The interview: prospective Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik speaks out
Boiling down a 25-minute interview for a newspaper article is difficult. Obviously, a lot has to get left on the cutting room floor. So, in order for you to get an even better idea of who is Jeff Vinik, who on Friday signed a purchase agreement to be the Tampa Bay Lightning's fifth owner, here is the entire interview. Vinik, 50, a Boston hedge fund manager, who probably prefers money manager, grew up in Deal, N.J., and moved with his family to New York when he was in the eighth grade. Here is how and why he has come to be the Lightning's next owner:
How did you decide to buy an NHL team?
About a year, year and a half ago I was with one of my very good friends, and we we’re actually at a concert, and I was trying to think what did I want to do going forward. I wanted something fun to do. I said, ‘You know what, I’m going to buy a hockey team.’ I love the sport. I’d love to be the owner of a business. I have a passion for it. It’s fun, it’s exciting. ‘I’m going to buy a hockey team.’ Basically I started reading books on it at the time. I remember reading three or fur books on sports management right away, and started to learn about he business of sports, the business of hockey. There was no question I was going to buy a hockey team, no other sport. Even thought I’m a small owner of the Red Sox, my passion is with hockey. I love the sport.
So, I did my education as well as I could and I felt that by last summer I was prepared to move to the next level, and got to know a few people in the business, and things stared to work out and I heard about his opportunity down here in Tampa. It was perfect for me, perfect for my family. I just thought it was the exact right opportunity that I was looking for. Great community. It’s been extremely successful once before, obviously. The fans, if given the right product and given a terrific organization will respond to it, and I can create great community spirit here, which is certainly a goal of mine. I want to build this to an outstanding product on the ice. I want to have an outstanding front office. I want to have great ties with the community. I want to be part of the community. It’s all very important that this has to be done the whole of this area of the state.
What concert was it?
It was the Jingle Ball. It’s bunch of different artists that come in. I go with this friend every year and I take my daughter and a friend of hers. It’s great. We’ve gone about four of the last five years. It’s fun my daughter gets to enjoy a concert and I get to hang out with a good friend of mine. It’s a good tradition.
When you were ready to buy, did you approach the league?
I reached out to people in the business side of hockey. I talked to people in other sports, owners in other sports that I knew. I got in touch with other people at the league, and that developed over time, that relationship there. The way I approached most things and the way I approached this was I did all the research I could, I met with everybody I knew. I did have some involvement and some talks with people at the league office to get to know everybody. I just wanted to be educated and make a very educated decision.
Did commissioner Gary Bettman, then, bring the Lightning to you?
I had conversations with Gary and there were a lot of teams we talked about during the process. One of the best and smartest moves was bringing in Jac Sperling (a financial advisor and the Wild’s alternate governor) to advise me on this. He has educated me, led me through the process. We talked about a bunch of teams together. We looked at our options, but it was clear this was opportunity that was right for me.
How long did the process last?
It’s been quick. The intense part of the process has been, two to three months. It’s in that neighborhood. That’s how long its been, serious. Again, the way I’ll approached things with the team: learn everything you can, understand it as well as you can. Armed with all that information, you’re more likely to make good decisions.
So, no knee-jerk decisions on personnel and management?
Certainly not three weeks or four weeks before I close on the team. My decisions historically in life are well thought out.
Would you bring in a CEO type to oversee it all?
Again, I don’t want to commit to anything at this point. I haven’t closed yet. I’m confident it will but it hasn’t happened yet. I want to meet more people here and understand the situation. What I will assure you is I will do everything to the best of my ability to have the best people I the right places to make this successful.
Is this just an investment for you?
Wrong, 180 degrees backwards. First of all, I would point out my business is my business and I enjoy it. I’m a money manager and that’s terrific. But this, on the other hand, this ownership is going to be myself and a related family entity of mine, and I’m going to control 100 percent of it. I love the sport. I am very fortunate I am one of 120 people in the U.S. and Canada that can own a professional sports franchise, and when you think about it, who wouldn’t want to be in that position? What would you ant to do? I make investments at work. I don’t want to make investments here. The whole purpose here is to take something great, to win on the ice, to win off the ice, excitement in the community. I am going to put the resources fourth that are necessary to make this a successful organization.
Why was the Lightning the right situation?
A big growth are of the country geographically. I understand we are in a severe recession down here, but this will pass and things will improve, and people will continue to move to Florida and continue to move to the Tampa Bay area; that’s a great tail wind to have behind you over the many years I hope to own this franchise. The team has been very successful in the past with its fans, the passion is there for the team. You can’t say that of all the franchises, necessarily, but clearly there is a tack record here that people care and they just want a winning product and a good organization. A great area of the country to settle in. I’m going to be spending a lot of time down here for the foreseeable future. I want to be part of the community. My hope is that not too many years out we’ll fully relocate here. I’m going to be down here a lot because I want to be. I want to be involved with the team. I want to be involved with the community. Another thing that I like about Tampa, the organization, the people within, I’ve heard very good things about a lot of them. All they would like right now, hopefully, what I am going to provide is the passion and vision and the blueprint for where we’re going over the next five to 10 years. And, I think, as everybody gets on board with that, and hopefully I’ll come up with some smart decisions along the way, it will help elevate what we’re trying to do.
Will you buy a place here?
I will buy a place as soon as possible, and I will hire a realtor very soon.
You know, we heard the same things from the previous owner. Why should fans be confident in you?
