Francesco Aquilini and His Canucks Breakaway

The new owner of the Vancouver Canucks, Francesco Aquilini, on settling into his new role and dealing with scrutiny from the media.

After an intense legal battle, Franceso Aquilini assumes control of the Vancouver Canucks.

From the archives: Few in B.C.’s business world are as brash and ambitious as Fransceco Aquilini, owner of the Vancouver Canucks. From 2008, our profile of the man in the aftermath of his recent acquisition of Vancouver’s crown jewel

To truly grasp the wonderful improbability of the Aquilini family taking possession of Vancouver’s crown jewel – its NHL Canucks – you have to go for a ride. And it’s best to go for it with the Aquilini who has become the public face of ownership: Francesco, eldest son of Luigi and the mastermind who orchestrated the deal that gave the family half, and then eventually 100 per cent control, of the team.

Aquilini pulls his silver Range Rover to a stop outside a huge corner lot at North Slocan and Oxford streets in east Vancouver. On it sit two homes. The one set in the back is made of white stone; it has a wraparound veranda and a silo-shaped, glass-enclosed solarium that sets it apart from any other house in the area. The other is closer to the front corner of the property where the two streets intersect. It, too, sticks out in a neighbourhood known mostly for brick-and-vinyl-sided Vancouver specials. It’s made entirely of dark yellow brick. If you didn’t know any better, you’d think it had been picked up during a tornado in northern Italy and somehow landed here, half a world away. The two homes are ringed by a brick wall and cast-iron railing.

Aquilini pulls away from the curb and stops at the intersection. He turns left, to head east on Oxford Street and there, instantly, it rises before you: the Pacific Coliseum, for so many memorable years the home of the hockey team Aquilini now owns. As it turns out, Aquilini literally grew up in the shadow of the old stadium. “When I was young, I would park cars at my house on game nights,” he says as we glide by his old home. “I used to jam them in there. I could get 20, 25 cars in there sometimes. I would make $200, $300 on a good night. And then the city brought in this rule you could only park four cars on your property, so my profits fell off considerably.”“This is where I grew up,” says Aquilini, who now lives in a mansion on the west side, near UBC. Aquilini spent most of his childhood in the white-stoned home, which at one time served as the Japanese consulate; the yellow stone house was built by Luigi in the late ’70s. “We moved into it when I was 15,” he says. “We still own both houses today and rent them out.”

We continue heading east, past Calister Park. We hit Renfrew Street, cross it and turn into the parking lot in front of the low-slung office building of the Vancouver Giants, which once was the executive suite of the Canucks. Aquilini turns in his seat and points to the plaza area west of the Coliseum’s main doors. “That’s where people would scalp tickets,” he says. “I would hang around on game nights and sometimes a scalper who couldn’t get rid of some tickets would give me one. ‘Here kid, go enjoy the game.’ And that’s how I would watch the games. Couldn’t afford it otherwise.”

The Range Rover is now idling at the back of the Coliseum, where the Canucks players would emerge after games. It was here, one night years ago, that Canucks defenceman Lars Lindgren gave a tall, scrawny 10-year-old his stick and then signed it. “I’ll never forget it,” Aquilini recalls.

Fast-forward 37 years. Aquilini is in Las Vegas at the invitation of Mike Gillis, the new general manager he has hired to run his hockey team. It is a meeting of the team’s scouts, one of whom is Lindgren. Aquilini sees him and ­extends his hand.

“Hi Lars,” he says. “Francesco Aquilini. Remember me?”

Until the November day in 2004 when then-Canucks owner John McCaw announced he had sold half of the team to local interests, few outside the city’s business community had ever heard of Francesco Aquilini, the tall, dark-haired Italian-Canadian who would become the family spokesman and chief decision-maker for all matters concerning the team.

For some, the Aquilini name produced vague memories of a controversy back in the 1980s. A few Vancouver rental properties owned by Luigi and his then-business partner, Giovanni Zen, had become the subject of protests after the landlords jacked up rates in the rundown buildings. In recent years, however, the family name has been linked more favourably to philanthropic endeavours – multimillion-dollar donations to transform three hectares of Hastings Park into Il Giardino Italiano and to preserve 104 hectares of wetlands near Pitt Meadows, a community in which the Aquilinis own vast swaths of land.

While the purchase of the Canucks certainly made Francesco Aquilini more of a name in the city, it would be a caustic legal battle for control of the team that would thrust him into an often harsh, unforgiving light. It was a fight that pitted Aquilini against two longtime acquaintances – Tom Gaglardi and Ryan Beedie.

