Who is Dario Zulich? We sit down with the man who says his plan can transform the Nickel City

by: Darren MacDonald.

There’s a well-known, likely apocryphal story about Albert Einstein, that he wore almost the same thing every day so he could save his brainpower for science.

So I asked Dario Zulich, the new owner of the Sudbury Wolves, if that was the deal with the white shirt and jeans he religiously wears every day, everywhere he goes.

“I don’t know where it came from,” Zulich replies, sitting in one of the many side rooms at Sudbury Arena. “I’ve bought 15 white shirts, 15 pairs of jeans from Mark’s Work Wearhouse and I wear the same thing every day. I never have to think about what I’m going to wear. And I don’t have to worry about how I look.”

Zulich burst into the Sudbury news scene more than a year ago with his ambitious proposal to replace the badly outdated Sudbury Arena.
Along with business partner and lifelong friend Perry Dellelce, Zulich wants to build a $60-million to $70-million events centre on land the two own The Kingsway, near Moonlight Beach.

He’s competing with a rival proposal in the South End, as well as with residents who believe the city’s main rink should stay downtown. And he’s hoping this city council will do what no other done since the 1950s: voluntarily take the political risk of getting behind a major public expenditure.

Zulich’s group hasn’t asked for money directly, but the city would have to act as a loan guarantor. So the odds are long.
Persistence is key

But that’s not how Zulich sees it. His enthusiasm and his relentlessness has already accomplished one thing no one saw coming: The purchase of the Wolves, reportedly for more than $11 million, from longtime owner Mark Burgess.

It took two years of “no’s”, Zulich says, before he got the “yes” he was looking for. But it wasn’t just determination – he says owning the team was an important part of making the events centre work.

“We did an analysis on the economics of an arena, and the more I looked at it, the more it looked like it really makes a lot of sense for the builder and operator of the facility to also be the main tenant,” Zulich said. “It made sense, so I approached Mark a long time ago and it was never for sale.

“I was on him over and over and over until he finally relented. He even acknowledged that it was my persistence that made him say, ‘OK, I’m going to sell the team. I just wouldn’t give up.’ ”

It was a relentlessness that has served Zulich well in the past. The oldest of four brothers, he grew up in the Donovan where his mother and father worked hard at founding a real estate business. His mother, Ann, an immigrant from Italy in 1959, met his father, Miro, an immigrant from what is now Croatia, in Sudbury and married soon after.

An iron worker, Miro saved his money until the family had enough to buy a property in Sudbury.

“He did that during the day, and at nighttime, instead of buying their first house, they bought their first apartment building,” Dario says.

After that first purchase in 1965, the family kept expanding the business and Zulich Enterprises today has more than 1,000 apartments and 300,000 square feet of commercial property.

A new dream

A graduate of the University of Western Ontario’s prestigious business school, Dario says he initially wanted to be a basketball player. He tried out as a walk-on player and proudly says he made the team on the very last day of cuts.

A knee injury his second year put an end to that dream — surgeries weren’t as advanced then as they are today, he says — so he came up with a Plan B.

“I was looking around, wondering what I was going to do with my life,” he said. “They had a pretty good business school there. And I just pounded on the door until they let me in. I was relentless about getting in to that school. And after two years, I graduated and I came straight back home.”

He worked in the family business, encouraging them to expand into commercial real estate.

“From there, we got into construction, as well. And then into residential development. We grew our business into a full-service real estate development company.”

By then he was married to Julie, whose father Tom owned TESC Engineering. Tom was looking to retire and looked to Dario to buy the business and take over.

“So the opportunity presented itself and I said, ‘OK, I’m going to jump in,’ ” Zulich said. “I talked to my family — for me, it’s always about family — and my dad said, what makes one of us stronger makes us all stronger. He said go ahead and do it, and do the best you can. If (it doesn’t work), you can always come back home.

“Those were the words of encouragement that I needed. And that’s the attitude I’ve taken right down to this latest venture. My parents and my brothers have always encouraged me, giving me the strength I need to do anything.”

‘The stars are aligned’

While at TESC, the company won the bid to provide steel for the Essar Centre in the Sault, which opened in 2006. At the same time, he and Dellelce were owners of the large property on The Kingsway, which they dubbed the Jack Nicholas Business and Innovation Park.

“Perry’s son is Jack, my son is Nicholas,” Zulich says, explaining the name.

One of his favourite expressions – one he uses often – is that the stars are aligned to make the arena/events centre a reality. For one, the city is finally moving ahead with the Maley Drive extension, which would offer Valley residents easier access to the park, as well as anyone coming from Highway 17.

Another, he already has arena-building experience from the Essar Centre.

“I said if we can do it for someone else, we can do this for ourselves,” Zulich said. “I’m also a developer, and I had the inclination that I wanted to build it. And we had the property. So I thought, the better use is to build the new Sudbury Arena out there. That’s where my interest came from.”

Also, the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp. is set to announce in early 2017 an operator for a long-awaited casino in Sudbury. Not only is the operator a possible financial resource in building a new arena, a casino that’s part of of a larger events centre is a big boost to the viability of the project. Plus, The Kingsway is already one of the preferred locations for a gaming facility.

Added to that, city council has named a new arena as one of its four big projects it has identified as priorities, along with the Place des arts, the Synergy Centre and a new library/art gallery. And unlike the arena, those projects are expected to require tax money up front.

“The age of the arena, that I was able to buy the team, the casino that wants to come to town, the fact the land we own is serviced — everything seems to be making sense,” Zulich said. “That includes the fact the city wants to build these four big initiatives — we can have our cake and eat it, too.

“We want to create a downtown village of arts and culture — we can have that, too. I get shivers thinking about all of this. Everything says let’s do this. And my only fear is that we won’t take advantage of this opportunity. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It’s like Haley’s Comet. We have to take advantage of it.”

The city is currently working on the criteria that will go into the request for proposals for the arena. It was announced this week the consultant hired to establish the criteria the city would like to see in a new arena/event centre (and which developers will use as the basis when they pitch their plans) will complete his work by the end of February, two months early. This likely means the request for proposals process, which was slated for next summer or fall, can begin earlier.

If the True North Strong plan put forward by Dellelce and Zulich is the one that’s picked, the man in the white dress shirt said building the centre will take two years.

Team player

In the meantime, he’s also focused on rebuilding the Wolves, who have missed the playoffs in recent years and suffered a decline in attendance. A successful team is key to making everything work, he says. No hockey expert himself, Zulich said his strength is in identifying and hiring good managers and letting them do their jobs.

“I am not one that is going to meddle with the hockey operations,” he said. “I’m in the business of hockey and now, in the business of building an arena. But I’m not going to meddle in those areas I know little about.

“One of my greatest assets is that I’m self aware. I know that I don’t know much about running a hockey team, and that self awareness will cause me to get the right managers to put the right program in place. I’m going to hire the right managers in the areas of hockey operations, in the area of marketing, in public relations and in concessions.”

Bigger picture, Zulich says he’s noticed more people recognize him now and many are placing hopes in him that he’ll turn the team around, another of the many difficult challenges he has placed before himself.

When asked why a well-off, 50ish successful businessman would want to take on such difficult task, Zulich doesn’t really have an answer.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I’ve been asking myself that lately — why? People say to me, why are you doing this? You don’t need anything else. It’s just something inside me. When they asked Sir Edmund Hillary why did you climb Mount Everest, he just said because it was there. There was just something driving him to take on that challenge.

“There’s just something inside me telling me this is the right thing to do. The opportunity is there. I’m feeling like I haven’t since I was a kid.”