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When entrepreneurship is a family affair Add to ...

Three generations of Gaglardis have burned their imprint on West Coast politics and business. First, there was Phil Gaglardi, the 1950s and ‘60s B.C. cabinet minister known as Flying Phil for his love of speed and government planes. Then there was his son Bob, now 70, who built, and almost lost, the family’s real estate and hotel business. Now there is Tom Gaglardi, 43, who has led an expansion of the family’s Sandman hotels and Moxie’s eateries – and who, as of publication, was aiming to buy the Dallas Stars hockey team. Tom talks about the Gaglardi legacy.

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IN THE BEGINNING

My grandfather, Phil Gaglardi, had no business acumen: He was a preacher and a politician. He was the kind of guy to whom you could say, “Hey, there are 80,000 people outside – would you mind speaking to them?” He’d say, “oh sure,” and then he’d speak with no notes.

He said he had a Grade 8 education, but I think that was pushing it. He was a mechanic, he worked in the woods and then he found religion. He met my grandmother, who was a preacher, and she wouldn’t date him unless he became religious. They got married, and he became a preacher too.

He was pretty much a Type A personality, which my dad, Bob, is not. If there is a camera and a microphone around, my dad runs, while my grandfather was very, very comfortable with all that. But my father is a born businessman.

I have a lot of both of them in me. I’m not afraid to speak out, which I probably learned from my grandpa. Now I’ve learned how determined he was – he had pride and a way of treating people. He put others ahead of himself, a very unselfish person – more so than my dad and more so than me.

IN THE GENES

I wonder if the entrepreneurial spirit was something I was born with. I was always different. My definition of being an entrepreneur is being unemployable, and I’ve been unemployable for a long time.

My life in business really began in the late 1980s when my dad pulled me out of the University of British Columbia. I was 21, and 3 1/2 years into a degree program, but we weren’t sure we were going to survive as a business. We had the same businesses we have now – hotels, restaurants and real estate – but our office buildings got us into trouble.

Before then, the plan was for me to get an MBA and then join the company, but the plan didn’t account for what happened to Dad – with his company in bankruptcy protection, and at the mercy of the court. He needed me to help battle his way out, and prepare for a new venture if we were unable to save ourselves.

We had a family meeting – my mom, dad and myself. Mom was upset and I was excited about being needed and involved – and my dad was speaking calmly about what he thought was the best thing. I remember promising my mother that I would go back to school some day. I didn’t go back, and she’s probably still a little upset at me.

IN THE MONEY

Luckily we were able to restructure, and the business survived. Before then, I worked part-time in the kitchens of family restaurants, in hotels and in construction. But when I came out of school, I began to manage [projects] Soon after, we started building some Denny’s restaurants, which were the first things I actually ran.

What did I learn from my father? What didn’t I? He taught me the business – how to buy, how to build, how to finance, how to operate, how our model works. If you ask around Vancouver about my dad, they’ll tell you he’s about as resilient as they come. Most guys would have given up with what he had to overcome. He stuck with it, and we ultimately got ourselves into a pretty good position. We could really ramp up and grow, which is what we’ve been doing the past 20 years.

When I turned 40, my dad said something to the effect of, “You’re your own person now.” That was when I felt I had finally made it. But as an entrepreneur, you also know you’ve got to keep fighting, and you’ve got to keep wanting to prove it.

IN THE OFFING

The hotels are the engines of the business, and we continue to build the Sandman chain – we’ve got four or five under construction and we just built our first in Newcastle, England. We acquired the Sutton Place brand with a couple of hotels; we’re planning to build another. And I really love hockey. I own the Kamloops Blazers in the Western Hockey League with four former Blazer players. I had so much fun with that, I want to be involved in the National Hockey League. It’s just a bug I can’t seem to get rid of.

When I joined the company, I brought a new approach, because my father and I are so different. He’s a bit more old-school; I’m more modern in how I do things. It causes friction, but it is a good friction – it is good for each of us.

– As told to Gordon Pitts

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