It may have been more than a few years ago that Dario Zulich, HBA’86, donned the purple and silver for Western’s basketball team, but he’s hoping his newest break into the sports world will be nothing but net.
The Ivey Business School grad, who two years ago purchased the Ontario Hockey League’s (OHL) Sudbury Wolves, is now taking his entrepreneurial spirit to the hard court with the introduction of the Sudbury 5, the latest addition to the National Basketball League of Canada.
“I’ve always had a passion for basketball, having played on the varsity team at Western. I know and love basketball and it is a growing sport in Canada,” said Zulich, CEO of TESC Contracting Company Ltd., a heavy industrial, multi-disciplined contracting company which operates mostly in Ontario and Saskatchewan. “I have to believe the future of basketball and entertainment, for both the sport and the fans, is going to be bright.”
The Sudbury 5 team name is a three-pointer, reflecting the last digit of Northern Ontario’s area code (705), the nickel reflecting the city’s mining fame and the number of one team’s players on the court.
Zulich was bitten by the entrepreneurial bug during his time at Ivey where, from a business point of view, he said he was trained by “the best school in the country.”
“What Ivey did was give me some of the skill sets that got me ready for business life,” he said. “I got the raw education and understanding of how things work, which I can then apply those tools to any business venture.
Zulich’s first sports venture literally emerged from the fog during the season opener of the OHL season a few years ago. With the Sudbury Community Arena being the oldest in the league – it begins its 67thyear this fall – warm outside temperatures mixed with the chilly confines of the arena. The resulting fog inside the rink forced the game’s cancellation.
“Everyone was sent home. The game was cancelled and everyone was pointing their fingers and laughing at us,” recalled Zulich. “So (city) councillors had asked who was interested in building a new arena. I said, ‘I have a piece of property, and did a similar project in the Sault. I’m interested.’ That changed my life.”
The more he looked into it, and to ensure the new arena came to be, Zulich believed he should buy the Wolves. He did.
But the proposed Kingsway Entertainment District facility, which would include not only a new arena, but a casino, hotel and space for further expansion, means the arena project is still in some flux.
Rezoning, appeals and some councillors’ concerns over the possibility of a conflict of interest because Zulich’s company, TESC, is a finalist in the bidding to build the facility. He also owns the two teams that will play in the new arena, and the land the complex will be built on.
“This is an entertainment district, not just an arena, that can change our city,” said Zulich. The province’s Local Planning Appeals Tribunal hosted gathering earlier this month to listen to those who have concerns with the Kingsway facility.
“An event centre will be the centre piece of an entertainment district. It’s a whole new industry that can change our city,” he added.
Under that backdrop, introducing pro basketball to the Sudbury would seem an unnecessary headache. Not for Zulich, who had been working on bringing in a team to join his Wolves for over a year.
“From an economics point of view, it just makes sense that if we’re picking up 34 hockey games, why not pick up another 24 basketball games on top of it. Same infrastructure, just adding more events,” said Zulich, whose holding company, Sudbury Wolves Sports and Entertainment, also includes the Sudbury Spartans Football Club, soccer, lacrosse and other live shows and events. “The point is, I’m in the business of entertainment. I am always flying close to the sun. When you’re pushing the envelope nothing every goes as smooth as you want it to, but that’s the entrepreneurial life I live.”
Zulich is the first to admit one can never stop learning when it comes to business which is why, each year, he returns to Ivey to take part in the QuantumShift for Entrepreneurs program, headed by professor Eric Morse.
“I was young back then so I have to keep honing my skills,” laughed Zulich.
QuantumShift is a five-day developmental program for CEO business owners and Canada’s most promising entrepreneurs who are past start-up to delve deeper into leadership strategy, finance, human resources and network ideas. Candidates must be nominated by KPMG Enterprise and selected by Ivey’s Institute for Entrepreneurship.
“You can’t be that arrogant to think you know everything. We all share the same ideas, questions and concerns. We share hyper-growth (and are) always going to have cash flow problems, people problems,” said Zulich, adding its extremely beneficial for him to sit down with so many different business people to learn from each other.
“The world changes so quickly. Ivey has kept me current. You always have to learn, now more than ever. If you don’t, that’s when you die.”
While the Wolves’ season is well underway, Zulich anticipates the first home tip-off when his Sudbury 5 will host the London Lightning on Nov. 22. Despite the long nights, the planning, endless meetings and running around, Zulich is all in.
“Many of my friends have been on the Canadian national team and are from Sudbury. It has always been a great basketball city. It’s going to be amazing,” he said . “This is my hobby. It’s 24/7 so you have to love it. A lot of stress comes with it but you end up becoming addicted to that stress.”