine right brain and left brain," Fulgoni said.
When he's in town -- he has racked up millions of airline miles on the job -- Fulgoni works out of a spacious office on the 34th floor of
with large windows that provide an expansive view of Lake Michigan. It's speckled with his beloved Pittsburgh Steelers paraphernalia.
Like many top executives, Fulgoni is known for his relentless schedule and workaholic tendencies. He can often be found online late at night answering emails or posting to his
account, @gfulgoni. But he's also known for really enjoying what he does. His enthusiasm for data and market research, according to colleagues, is infectious.
"Gian is very persistent: He does not take no for an answer," Abraham said. "He's very intellectually curious, and he's going to debate you and understand where you are coming from. As a result, he's also somebody who flattens obstacles out of the way to make sure things happen."
That includes going head-to-head in a more than 30-year battle with archrival Nielsen, first at IRI and now at comScore.
In 1987, an attempt by then-Nielsen parent Dun & Bradstreet to buy IRI was blocked by the
. It was one of the toughest times of his career. "We were left in a very precarious position," Fulgoni said. "Clients stopped buying." The company ran low on cash. To shore up their bank account, Fulgoni said, IRI raised $30 million by doing a sale-leaseback on its West Loop offices and set its sights on landing more clients.
Later, in 1996, IRI took Nielsen to court alleging anti-competitive conduct, charging that the market-research giant was using illegal tactics to try to keep them out of the marketplace. Nielsen settled the case in 2006 for $55 million.
ComScore and Nielsen will continue to battle it out, industry watchers predict, as consumers increasingly access the Internet, television and radio across mobile phones, tablets and computers.
"The competitive matchup between these two companies is being closely followed by investors," said Matt Chesler, an analyst at
in New York. "The competitive overlap touches only a portion of Nielsen's businesses, but substantially all of comScore's, so how this all shakes out means far more to comScore's investment case than it does to Nielsen's."
Nielsen, which declined to comment for this story, isn't comScore's only problem. While revenue has steadily climbed through acquisitions, profits have not followed. Consequently, comScore's stock price is down 33 percent this year, closing Friday at $14.12. "The business has been cash-flow positive," Fulgoni said. "But we certainly have had episodes where we've not hit the expectations that Wall Street has had for us."
Part of being the public face of a company is wooing clients -- and that takes charisma and knowing how to have a good time.
In the evenings, Fulgoni and Sarinda often dine at Gibsons Bar and Steakhouse around the corner from their home, sometimes with clients and often with friends. Fulgoni was a founding investor when it opened in 1989.
On a recent weekday evening as he dined on lobster tail, Fulgoni looked down and smiled sheepishly when asked how many nights a week he dines there. "Once," he said looking downward and smiling. "Maybe more." It helps, he added, that he gets a 50 percent discount.
When a friend asked him to invest, it was the latter-half of the '80s and everyone seemed to be talking about
, Fulgoni recalled: "I'm thinking, you know, who needs another steak restaurant?"
But he was single at the time -- he and Sarinda married in 1994 -- so he jumped in anyway. "I thought, 'Ah, I'm just down the street; I can get reservations,'" he said. "And it really took off." Fulgoni, who is not involved in the restaurant's operations, declined to reveal his stake.
"It's by far the best investment of cash I've ever made," he said, chuckling, "other than starting new companies."
Fulgoni grew up in Wales, where his father ran a restaurant. Majoring in physics at the University of Manchester in the late '60s, Fulgoni knew he was good with numbers, but figured that to have a competitive advantage he had to have something else. So in graduate school at Lancaster University, he took up marketing.
After grad school, Fulgoni landed his first data job at Management Science Associates in Pittsburgh, which he considers his first U.S. hometown. It was there he developed his passion for the Steelers.
Over the next 10 years, Fulgoni rose through the ranks, eventually becoming an executive vice president and manager of the firm's Chicago office.
In 1981, a former colleague at MSA, John Malec, recruited Fulgoni to be president of Information Resources, Inc., a market data research firm that made its name on capturing consumer data from retailers through a bar code scanners. (That firm is now SymphonyIRI Group.)
In 1989, he was tapped to be CEO.
"Gian's a real instigator," said Jack Honomichl, founder of Inside Research, a market research trade publication and author of the Honomichl Global Top 25 Research Report. "He stirs things up and gets things going," he said referring to Fulgoni's ability to predict what retailers need and how to gear their business toward it. But by the late '90s investors weren't happy with the direction of the company's stock and wanted a change. In 1998, Fulgoni stepped down as chairman.
"I jokingly say to people sometimes that I count my age in fiscal quarters," he said. Each quarter equals about a year of a human life, "so it does wear down on you," he said. "The timing was right."
Tap into Internet
In the meantime, he had been mulling how to tap into the Internet boom. "You had to be asleep to not realize what the Internet was doing," he said.
Sitting at the bar in his house in Florida, he set about writing a plan for doing what IRI did, but on the Web. In those days, he said, no one was measuring e-commerce, and with Abraham, whom he calls a "technological genius," he could figure out how.
The company started by offering consumers incentives such as software that speeds up their Internet connections to persuade them to let their computers be monitored. From the data comScore mined, it was able to provide Web publishers and advertisers with valuable information about what consumers were doing online.
Finding funding for his startup wasn't hard. It was the height of the tech bubble, and as a veteran, Fulgoni found that investors were eager to pour money into his idea. Early clients include Pets.com, Orbitz and Kraft. The partners decided that Abraham would run the company while Fulgoni would build the brand.
Then the bubble burst, taking companies like Pets.com with it. Fulgoni's fledgling company had to recalibrate. He describes
and the technology bust as "two uppercuts" for comScore.
"We were starting to see revenue, and along came these tsunamis that severely dampened corporate demand for our services," he said. It translated to a higher cash-burn rate for the company, but Fulgoni had the confidence that he and Abraham had created something special. And back then, there wasn't much competition for data measuring what people were buying online.
"We were pushing back a lot of frontiers, doing stuff that hasn't been done before," he said. "That's pretty energizing."
In time, comScore expanded to include monitoring shopping behavior offline too, aiming to give marketers and Web publishers a full picture of what consumers were thinking, doing and buying. The company went public in 2007.
The next frontier for comScore and its competitors is capturing the global market. Today comScore brings in about $300 million in annual revenue. Nearly 25 percent of that comes from overseas, the company's fastest-growing segment, Fulgoni said.
He won't comment on the prospects of current tech startups, but has a litany of advice for up-and-coming entrepreneurs: Find a brilliant team. Be flexible. There's no substitute for hard work. And don't get locked into one business plan.
"The speed at which things are changing is a two-edged sword," he said. "Every day you wake up and there's something new that's a threat or an opportunity."
- - -
Gian Fulgoni, executive chairman, comScore Inc.
Family: A native of Wales, he married his wife, Sarinda, in 1994 in Las Vegas. They have residences in Chicago's Gold Coast and Florida.
Porsche "purist": Owns three Porsche Turbos. Not interested in the popular Cayenne SUV or Panamera sedan. Fulgoni and his wife take an annual road trip in one of his Porsches, this year to Colorado, Utah, Montana and Wyoming.
Daily run: Every morning -- rain, snow or sunshine -- Fulgoni runs three to five miles, even when he travels. "I find that running sets up my day." He uses a GPS watch to track his miles. "There probably isn't a U.S. city in which I don't have a route." He's been lost twice -- in Beijing and Cincinnati. In 1984, he ran the
in 2 hours, 59 minutes and 40 seconds.
See him pin: Fulgoni is active on Pinterest, where he has boards dedicated to two of his passions: Porsches and the Pittsburgh Steelers.