The Aquilinis and Gaglardis went way back. Luigi had been good friends with Tom Gaglardi’s grandfather, “Flying Phil” Gaglardi, the flamboyant former Social Credit cabinet minister. Luigi helped bail Phil’s son, Bob – Tom’s father – out of some financial difficulties in the 1980s. The two families would become jointly involved in developing a sprawling resort on Garibaldi Mountain north of Vancouver – a project still in the planning stages.

Beedie is the son of Keith Beedie, who’d built a fortune as the province’s largest industrial landlord. Francesco Aquilini met Ryan through the Young Presidents Association, a group of CEOs under the age of 40.

Originally, he had been associated with a bid by the two to buy a stake in the Canucks; after Aquilini severed his connection to that effort, Gaglardi and Beedie pressed on by themselves. When John McCaw ultimately ended up doing a deal with Aquilini, Gaglardi and Beedie were stunned. The pair would accuse their old associate of a vicious double-cross and launch a civil suit to have Aquilini’s ownership of the team nullified.

The trial that spread out over five months in 2007 provided juicy fodder for local media – the scions of three B.C. dynasties going at it in open court. The Vancouver Sun’s Ian Mulgrew would cast the drama in Shakespearian terms, making comparisons to the Montague and Capulet rivalry of Romeo and Juliet. For the 48-year-old Aquilini, the legal showdown would eat up three years of his life between the lawsuit being filed and a decision being made. In the end, B.C. Supreme Court Justice Catherine Wedge threw out the lawsuit, dismissing the complaint in January of this year as mostly sour grapes.

Aquilini would have been forgiven for thinking he could now breathe a little easier, that he wouldn’t be subject to any more name-calling for a long, long time. But he was going to find out that when you own the Canucks, you are always one decision away from being publicly flogged and pilloried.

When the city’s beloved team failed to make the playoffs for the second time in three years, there were the predictable howls of outrage. But when Aquilini fired general manager Dave Nonis, he couldn’t have anticipated the media firestorm that would ensue. While many fans supported the move, many commentators didn’t. The Sun’s Cam Cole warned the team’s faithful in a front-page column that they should “be afraid . . . be very afraid,” for the future of the club under Aquilini’s leadership. His counterpart at the Province, Ed Willes, called the Nonis firing “the latest act in an ongoing farce.” CKNW’s Neil Macrae started referring to the owner as “Francesco Aquiloony.”

Suddenly, people were asking: just who is Francesco Aquilini, and what is he doing with our hockey team?

The offices of the Aquilini Investment Group take up three floors in a section of the Standard Building, a heritage tower at Hastings and Richards. On the main floor, there are boxes strewn about and filing cabinets open while a group of women sitting behind desks clustered in the centre of the room work on computers or talk on the phone. The floor is ringed by executive offices with glass doors filled by men. There is a set of stairs with an ornate banister that leads up to the second floor.

No one is sure what the privately held Aquilini Investments is worth, although one report in the Sun last year estimated its holdings at close to $5 billion. The family owns nearly 2,000 hectares of land in the Pitt Meadows area, including a 570-hectare blueberry farm and 530-hectare cranberry field; it also owns the Bordertown movie set, which is in the area. There is a management company that runs 60 hotels in Canada, seven of which the company owns. Aquilini Developments, a division headed up by Dave Negrin, formerly of Concord Pacific, is embarking on $1-billion worth of construction, mostly condominium towers. The company also owns five office towers across the country, several golf courses and the Pizza Hut franchise in B.C., and it has just started Aquilini Renewable Energy (headed by Negrin’s brother, John), which is looking for opportunities in green energy, including waste-to-power and wind power. But the company’s Hope Diamond is the Canucks.

For the headquarters of a multibillion-dollar corporation, it is modest and nothing like the refined dwellings of red leather couches and glass-topped coffee tables you find in classic corporate fortresses such as Bentall IV or the Shaw Tower. But the home of Aquilini Investments, with its overtones of Italy, is in many respects an appropriate reflection of company founder, Luigi.

The 76-year-old patriarch emigrated from Brescia in northern Italy in the summer of 1953. His wife, Elisa, was already in Vancouver, where she’d come to join her family (he had stayed behind to finish his obligations to the Italian military). Luigi arrived in Vancouver on a Friday evening, penniless; by Monday he had a job in a foundry.

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.

