Low-profile Vancouver businessman takes center ice as Dallas Stars owner
Dallas Morning News – by Cheryl Hall
March 17, 2012
VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Tom Gaglardi is looking pretty darn smart these days.
When he bought the bankrupt Dallas Stars last November, the hockey team had missed the playoffs for three seasons in a row, and prospects for getting fans in seats seemed bleak at best. Now home attendance is on a dramatic upswing, and the Stars are in contention to win the Pacific Division.
Credit the 44-year-old restaurant and hotel executive from this city 1,765 miles northwest of Big D for inspiring that new attitude.
He has lowered prices on cheap seats, brought back Jim Lites as president and left the on-ice decisions to general manager Joe Nieuwendyk.
And Gaglardi (pronounced guh-LAHR-dee) acts like a kid who just bought a candy store when he talks about owning the Dallas Stars.
A $267 million candy store.
“There’s absolutely no reason why the Dallas NHL market can’t be Top 10 again,” says Gaglardi, sitting in his office across the bridge from downtown Vancouver. “Being ownerless and rudderless really hurt the franchise, for sure.
“It fell in a hurry. It’ll come back in a hurry. People are starting to talk about us now.”
And people are talking about him.
“The players are no longer playing for a faceless entity,” Lites says. “They’re playing for a real person. That’s incredibly important.”
So who is Robert Thomas Gaglardi?
For one thing, he’s the son of one of the richest businessmen in Canada. But don’t think he’s riding his father’s coattails. He’s a low-key, competitive, self-made billionaire in his own right who avoids the spotlight.
“The older I get, the more I treasure my anonymity,” says the married father of three. “I never go out in Vancouver. I just like to go home and live quietly. Then I go and buy a hockey team and blow that out of the water.”
Gaglardi is Canadian but claims some Texas roots. His mother, Karen, is from Longview, and met his father, Bob, son of a well-known Vancouver politician, when he studied at Longview’s LeTourneau College. His parents divorced when Tom was in elementary school, but he’s still close to his mom in Vancouver and her family in Burleson and Fort Worth.
As president of Northland Properties, Gaglardi runs a family-owned company with more than $2.5 billion in assets. Northland owns four restaurant chains, has 49 Denny’s franchise units and is the largest family-owned hotel company in Canada with 8,000 rooms. The company’s hotel and restaurant brands are household names in Canada, but the corporate umbrella is not.
There’s no big downtown tower with Northland Properties’ name on it. Corporate headquarters, which houses 100 employees, is on a street of low-rise, dated storefronts.
Gaglardi’s second-floor office is so cramped that he has to rearrange furniture to accommodate a visitor plus his dad, who’s stepped in from his adjacent office.
A large framed photo of Gaglardi dropping the ceremonial puck at his first Dallas game as team owner is propped on a chair because there’s no place to hang it. The one wall big enough is already taken with family snapshots and a photo of a Denny’s sign representing his first foray into the restaurant business in 1991.
“We’re really kinda humble people,” he says as his father gives a nod.
The company is owned entirely by Gaglardi, his younger sister, half brother and half sister. Bob Gaglardi put his interests in Northland into a trust benefiting his four children more than 20 years ago.
Regardless of ownership, it’s a two-man team at the top.
“We’re told regularly that they’ve never seen a father/son get along so well,” Tom Gaglardi says. “The trials and tribulations that I face in business — whether it’s hockey or a hotel deal somewhere — usually the first guy I’ll call to talk it over with is my dad. Is there some friction? Yeah. I think that’s natural.”
Bob Gaglardi makes it clear that buying a National Hockey League team was his son’s dream, not his.
“We’re in the hotel business and the restaurant business,” says the 71-year-old Northland Properties chairman. “I’m quite content to stay in those businesses. Stick to my knitting, if you will. But Tom’s always been really interested in hockey.
“So if he can bring his enthusiasm and business acumen to that arena, I’m looking forward to that.”
Says Tom: “I think I’m going to have so much fun with that franchise for the rest of my life.”
Son and father are extremely close but different.
Tom is barrel-chested, built for body checks on the ice, while Bob is slender and fit.
Tom wears a $15,000 IWC Portuguese Yacht Club Chronograph watch. Bob’s is an Omega with a metal stretch band — a gift from his parents when he graduated from high school in 1959.
“You can’t buy my dad a new watch,” Tom says.
“His just costs more,” retorts Bob.
Bob Gaglardi went broke in the 1980s, and Tom quit college his senior year to help bail him out.
“We promised my mom that I would go back,” says Gaglardi, who was 21 at the time and working on a degree in history and economics. “I like to say it’s the only promise I never kept to my mom.”
Instead, Gaglardi got an advanced degree in the real world, learning that too much debt (about $150 million) and not enough available cash was a deadly combination.
“We had to roll up our sleeves and work like dogs to improve operations and earnings and pay down debt,” Gaglardi says. “And we did.”
Gaglardi fights hard to balance family, work, solitude and guy time.
Up at 7, he works at home until he heads to the office around noon for lunch with his dad. After dim sum or other local neighborhood fare, he hunkers down with his staff, attends one of his son’s hockey practices or games, spends time with his family, then works until midnight or so.
“My best ideas come either while I’m in the shower in the morning or at night when I’m having a few cocktails,” he says. “Once I go to the office, I don’t get to work anymore. I basically work with the staff to solve problems, sign things and our internal legal guys are always working on this, that or whatever.”
