Tampa, meet your new neighbor: Jeff Vinik

Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik turned around the team; he now has ideas for downtown Tampa’s waterfront.
Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik turned around the team; he now has ideas for downtown Tampa’s waterfront.
Published Aug. 19, 2012

The new family moved in last week. They arrived in South Tampa with the kids and video games in tow, and the fate of a city waiting at the doorstep.

Perhaps that sounds like hyperbole. With any luck, it is not. For if Tampa decides to align its fortunes with Jeff Vinik, it may be the type of boon a venturous city needs.

Surely you know the name by now. You know about the rescue of a hockey franchise, the revamping of an arena and the substantial commitments to charities.

You should also know this:

Vinik is just getting started.

Two years after buying the Lightning and beginning regular commutes from Boston, Vinik has settled in Tampa for good. His family moved into its Palma Ceia home on Tuesday and his youngest son began sixth grade two days later. His money management firm is in the process of relocating to Tampa, and has recently doubled its number of employees.

And all the while, Vinik, 53, is negotiating the purchase of Channelside Bay Plaza as part of a vision to re-imagine downtown Tampa's waterfront.

Is this a turning point? A moment when a city in search of a nudge got pushed beyond its own expectations? Obviously, the answers are somewhere off in the distance.

But the concept itself is intriguing enough, particularly when you consider this unlikely pairing of a cliquish Southern city with a Jersey-born, Duke-educated, Boston-settled introvert who just happens to be one of Wall Street's most reclusive rock stars.

So how did Jeff Vinik get here, and why is he subjecting himself to the type of exposure he spent a lifetime avoiding?

Like everything else in Vinik's life, the explanations are layered. They involve not snap judgments, but natural progressions and logical choices. Mostly, they are the combination of desire and circumstance.

Take conversations Vinik and his wife, Penny, had about relocating to a warmer climate, mix in Vinik's desire to own a hockey team, combine it with previous ownership's mismanagement of the Lightning, and add the fact that three of the Vinik children were leaving for college, and the timing just seemed right.

And if all of this has made him a more noticeable neighbor, then so be it.

"I am shy. That is the real Jeff Vinik,'' he said last week in a Tampa Bay Times Forum conference room. "My wife and I kept quite a low profile in Boston.

"Honestly, in the last two years I've met five times as many people in the Tampa Bay area as I know in Boston. And it's been fun. It's been learning a new life for me.''

To be fair, the Viniks were not complete unknowns before this. A wing in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston bears their name due to the size and frequency of donations. And the Viniks once had George H.W. Bush at their home for a United Way function. Over the years, there have also been donations to Duke University in excess of $15 million.

Growing Fidelity Investments' flagship Magellan Fund from $20 billion to $55 billion, as Vinik did between the ages of 33 and 37, is going to ensure a few headlines no matter how low-key you play it.

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So Vinik understood what he was getting into when he purchased a hockey team. And he recognized that his profile in Tampa would naturally be higher than in a city with millionaires on every street corner.

But if he has lost some privacy, Vinik says he has gained in other ways. For example, his hiring of executives Tod Leiweke and Steve Yzerman with the Lightning has taught him he has a knack for finding good people. That persuaded him to expand Vinik Asset Management from 25 to 50 employees with a new headquarters in Tampa.

The company manages money for pension plans, foundations and endowments, and has fluctuated with funds ranging between $4 billion and $8 billion in recent years.

"I don't think I would have the confidence and determination to hire people and try to take my company to the next level if I didn't think we were going in that direction with the Lightning,'' Vinik said.

That business expansion may also involve acquiring Channelside if he can reach an agreement with the bank holding the mortgage. The proximity to the Times Forum makes Channelside a natural investment, along with other land Vinik controls.

The idea is to create a destination point that links the Times Forum, the waterfront and the rest of downtown in a way that has never previously taken off.

Naturally, this has led to scuttlebutt that Vinik, who is a limited partner with the Red Sox and owns two World Series rings, might also be envisioning a baseball stadium.

"In terms of sports, my singular focus is the Lightning,'' Vinik said. "I read what's going on with the Rays, but who knows where that will go?''

For now, Vinik prefers talking about more personal goals. A more intrinsic impact. He has pledged $10 million to local nonprofits, and has asked Lightning employees to donate at least 40 hours a year to charitable work.

The idea is to increase the awareness of helping others, a concept he says was handed down almost imperceptibly from his parents.

"You can tell your kids to 'Do this' or 'Don't do this' but it's the parents who model the behavior,'' Vinik said. "That's an intangible that kids see and feel and experience every day for 18 years. They see the way you treat people. You have a waitress at a restaurant and she doesn't do a very good job: How do you treat that waitress?

"The same thing goes into philanthropy. How do you spend your time? Where is dad every Thursday night? Oh, he goes to the hospital for a meeting. We never talked specific dollars, but I always knew my parents were active in giving.''

Minutes later, Vinik excuses himself from the conversation. He wants to be sure he is on time to pick up his son from his first day at his new school.

This is his new world. This is his new life.

And this is Tampa's good fortune.