He brought the West Edmonton Village offer to the family table, a deal ultimately consummated by Luigi. (It is one of the largest rental complexes in Canada, with nearly 1,200 units.) He was at the front end of the King Edward Village condo project at Knight Street and Kingsway in Vancouver, as well as the purchase of the Provincial Bank building in Montreal (with its 250,000 square feet of office space). He has also been working hard on forging a relationship with the Musqueam Indian band, entertaining band leaders in his box at hockey games. The Musqueam own the rights to vast swaths of land in Vancouver that could be worth billions if developed, including the current site of Shaughnessy Golf Course. Francesco Aquilini would love his company to be the one that develops it.

“But the way it works,” he explains, “is that my brothers and dad play a big role in every deal. Sometimes they will play a bigger role, sometimes I will. But everything, and I mean everything, is a collaborative effort.”

According to some of those who have dealt with him, Aquilini can be an aggressive and hard bargainer. It’s perhaps not surprising then that in the course of doing business for nearly 30 years he’s earned the wrath of the odd developer and property owner – though, in typical Vancouver fashion, few would speak publicly about their grievances. One deal Aquilini negotiated was for a tiny parking lot in Gastown, the last piece of real estate the family needed to sew up an entire block of buildings. The lot was owned by the PCI Group. Dan Turner is senior vice-president at PCI. When phoned and asked how negotiations with Aquilini went, Turner would only offer a “no comment.”

One developer who did not have a happy experience with Aquilini and did not want to be quoted said, “The Aquilinis are a very powerful family in this city. Let’s leave it at that.”

More recently, Aquilini explored the possibility of bringing a Major League Soccer (MLS) franchise to Vancouver. This did not amuse Whitecaps owner Greg Kerfoot, who has been trying to build soccer in the city for a number of years and has also been putting together an MLS bid. Neither Kerfoot nor Whitecaps president Bob Lenarduzzi would comment on Aquilini’s MLS manoeuvring. “Our approach is to not even acknowledge his bid,” responded Lenarduzzi, who, along with Kerfoot, is said to be furious with the Canucks owner.

Aquilini has been instrumental in many of the company’s key recent hires, including the aforementioned Negrin brothers, though the family does not make any of its major hiring decisions in isolation. In the last few years, the company has employed the services of Kevin Somerville, president of Somerville Partners. Somerville is an industrial psychologist based in Denver who consults with many Fortune 100 companies on succession planning, organizational development and senior executive coaching. He flies up once a month to offer advice to the Aquilinis on a range of matters, and last spring he was brought in to talk to prospective Canucks GM Mike Gillis. He approved of the decision to bring him aboard.

The hiring of Somerville demonstrates the overarching corporate philosophy at the Aquilini Investment Group: leave as little to chance as possible. That means doing deep research on any possible acquisition and on any major hire, especially one such as Gillis who, with no previous NHL management experience, carried a certain amount of risk.

Gillis was hired a mere nine days after Nonis was fired. At his news conference, he said he’d only met Aquilini for the first time a mere seven days earlier. When asked by BCBusiness when they’d met for the first time, Aquilini refused to answer: “There are some things I just won’t talk about.” In fact, according to a source who did not want to be quoted, Aquilini met Gillis several months earlier – possibly more than a year before Nonis was fired. And after that initial meeting, Aquilini and Gillis would meet several times before the Aquilinis officially named him the new Canucks GM.

Aquilini was apparently so impressed with Gillis’s knowledge of the game and his approach to problem-solving that it’s doubtful Nonis would have been kept on as Canucks GM even if the team had made it to the second round of the playoffs. In short, Nonis was not Aquilini’s type of guy.

“The thing that impressed us about Mike was the way he prepares himself when he makes a decision,” explains Aquilini. “Mike has a tremendous ability to get to the heart of the matter, just like my dad. He thinks things through. Nothing is done off the cuff. There are no emotional decisions. They’re all based on thorough research and analysis.”

If Gillis proves to be a winning decision for the Aquilinis, then no one will care that he might have been indirectly lobbying for Nonis’s job behind the scenes months prior to his predecessor’s dismissal or that he was less than forthright and candid about when he met Aquilini. If Gillis is a failure, then the circumstances around his hiring will not be good for his reputation or future job prospects; it may also make it more difficult for Aquilini to hire a quality GM down the road. But ultimately, all Canucks fans care about is having a winning team and a quality organization that puts victories above everything else. “And that’s what we want and that’s what I know Mike will build here,” says Aquilini. “Lurching from season to season with no coherent plan – that’s what we won’t tolerate as owners. We will spend whatever it takes to build a top-quality organization.”