Gaglardi grew up, went to public school and then to the University of British Columbia all within a 10-minute car ride of his office.
In the midst of the conversation, an electronic duck quack signals a text message from someone important.
“Sorry, I’m short a player tonight, and I gotta tell this guy I need him to play,” says Gaglardi, who plays for and manages an adult hockey league team.
He’s captain of the Blazers in the Adult Safe Hockey League — safe meaning players can’t get too physical. “We all want to be able to go to work the next day,” he explains.
He and his buddies wear last season’s sweaters from Gaglardi’s fabled minor league team, the Kamloops Blazers, which he owns with current and former NHL players.
Gaglardi, wife Brittney and their sons live in a modern-style, 8,500-square-foot home in a neighborhood of $15 million to $20 million houses. Houses cost more in Vancouver than in Dallas. These are like homes in the Park Cities with less flash and more natural beauty.
The Gaglardis’ house is one of the nicest in the neighborhood, with an outdoor soccer field, a large putting green and an indoor playroom where pandemonium is encouraged.
When Gaglardi hosted the Stars team at his home during a recent swing through Canada, the players roughhoused with the kids, drank wine and watched three hockey games on big-screen TVs scattered throughout the house.
His sons — ages 9, 7 and 6 — are strictly forbidden from bragging to their mates that their dad owns an NHL team.
“My wife is adamant about that,” he says.
So is owning the Stars a business or a rich guy’s toy?
“I can tell you, we consider it a business,” Gaglardi says. “I always laugh at people who make comments like, ‘You’re rich. You can afford to lose money.’ I’ve never met a rich guy who liked to lose money.
“I’ve made it very clear that I don’t plan to make my living by owning the Dallas Stars. But I know very well that if we make the right decisions on and off the ice and run our business properly, it’ll work out just fine.”
Since Gaglardi lowered ticket prices in December, the Stars’ home-game attendance is up 31 percent to an average of 15,000-plus. Even with the surge in attendance, the Stars are expected to lose $30 million this season after losing a combined $91.5 million in the previous three.
It will take more than sellouts to make money, Gaglardi says.
“If you look at the teams that are competitive year after year in the NHL, they’re healthy financially. So we’ve got to get this thing healthy. Does that mean you’ve got to be instantly profitable? No, you just can’t lose a lot,” he says.
“We’ll fix it. We’ve got a plan. Our media rights are worth a lot of money going forward. There are some macro things that are going to happen with the structure of the NHL that are really going to help us.”
Gaglardi says he could “live in Dallas in a heartbeat.”
In a way he does. He has a three-bedroom condo at the W Hotel and breezes in for two or three games a month. He’ll come more often if the Stars make it to the playoffs.
Buying the Stars was Gaglardi’s third attempt at owning an NHL team.
In 2003, he was part of a group trying to buy the Canucks and wound up suing current Canucks owner Francesco Aquilini when he was pushed out of the deal. The Supreme Court of British Columbia ruled against Gaglardi in 2008.
In October 2010, Gaglardi made an offer to buy the Stars but was rejected.
Last spring, seller representatives called back to see if he was still interested.
“I wrestled with it,” he says, and sought counsel from his family. “I was strongly encouraged to do it, because they understand that I’ve always wanted this.
“I’m in this because I love the game and I think Dallas can be an elite team again and compete for the Stanley Cup. I want to be a part of that.”
Gaglardi’s commitment to winning was pivotal in Lites’ return as Stars CEO after a four-year hiatus.
“I knew what Joe [Nieuwendyk] was capable of putting together, but it takes money to do it,” says Lites, 59, who only knew Gaglardi by reputation before the purchase. “That’s what I was looking for from Tom: ‘Are you prepared to win the hearts and minds of the Dallas market by spending money in the right way to make the team successful?’ He convinced me that he was.”
It didn’t take much convincing, Lites admits. “I knew his history. Tom’s been very successful with his junior team.”
Persistence pays off
The recent NHL trade deadline gave some insight into what kind of owner Gaglardi intends to be.
He was willing to trade veterans for new blood if his general manager wanted to. Nieuwendyk wanted to stand pat, so that’s what Gaglardi did.
Nieuwendyk had no doubts about how Gaglardi would act that day. “We talk pretty much every day,” says the 45-year-old NHL Hall of Famer. “We share the same beliefs about how to build the team — the kind of character and types of players that we want.”
Nothing about his new boss has surprised Nieuwendyk. “What has impressed me is his family values and the core of him. He may come across as having a rough exterior because he’s a big hockey fan. But he’s also really a smart businessman. He’s passionate about business, passionate about winning, and you can see that every time you talk with him.”
Asked to describe himself, Gaglardi says: “I am as competitive a guy as you’ll find. If I decide I want to be the best at something, I’ll outwork you until I am. I won’t make a big deal out of it. You won’t see it or know it. That’s the way it is for me.
“When we announced the deal, [NHL commissioner] Gary Bettman got it right when he said I hung in there for two years. You can try to shake me off as hard as you can, and I’ll keep holding on.”
Robert Thomas Gaglardi
Title: President, Northland Properties Corp.
Education: Three and a half years at University of British Columbia in Vancouver
Personal: Married to Brittney Gaglardi, three sons
Home: Lives in Vancouver and owns a condo at the W in Dallas
Siblings: Younger sister Andrea manages a renovation crew; younger half brother Mitchell lives in England, where the company just opened its first British hotel, a Sandman Signature, and owns a Shark Club; and half sister Devonna is an interior designer for the company.