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'Fever pitch'

  • By Mark Gordon
  • | 11:00 a.m. January 27, 2017
  • | 2 Free Articles Remaining!
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Executive Summary
Executive. Jeff Vinik Industry. Sports, real estate Key. Former hedge fund manager is behind major Tampa redevelopment project.

For someone as admittedly low-key as Jeff Vinik, he takes a lot of turns in the spotlight.

It's hard to avoid. For one, Vinik, 57, owns the Tampa Bay Lightning, one of three pro sports team owners in town. A former hedge fund manager, Vinik bought the NHL team in 2010. He ran the Fidelity Magellan Fund from 1992 to 1996, and later ran Vinik Asset Management. Magellan grew to become the largest mutual fund in the country, with more than $56 billion in assets, according to Bloomberg News. Vinik Asset Management grew to more than $6 billion in assets before Vinik shut it down in 2013.

Vinik is also helping to finance and oversee a 53-acre, $3 billion redevelopment of southern downtown Tampa, another reason for the spotlight. Plans include 5,000 residences, 9 million square feet of new space and 650 hotel rooms.

Vinik is one of several people with a major financial stake in the project — another is Bill Gates, through his holding company Cascade Investment. Cascade and Vinik formed Strategic Property Partners to oversee the entire development, and SPP includes a team of well-accomplished real estate executives.

But Vinik, who has been buying land for the project since 2010, is the one who draws the crowds when he speaks and the headlines when even slight progress is made. More spotlight: Vinik is the rainmaker-in-chief for one of the project's chief goals, to land a major national corporate headquarters.

Despite the attention, Vinik, say several people who know him, mostly through business and philanthropy, is unfailingly sincere, genuine and down-to-earth. He's also someone who never wants to be outworked or underprepared. “I consume information, that's how I've always been,” says Vinik. “I read five to eight hours a day. You can never be too educated about the businesses you're involved in.”

Vinik recently sat down with the Business Observer to talk about his life, career and just how he ended up owning a hockey team. The following are edited excerpts of that conversation.

How did you go from mutual funds to the NHL?
“Eight years ago I was at the Jingle Ball in Danvers, Mass., with my daughter and my friend Mark and his daughter. Mark and I were having a couple of glasses of wine and I said, 'What I am going to do with the rest of my life?' I don't like playing golf. I'm great at going to cultural institutions and museums, but not too much. What am I going to do for fun? I said, 'Maybe I'll buy a hockey team.'

“And the next day I got up and Googled 'how to buy a hockey team.' It was like one, be rich, two, know people and on from there. But I also ordered a bunch of textbooks on sports management. And I spent the next three to six months just immersing myself in the sports business. I wanted to learn everything I could about it.

“After that I started meeting with a lot of owners and people in sports management, including all the Boston owners. I eventually met with Gary Bettman, commissioner of the NHL. Six months later, I owned the Tampa Bay Lightning. The whole thing from beginning to end was only about 14 months. And it's been fantastic ever since.”

Were you always focused on preparation, even when growing up?
“I've looked back on that. I was always very studious and I was always a great student, but I never had a thirst for knowledge, a thirst for learning and education. It's just as I've gotten older for whatever reason everything becomes interesting. One thing I learned about myself is I don't like fiction — I like nonfiction.

“I didn't know this about myself until I got older. I love learning about new things, whether it's the business of sports, the business of urban development and real estate, transportation, which I'm working on now, innovations hubs, which I'm working on now. I spend a lot of my weekends reading to become as knowledgeable as I can about things.”

What are you reading now?
“I've been reading a lot of the past transportation studies. There have been 40 or 50 studies done over the last 40 years, so I've been trying to familiarize myself with them. In the field of entrepreneurialism, where we are hoping to set up some kind of innovation hub downtown, I've been reading some of the thought leaders in that area.

“SportsBusiness Journal is the source of business news about sports. I read that religiously every day. And I read the local papers religiously every day because I need to know what's going on in the region.”

What are some steps you think the Tampa region has to take on the transportation issue?
“Tampa Bay needs to get to the next level with transportation. If we look at the potential growth of this region, and more broadly all of Central Florida, I absolutely believe we have the opportunity to be the fastest growing major region of the country over the next 20 years. The main thing that would hold that back would be an inability to move people from point A to point B.

“When I look at 2017, we need to keep the discussion at a high if not feverish pitch about the importance of transportation solutions for our future.”

How close are you and Tampa to landing a national corporate headquarters?
“We continue to have multiple conversations with people inside this area and outside this area about that.
“With the hiring of James Nozar as (Strategic Property Partners) CEO last March, I've stepped back a bit. And just like I have been, he is active in tracking down national and regional headquarters opportunities. We remain very optimistic that our phase one will include at least two and possibly three office towers, adding more than 1 million square feet of space to downtown Tampa.”

Given your hire-smart and hands off leadership style, what are the characteristics of a great leader?
“One of the things I've learned about myself over the last 10 years is I seem to have an ability to pick and bring in great leaders. Great leaders need to have a number of characteristics, like integrity, like being respectful of people, like hard work, like setting a great example, like being smart.

“We could go on and on but those are all the requirements but not the essence. I think the essence of good leadership is an intangible ability to get the best out of people and have them want to run through walls for you.”

What business decisions do you regret?
“I can give you two very different ones. One, with my hedge funds, I and my partner Mike Gordon ran virtually all of the money there, and we never planned for succession. Such that when Mike and I started finding other interests, like owning a hockey team, and in his case being an important partner with the Red Sox, we didn't have anyone to succeed us. We eventually had to shut down the company because we couldn't give it the attention it deserves.

“A different mistake we made is when we renovated Amalie Arena, which now has 19,092 seats, which is third or fourth biggest in the NHL. Frankly, even though we've sold out more than 80 games in a row, it's bigger than we want it to be. We changed all the seats, but if we had made each seat two inches wider we would have reduced capacity by several hundred more seats and made it more comfortable for our fans.”

How do you handle and overcome obstacles and big defeats?
“You learn to power through obstacles, power through defeat. At Vinik Asset Management we never high-fived because in the markets the next minute things can start going badly.

“I'm a very objective guy. I've learned to take the emotions out of most decisions I make. Not all, but most. When bad news hits, you do the best you can to make lemonade out of lemons and move forward.

“We lost a potential office tenant a few years ago we thought was going to come into our district and take a few hundred thousand square feet of space. I remember where I was that night, when I got that phone call. I had two glasses of wine, went to bed and dusted myself off the next day. I came back with as much passion and energy as at any other point and time and moved on. Their loss.”

Hire slow
Jeff Vinik says one of the things he does best as a leader is hire other top leaders. That's a combination of instinct, he says, and a significant amount of research.

Vinik cites Strategic Property Partners CEO James Nozar, hired in March, as a good example. “When we hired James Nozar, we had somewhere between 10 and 20 interviews with him,” says Vinik. “We called dozens of references. While we always believed from day one he had that gift of being a great leader, you have to combine that with doing the diligence and doing your hard work. It's the combination of those two things that lead to hiring great people.”

Paper man
Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik, in a constant all-out move to overprepare, sometimes reads five hours a day.

Oftentimes, he will read at home on a couch in his office, he says, with a college basketball game or NHL game on the background. (A Lightning game he's not attending in person gets his undivided attention on TV.) He also reads on the treadmill, usually the Tampa Bay Times.

He reads on paper only. There are stacks of printed out reports, studies and journals on his desk, he says. “I don't like reading on devices,” he says. “I just find it straining on my eyes.”
It's a focused passion. Says Vinik: “I do active reading, where I'm underlining things as I go.”


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