For the first time since the Panthers’ improbable 2012 trip to the Stanley Cup playoffs, the BB&T Center was once again the center of attention in South Florida as the team introduced Vincent Viola as the new Chairman, Principal Owner & Governor of SSE (Sunrise Sports and Entertainment), the Florida Panthers, and the Broward County-owned BB&T Center. In addition, his long-time friend and business partner Douglas Cifu will assume the role of Vice Chairman, Partner & Alternate Governor, while Michael R. Yormark has been promoted to the position of President & Chief Executive Officer of the organization.
“My family and I are honored to take the helm of the Florida Panthers organization with the No. 1 goal of putting a winning team on the ice year after year and bringing a Stanley Cup to our incredible fans here in South Florida,” Viola said in a press release issued before his introduction. “I believe strongly in family, work-ethic, loyalty, relentless effort and a positive attitude and we hope to build an organization based on those principles.”
A Brooklyn native, Viola currently sits as Chairman and CEO of Virtu Financial and is one of the nation’s foremost leaders in electronic trading. He began his career in the financial services industry on the floor of the New York Mercantile Exchange and rose to be Vice Chairman (1993-1996) and Chairman (2001-2004). Adding to his already impressive business resume, Viola is also the founder and largest stockholder in Independent Bank Group, Inc (Nasdaq: IBTX), a community banking chain headquartered in McKinney, Texas that he founded in 1989. In 2009, he was inducted in to the Futures Industry Association Hall of Fame.
Having already conquered the business world, Viola’s lifelong dream of owning a sports team received new life after the idea of purchasing the Panthers was brought to his attention during a lunch with NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman. Once the idea was out in the open, both Viola and Cifu were dead set on acquiring the South Florida franchise.
“We were very committed to get it done before the season started,” Viola said. “We were just relentless in our effort and we made it hard for the commissioner to say no.”
In finding the Panthers new ownership, Commissioner Bettman has earned himself his very own “Commissioner Hat-Trick” for recently providing ownership stability to not only Florida, but also New Jersey and Phoenix as well.
“In terms of franchise stability, the things that were occupying hours of speculation, whether founded or unfounded, the fact is behind us. Phoenix, New Jersey, and Florida are all in good hands,” said Bettman.
With the ink now dry and the transition complete, Viola will now look to leave his own mark with the franchise as the team enters its’ next – and possibly most successful – era. A man deeply invested in his family, Viola plans on involving all three of his sons in the team’s operations in one way or another. Having already worked for their father in the business world, the Viola’s hope that their traditional sense of a “family business” will be just as successful in the world of professional sports.
“We’ve always operated our family businesses as family business,” Viola said of his intentions to involve his family in the Panthers. “My sons are all adult men now, but they know the details about business and have known the details about business from a young age. It’s a continuation of a sort of very natural process for us.”
Although all three of his sons have proven to be capable while working with their father, Viola was quick to point out that his youngest son, Travis, was the biggest hockey fanatic of the group and even went as far as to call him his very own “secret weapon”. While I wouldn’t expect to see Travis running the draft day war room anytime soon, the youngest Viola is sure to find a place in the organization where his passion for hockey can be used to help better the franchise.
“I hope so, whatever they think and wherever I can fit in best,” Travis, 25, said when asked about the possibility of working for the team. ”I’m dedicated to excellence and working hard. I want to win. I’ll be anywhere you put me.”
In acquiring the Panthers, Viola now finds himself holding the reigns of a team that finished dead last in the Eastern Conference last season and is still trying to find their place in the NHL on the eve of their 20th anniversary season. While the task of bringing the Panthers back to prominence may seem daunting to some, Viola takes solace in looking at the bigger picture and already sees promise in team’s talented young group of prospects.
“I actually think the team is extremely well positioned,” Viola said of rebuilding Panthers. “There’s a deep well of young talent in a great market for hockey. Michael Yormark and the organization have done a great job putting hockey into the community and we intend on continuing that. It’s logical”
With plans in place to move his family to South Florida, Viola hopes to be a staple of the BB&T Center and considers himself a “hands on” owner. While this attitude will most certainly lead to Viola spending extended time at the arena conversing with both management and players, don’t expect him to try and play the role of General Manager. Viola jokingly stated that while he hopes to have a strong presence with the team, we shouldn’t expect to see him suggesting draft picks or requesting trades, “that’s not what I do”, Viola said with a smile.
While Viola may not directly be involved in roster moves made my the Panthers, the amount of money he is willing to invest in the team certainly will. Although the Panthers have yet to become an exceedingly profitable franchise, Viola recognizes that by putting money into the team and growing the sport of hockey in South Florida through winning, the chance for a consistent and positive financial return is greatly increased.
“You never ever want to accept losing money, but there’s a difference between losing money and making a long term investment,” Viola said. ”This a long term investment for the long term. Every game we want to win, but this is a process and this season is the first season in a process. Believe it or not I don’t think of business in terms of money. I think of it in terms of value that is enabled by creativity and effort and if those come together the money usually takes care of itself. I really believe that.”
By recently signing veteran goaltender Tim Thomas to a 1-year contract, Viola made his first move in what looks to be many financial decisions in order to help the Panthers become relevant once again. Although the signing of Thomas is a huge step forward in its’ own right, under Viola’s ownership the Panthers will have to continue to open their check book in order to open the eyes of South Florida sport’s fans to the joys of hockey. With the Panthers already following a sound rebuilding plan under General Manager Dale Tallon, the potential to add high priced talent under Viola may help the Panthers rise to contention could come sooner than expected.
“We’re going to win, put the word out,” said Viola.
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