Francesco Aquilini on Gordon Campbell and the state of B.C.

Fran­ces­co Aquilini is best known as the owner (with his brothers Roberto and Paolo and their father Luigi) of the Vancouver Canucks and Rogers Arena, but the family’s burgeoning business empire takes him all over. To investors with nerve and deep pockets, recessions offer rare opportunities, and in recent weeks Aquilini’s been to Maui (where he’s looking at a major real estate deal), Las Vegas (a distress-sale condo complex), southern Ontario (a struggling aerospace company), and Montreal (where the Aquilinis are building condos next to the new super hospital), as well as New York, Italy, Spain, and England.

“You know,” he said not long ago, settling in for lunch at Cactus Club, “people don’t realize how good we have it here in B.C. When I was in Phoenix there were 75,000 homes for sale. Same with the real estate market in Los Angeles, San Diego, Las Vegas, Hawaii. In some places prices have fallen 50, 60, even 70 percent. Here, we’ve seen maybe a 10 percent drop. Why? Because people still have confidence in B.C. Banks are still lending, companies are still investing. People want to move here. We’ve got health care and education and jobs. And the main reason is that Gordon Campbell has laid a strong foundation. We haven’t run into a real bad deficit situation because he’s made fundamentally sound decisions running the province.” Aquilini ordered planked salmon with no sauce, grilled green vegetables, and Diet Coke. A linebacker in his days at Templeton Secondary, and a sucker for sweets, he’s got his weight down to 225 pounds (from a high of 275) with the help of a herbalist and a personal trainer.

“People talk about all the money that’s going into fixing up BC Place. That’ll be paid off in six years from the new hotel-casino next door. In business, when you make decisions that aren’t self-sustaining, you eventually go bankrupt. Governments run up bigger and bigger deficits, like what’s been happening in Europe. We’re benefiting, as a city and a province, from what Campbell’s done as premier. I don’t know the guy well, and I don’t get involved in politics, but I can’t understand why everybody’s down on him and saying he’s finished. You have to step back and look at B.C. compared to the rest of North America.”

What of the harmonized sales tax fiasco, which has cost the Campbell government so dearly in the polls—the province-wide petition, the court challenge led by Bill Vander Zalm, the prospect of recall campaigns, and a referendum in 2011? “Nobody likes taxes,” said Aquilini, who’s mastered the art of consulting his BlackBerry without interrupting a conversation, “so of course there’s a knee-jerk reaction to the HST. But I don’t think there was deception when the Liberals said they had no plans to introduce it and then, after the election, said they were going ahead. You have to remember what it was like back then, with the economic news getting worse every week. Sometimes you have to make unpopular decisions because they make sense in the big picture.”

John Shorthouse, the Canucks play-by-play man, stopped by to say hello, and talk turned to the hockey team’s prospects this year. Aquilini likened what his family does running an NHL franchise to what the provincial government does running B.C. “The government’s job is to create opportunities for growth, because growth ultimately creates jobs and benefits everybody. What we do as owners is try to create conditions that allow our players to be successful. Mike brought a lot of progressive ideas to the franchise, from individual diet plans to sports psychology to the way we travel. It’s aimed at producing an environment where players perform at their peak and the team comes together.”

Aquilini nodded at someone who recognized him. “People ask me, ‘What happened the last two seasons, when we got knocked out of the playoffs by the Blackhawks?’ What happened is that Chicago had a better team. All you can do is try to improve each year, put more of the puzzle pieces together. A lot of things have to go right for a team to win the Stanley Cup. So many factors go into it—injuries, a lucky bounce, a referee’s call. I thought the turning point last spring came in the second period when Bieksa hit the post on the power play and Chicago came back and scored short-handed. If he’d scored I don’t think they would have come back, and we would have taken a 2-0 series lead.

“So yeah, we got knocked out, but I think we were better last year than the year before, and I think with Hamhuis, Ballard, Malhotra, Oreskovitch, Torres, and the others we’ve added more than we’ve lost again this year. Did you see that the Hockey News picked us to win the Cup? You never know. Things change—just ask Gordon Campbell. Maybe this is our year.”

The waitress asked if he’d like to see a dessert menu.

“Don’t even tempt me,” said Aquilini with a smile.

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