He later got into landscaping before he started building homes and then, eventually, apartment buildings. He gradually bought up land, expanding his construction projects across Canada and into the U.S. – surviving plenty of close calls over the years, especially in the 1980s when many construction firms went under. For Luigi, there was never any doubt what his sons – Francesco, Roberto and Paulo – would one day do. “I wanted them to join me, no question,” he says, sitting in a well-worn leather chair in Roberto’s office. “They wanted to play sports. I had no interest in sports. For me, business was the only game to play.”
For Francesco Aquilini, that he would one day join the family firm was also certain. “I knew from day one that what my dad was doing would create tremendous opportunities for me,” he recalls later. “I knew that intuitively. And from a young age, my dad always gave me a lot of responsibility. He was a looming presence in my life and by far the biggest influence in terms of business. The man is a genius.” Aquilini attended Templeton Secondary School and by all accounts was an excellent athlete, but a mediocre student. It was a tough school and he got in his share of scuffles. At the time, the east side, especially around Templeton, was heavily populated by Italians and working-class families. Luigi wanted his sons to be imbued with the blue-collar sensibilities of the people in the neighbourhood, and so – even after he built a big new beautiful house out near UBC in 1981 – he kept the family in the house at Slocan and Oxford for three more years, until Roberto and Paulo had finished high school.
“It was extremely important to my dad that we worked hard no matter what it was we were doing,” Aquilini says. He remembers, two months before graduating from high school, having his parents called in by the principal to talk about his grades. They were told their eldest son wasn’t going to amount to anything at the rate he was going. “Well, my dad went absolutely ballistic on me. He was so mad. It was so bad I think I even ran away from home for a couple of days. My dad, when he got angry, could scare the living shit out of you. But he does it in such a way that he demands respect, even to this day. But that day was a turning point in my life, no question.”
Floating through life with little ambition was no longer an option. Luigi had made that perfectly clear. After Aquilini finished high school, his dad wanted him to start working for a living. His mother wanted him to get a degree. Aquilini decided to get a business degree from SFU while working part-time for his dad managing some rental properties in Montreal. In his mid-20s, Aquilini would meet Dusty Martel, then a local radio personality at CFMI. They married, had a child and almost as quickly got divorced. (Today Aquilini won’t say much more about it than “it just didn’t work out.”)
A year after his divorce, he met his current wife, Tali’ah, who was the sister of a guy with whom he played pick-up soccer. They married in 1994 and now have five children, ranging in ages from six to 13. Shortly after the wedding, Aquilini decided to pursue an MBA from the University of California at Los Angeles – commuting to the university every couple of weeks while still working for his father. There are few things Aquilini has done in his life, it seems, where his father hasn’t somehow factored into the equation. By getting his MBA, he says candidly, he thought it would help him move out of his father’s shadow and give him the tools with which to strike out on his own.
Still, Aquilini admits, most of his skill as a dealmaker and company leader is inherited. “We don’t make any decisions that are emotional,” he says, sipping a coffee at Marcello’s, a favoured Commercial Drive haunt. “Every decision is a dispassionate calculated risk. Now passion is brought in after you make the decision. You get everybody excited. But up to that point, there is no emotion. It’s all information gathering, assessing. The goal is to reduce the amount of risk of the outcome failing.”
Every big decision that the family firm makes has to be unanimous, says Aquilini. Luigi and his three sons, who are managing partners in the company, all have equal votes – in theory at least. Francesco Aquilini admits Luigi’s opinion still carries more weight than the others. These days, however, Luigi is happy to put his faith in the advice and opinions of his sons, each of whom brings his own strengths to the company.
Roberto is the numbers guy who determines if a particular proposal makes economic sense. Paulo is the soft-spoken creative one, who is heavily involved in the building-development side of the operation. Both have a reputation for being highly polished and extremely professional. Francesco, a little more rough and tumble than his younger brothers, is known as both a starter and closer. He sniffs out new opportunities and is also instrumental in finishing deals.