Growing up in a predominantly Cuban community in Los Angeles, Ozzie and Will Areu never would have dreamed they would become media executives running a film and television empire.
When they were just teenagers, their father died suddenly of a brain aneurysm and all of their attentions turned toward helping their mother. “There were four of us and we did what families do, we rallied,” Will said.
At 22, Ozzie got a job as a security guard at Warner Bros. studios. He was soon promoted from guarding a parking lot to heading security on the set of the TV show, Friends. That’s where he met actress Jennifer Aniston, who eventually helped him land a job as Brad Pitt’s personal assistant. Five years later, he became Ellen DeGeneres’ executive assistant and in 2007, he was hired by Tyler Perry.
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For the first year, Ozzie commuted from Los Angeles to Atlanta, where Perry was based. But the cross-country commute took a toll and his brother encouraged him to move.
“I told him, ‘You need to go to Atlanta. You need to move there. Don’t worry about us. We’ve got it. I got mom,'” said Will, who had worked his own way up as a clerk in the mail room to a job in post-production at Modern VideoFilm.
About 18 months after Ozzie moved to Atlanta with his wife and kids, Perry called him into a meeting with seven other executives. Ozzie thought he was there to take notes.
“He said… I want you guys to congratulate Ozzie. He’s now the president of Tyler Perry Studios. He oversees everything,'” Ozzie recalled.
Two years later, Perry hired Will to be senior vice president of post-production at the studio.
Now, Ozzie, 44, and Will, 42, oversee day-to-day operations of Tyler Perry Studios. Together, they’ve overseen production of more than 1,400 television episodes, including House of Payne and Meet the Browns, as well as films like Boo! A Madea Halloween.
The brothers now have adjoining offices and live near one another in Atlanta. Their mom lives down the street in a home they purchased for her.
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“I just pinch myself every day,” Will says. “It just feels like a dream.”
This is Will and Ozzie Areu’s American success story:
What has been your biggest hurdle in life and how did you overcome it?
Will: We were extremely close to our dad. He was a Cuban immigrant and worked hard. He owned car dealerships. One night we kissed him goodnight and the next morning he passed away.
Ozzie: He passed away in our house. In the bathroom with us there with him. He had a cerebral hemorrhage.
Will: Our father was an only child. Before he passed, he’d say, “You don’t understand what you have in each other. I would’ve given anything to have a brother.”
Our mom was devastated so we became stronger — for her.
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What’s one of the hardest decisions that you’ve had to make?
Ozzie: I got a baseball scholarship from Sacramento State University, but I had to pay my own rent and food. My brother worked, and he would send me four or five hundred bucks every month. That went on for a year.
I always wanted to go pro, but my mother broke her back at the end of my first year. I had to make a decision. “Am I good enough? Is this gonna happen?” I decided the right thing to do was to come home and be with the family.
I was looking to get into law enforcement, but I didn’t finish college.
Will: When [Ozzie] went to college, I was left at home with my mom and my younger sister. I felt at such a young age, I had all this responsibility.
Ozzie: My brother and I wanted to be homicide detectives together. I got a job doing security at Warner Bros., and applied for the LAPD and the Burbank Police Department. I did the agility test, polygraph and background check for the Burbank Police Department and I was supposed to meet with the chief to get into the academy. But there was a technicality.
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‘We realized that you weren’t insured on the car you drove to take your physical agility test. It’s illegal to drive without insurance in California,’ the detectives who I was meeting with said.
I had been removed from the policy a few months before. It was just a mistake.
So after all that, I was working at Warner Bros., just doing security.
Do you feel like you’ve had to work harder than your peers to get to where you are?
Will: I was working in the mail room [at the post-production house]. I’d get off at five o’clock, and I’d stay til 2:00 a.m., just learning.
People might be smarter than me at the time, but nobody was ever gonna outwork me.
One day, I got a call from the [vice president of Modern VideoFilm company, where I worked]. I’m freaking out, wondering, “What did I do?”
He said, “I hear you’ve been here every single night for a long time on your own time.” And he asks, “Well, what do you wanna do?” I said, “I wanna learn. And I wanna be you one day.”
So he says, ” I’m gonna give you a shot in the tape room. I’m gonna give you two weeks. Either you can do it or you can’t.”
He put me on the graveyard shift, and from then on, I took every job that was offered. I learned everything from graphics to editing to special effects to remastering — everything that you could think of. I worked there for about 13 years and eventually I was responsible for all the operations there, handling multimillion dollar accounts.
Ozzie: We’ve had to be that much better, not just for myself and for Will, but for Tyler [Perry] as well, because of what he did for us. We felt: “We gotta be the best, better than the best executive that he could find.”
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What does success mean to you?
Will: For us, success has always been to be able to take care of the family and be happy. I could never have dreamed that I would be in the position that I am today, but I knew I could make something of myself with the values my mom instilled in me.
Ozzie: I was able to bring my mom to meet President Obama during his campaign. He asked my mom “What’s important to you?” She said, “Please free my Cuba!” So when he [improved] our relationship with Cuba she felt like she had a part in it.
I’m proud of that.
[Also,] we always tell Tyler, “Thank you for your friendship, and thank you for just letting us be a little piece of this amazing legacy that you’re creating.”
CNNMoney (New York) First published April 28, 2017: 8:29 AM ET