Until something has been accomplished, you have a right to skeptical. I would look at my past accomplishments and what I’ve done, how active I’ve been in the community in Boston, especially from a philanthropic basis. My success in running a company, 14 years and counting I don’t think we’ve had more than one or two employees leave on there own. I think checking my track record is as good as anything. But I can understand there is a degree of skepticism, but my mission is to accomplish what I’m setting out for day-by-day, month-by-month, year-by-year, so you can judge me over time. My comments are genuine and my interest is sincere.
Does it scare you how much fans have stayed away this season?
I think if I give them the right product on the ice, and I thank Oren (Koules) because he started turning the product on the ice in the right direction, Oren and Brian (Lawton), the product on the ice and the entire organization, the people there, the interaction with the community, I’m absolutely confident, you get those things right, the fans will return. Again I would thank Oren, it's an oil tanker, it’s hard to turn around, but he’s done some of the heavy lifting in terms of getting the ship going in the right direction. I’m going to do everything I can to keep it going and accelerate the process.
Will you be an owner/operator?
No, I am the owner. I have got to find great people to run the organization, or have great people, they could be internal also. I am going to have a great organization, you have to give them autonomy. When you have great people, they need autonomy to make decisions, and I, as the owner, may be brought in on a couple of them, but I ma not going to run this organization. I’m going to have a professional do it.
Do you have a timetable on evaluating things here before making decisions?
No. In my work when I buy a stock, I never really know when I’m going to sell it. What I do is evaluate it day-by-day based on the business conditions, the economy, based on where the stock price is. You make decisions when they seem right. It’s the same thing here. To put a timetable on anything would be to box myself in to making a bad decision, so you must be flexible with these kinds of things.
Where did your passion for the sport come from?
Five years old lying in bed at night, going to sleep, having a little, tiny TV in my room my parents didn’t know I was watching. I watched the Rangers every time I could when they were on and I always remember falling asleep to icings, cause it’ a little slow, you know. The passion is in there. It’s not something that started, I love the sport. It’s exciting and its frustrating to me to some degree, it’s such a great sport and it doesn’t have a bigger following in the U.S., in general. What is more exciting than going to a hockey game? It moves fast, the game are close generally, they’re incredible athletes. Everything is exciting.
In what town in New Jersey did you grow up?
It’s a little town called Deal, and it’s near Asbury Park, a little over an hour by car (from Manhattan). It’s right on the beach. It was a great place to grow up, played sports every day and every afternoon.
Age-wise I was just a little bit off. I like Springsteen, but I was a little bit too young for it the time I was there. I’m a Green Day fan. It’s what the ring tone is on my phone. My kids and I go to Green Day concerts together.
What qualities did you get from your parents, Donald and Edna?
Integrity, honesty, being straight with people. That’s it. My father and other family members are an incredible role model in terms of always doing the right thing, making the right decisions. I surely hope not only did I get that from my parents, I surely hope my kids are getting that from me, and also or their grandparents. There’s nothing more important in life.
Where did your business instincts come from?
Interestingly, my father was also involved in the stock market, but he never discussed it at home, so I did not realize I had such an interest in it until I was in college I actually worked for him for a summer as computer programmer, programming all the trading he was dong. It was that time that I learned, wow, I like this, and as soon as I got out of school I went right into the stock market.
What sports did you play growing up?
I’m a good athlete. I’m not a great athlete. Baseball was my No. 1 sport. Loved it, we used to play every afternoon. We had a pretty decent sized back yard, you know, the stump was first base, the tree is second base, the window was third base. And a little bit of basketball, football. Soccer turned out to be my best sport in high school, and that was a lot of fun. I was a center fullback.
What do you take from your limited partnership with the Red Sox?
Without a doubt, what jumps out at me is the importance of strong ownership, good management and good decision making. Virtually all the Boston teams, and I’ve seen it firsthand with the Red Sox, what a difference it makes, and again having the right people in the right positions with autonomy, cause you have confidence in them and know they will make the right decisions for the good of the organization. No matter who is making decisions, there will be mistakes made. That’s part of any business. That’s part of life. But if you have the right people things will work out, things are more likely to go in the right direction.
Any problem having a minority interest in the Red Sox while living in an American League East city?
Let’s put it this way: over the last three or four months I think I’ve watched virtually every Tampa Bay game on TV, maybe I’ve missed two or three, and that’s probably because they weren’t televised. I’d say the same thing about the Red Sox that I would about the Bruins, I have season tickets to the Bruins but I can’t remember the last game I’ve been to. So, let there be no doubt, I am a 100 percent Tampa Bay Lightning fan.
Being from New Jersey, you’re always a Rangers fan at heart, right?
No, I did lose it over time a little bit, and Boston I semi-adopted it for my kids. I like them and I want them to do well and all, but ever fully adopted it. It’s not home, and the Rangers I kind of lost ties with, so this is great. It’s nice to be in this position, to care so much about something.
How did you get involved with the Red Sox?
It was back in ’02. I think that’s when our group purchased the team, John Henry, who also is the money management business, called me and asked me if I wanted to talk about it. I hadn’t met John before, but spent a little time with him. I thought he was an extremely smart guy. I thought he had great vision to accomplish and it was something I wanted to be part of and learn a lot. I wanted to learn a lot from him. I certainly think it’s helpful having seven years with the Red Sox, watching the way things are done there.
Is that your model, in a sense?
Not necessarily. I don’t thin you want a set model. Every situation is different. Every location is different. A model of excellence, I think they have achieved that. I would certainly like to achieve that here.
Do you have a message you want to send to fans?
I am very excited to be part of the Tampa bay community. I am very excited to be close to owning this team, and I will do everything in my power to bring a world-class organization to the community both on the ice and off the ice.