When Aquilini first told his good friend Frank Giustra he was going to buy half of the Canucks, the West Vancouver billionaire warned him that his life would change dramatically. “I told him he was going to be in the spotlight constantly,” Giustra recalls. “And it won’t always be pleasant or fun. I wanted to be sure he thought that through. Up until that time, Francesco was a fairly private person, perhaps even more so than me. So I wanted to prepare him for what to expect.” Giustra is among a small but close group of Aquilini’s friends that includes shipping magnate Kyle Washington and investment guru Bob Cross. Realtor Bob Rennie, who markets and sells virtually all of the Aquilini condo projects, says of the group, “Frank Giustra has his billionaire boys club and Francesco is one of the members of it.”

The truth is, nothing can properly ready a person for intense scrutiny from the media. And despite the sage advice from Giustra, Aquilini was not ready for the sometimes harsh treatment he’s received from local media, especially at the Sun and Province. Aquilini reads everything said about him with a lawyer’s eye. He’s phoned Kevin Bent, publisher for both papers, several times to demand corrections when stories have contained erroneous information. And Aquilini has almost always got his corrections.

He’s so angry with the way he was portrayed during the Canucks trial that he hired Sun legal affairs columnist Ian Mulgrew to ghostwrite his autobiography. The book doesn’t have a publisher yet, which doesn’t concern Aquilini. “I want the record set straight, if nothing else, for my kids and my grandchildren,” he says of his vanity press project. He is particularly upset with the treatment he’s received at the hands of columnists Cam Cole and Ed Willes. “These are two guys who have a lot of fear,” says Aquilini. “These are guys who are afraid of their own shadows. But they do this stuff on a consistent basis because of who they are as people, and I’m not going to change that.”

Cole did not want to comment on Aquilini’s remark. Responds Willes: “I have no idea what he’s talking about…then again, he probably gets that a lot.” A widely circulated rumour in the Province newsroom was that Aquilini tried to get Willes fired over columns he wrote about the Nonis affair. Aquilini says that’s not true, that he only suggested to the publisher that Willes could “better serve the paper in another department.”

“I think Francesco is learning fast what it means to be the owner of the hockey team in this city,” says Bob Rennie. “He cared a little too much about what people were saying about him in the media. As soon as you don’t care what they’re saying, it gets a lot easier. But it takes time for people to understand that. You have to develop a bit of a thick skin first. And I think Francesco is starting to develop a few calluses here and there.”

Aquilini pulls his silver Range Rover into a parking spot right outside the front doors of Templeton Secondary, his old school. He walks into the office of the school’s vice-principal Walter Mustapich, who is there with teacher Jim Crescenzo. Both went to Templeton with the Canucks owner when he was known as Frank.

It isn’t long before they’re all talking about Templeton’s acclaimed mentoring program, where members of the community who have made a success of their lives come and talk to kids considered at risk. Often the teenagers come from homes where both parents are crack addicts; just as often, the kids, who are mostly boys, are gang members. One day last year, Aquilini and Frank Giustra came and spoke to a dozen boys in the First Nations Sacred Room. The kids eventually opened up about their lives and home environments. “And the kids still talk about the game you took them to,” says Crescenzo.

Aquilini has hosted a group of Templeton kids a couple of times at Canucks games. On the last occasion, he had the kids show up in suits and ties. Among the group were two boys who were in opposing gangs. They hadn’t talked since getting into a fight earlier in the year. “That night there was a peace treaty drawn with Francesco,” says Crescenzo. “The two boys walked out of that game and the blood is no longer boiling and the peace treaty was done. It meant so much to them that this person who is so important actually gave a shit about their lives.”

When he gets back behind the wheel of his car, Aquilini becomes reflective about the kids at Templeton. “You know,” he says, “if you want to know what maybe the greatest thing about owning the Canucks is, it’s suddenly being able to make a difference in kids’ lives. Just by making yourself available, and by virtue of your position, you can help get a kid back on the right course. I know it sounds a little corny, but you wouldn’t believe how good that can make you feel.” Aquilini takes one last, long look at the school, spotting the window to the office where, 30 years earlier, a principal had told his parents he wouldn’t amount to much. He can, on that level, relate to kids at the school today, many of whom are being bombarded with the message they’re never going to make it. Like them, Aquilini had his share of fights. In some ways, he’s been battling ever since.

He takes a left out of the parking lot and squints against the harsh, bright sun. After years of living in the shadows – of the Coliseum, of his imposing father – Francesco Aquilini has moved into the spotlight that comes with owning the Canucks. Now if he can just get his hands on the Stanley Cup.