This CEO Was Hired by Roger Staubach Playing Pick-up Basketball with Captain Comeback

This CEO Was Hired by Roger Staubach Playing Pick-up Basketball with Captain Comeback
September 20 10:24 2017 Print This Article

Former Dallas Mavericks co-owner, President and General Manager Frank Zaccanelli knows all about the intersection between sports and business. The former college-basketball-Division-III-player-turned-real-estate-mogul took some time to speak with me about his experience working on a business level with NFL legend Roger Staubach, his advice for up-and-coming entrepreneurs, and how and why athletes make the best entrepreneurs — Oh, and he also dishes on the current state of the NBA.

Jay: You started out as a real estate broker with Roger Staubach’s company and you worked your way up to CEO of your current real estate investment endeavor, Fiamma Partners, so can you tell us how you landed your initial role with “Captain Comeback” And what was it like to work with him?

Frank: Roger played a lot of basketball in the offseason to stay in shape while he was in the NFL — he was a fiercely competitive guy — he liked to host games at his house where he had a full basketball court in his backyard and since I had played college ball at Potsdam State, I got invited out one time. It was a great thing for me because not only did I get the chance to spend time with him but I also met many other interesting people. Roger actually started his real estate business before he retired from the NFL because he’s the kind of guy who was really planning for his life after football and during the offseason he worked for a local real estate company in Dallas. When he retired he started his own company in his name and I was one of the original 25 or so people that came on board initially. It was a great opportunity for a young business man like myself to go to work for a guy like Roger. 

Jay: Wow. I didn’t know he was into pickup basketball in the offseason. What’s interesting about Roger’s story is that there’s a big push now to educate players on how to plan and prepare for life after their sports career but it’s pretty impressive to hear that he was a pioneer of that movement for pro athletes.

Frank: Yeah Jay, I would say he was way ahead of his time regarding his foresight to plan for life after the NFL. He was a very disciplined guy. He actually graduated from the Naval Academy and served four years in the military, including a tour in Vietnam, before he was even eligible to go to the NFL. Anyone who has spent any time around him will tell you that what you see with Roger is what you get. What he said is what he did and he is a very, very disciplined guy from how he handled his sports career to the way it segwayed into his business career. Roger was the kind of guy that ultimately really worked very, very hard and was ahead of the curve in terms of what to do once he hung up the cleats. 

Jay: What an example from Roger in getting his feet set not just in the pocket but getting business ideas into place. Let me ask you this; your career started in business, like you mentioned, so what have you been able to observe in light of your proximity to sports? playing pickup basketball with Roger Staubach is pretty amazing, but is the business perspective of sports different than other business ideas?

Frank: I can speak first to the sports aspect. In my experience I’ve noticed that there is a false sense about the NBA that these guys don’t work hard and that they’re not smart. That’s completely not true. The fact is, 95% of these guys that come into the league are pretty well prepared to handle the rigors of what they’re getting into. When you come out of college where you play 35 or 40 games it’s nothing compared to the schedule of the NBA where you’re playing 3-4 games a week and you’re traveling everywhere and so there is a sense of discipline that has to come from within to thrive under that rigor. Not only that but they also have to be able to manage finances. The majority of the relationships that I had with players when I was in the league are guys who were on top of what they were trying to accomplish and they dedicated their days to asking, how do I get better at my craft? How do I improve? Now, imagine applying that mentality to a small business setting.

Jay: That’s an interesting point, Roger. In fact, here at the SBJ our goal is to help brands connect with their consumers through the power of a story. I love sports and I’ve always believed there’s a connection between the talents that it takes to play sports and succeeding in business. What are your thoughts on that idea?

Frank: You’re absolutely right about that connection, Jay. Everything I know about being successful in business I gleaned from my experience in team sports. Whatever successes I had in business can be directly attributed back to my ability, when I was younger, to work in a team environment and learn how to work with others and to communicate with others and also what I learned organizationally and what I learned about discipline. All of those things are paramount in team sports and in business as well. Not only that, but taking the training mentality of an athlete into the world of business helped me immensely.

Jay: I’m so glad to hear that perspective, especially coming from you, who has seen both sides of it. Part of my vision with SBJ is to connect athletes to opportunities based on these skills that give them an edge on the field and can also bring them success off it.

Frank: It’s very true that what you put into something you get out of it. One of the interesting things about athletics, especially in team sports, is that the harder you work the better you are as a player and that crosses over into life after sports. Look at the NBA, for example, you want guys that are going to get better in their careers as you bring them into the NBA. Everybody’s really good when they get there, now who is going to hone their skills and become the stars? That’s ultimately a byproduct of who’s going to work the hardest. That carries over into life after basketball: It’s all input-output.

Jay: Speaking of stars, this year we saw how a dream team rolled right over a great team in The Finals. I’d love to hear from you, did you enjoy that super team idea? Or do you think it’s bad for the sport? What direction do you think this is going to take the NBA in the future?

Frank:  I think that the NBA and the owners have made a colossal mistake. They have given the players too much latitude in terms of their internal and external movement. I don’t have a problem with the superteam. I’m a byproduct of the ‘80s and ‘90s where you had the Lakers, the Celtics and of course Michael Jordan and the Bulls, but those teams were primarily built from within and that’s a byproduct of people who worked very hard inside those organizations to create those teams. In today’s situation you look at guys who can sign a two-year deal with a one-year opt-out like Kevin Durant who is one of the top two or three players in the league and when he goes to the best team to create a super team, I just don’t think that’s good for the league. The owners have pretty much lost control of player movement which ultimately is going to harm the small market teams. I can’t see how they’re going to remain competitive in this environment. The league is completely and utterly out of balance and I don’t think it’s good for the sport.

Jay: I have to agree with you on that. Do you think there’s anything they can do to fix this problem?

Frank: Well, if you look at Sacramento, they’re a great example of the problem. They actually had a really great draft this year, they brought in some veteran players, now the question in that marketplace is, are they going to be able to keep those guys? And history would tell us, no. So they solution is that whenever the next collective bargaining agreement negotiations come up the owners need to deal with this — especially the small market teams.

Jay: It’ll be interesting to see what happens down the road. Let me ask you this, Frank, you played basketball with Roger Staubach, you were around sports on a very, very close level, and you’ve seen so many different types of people so what’s the best advice you’ve gotten, and what’s the best advice you’ve given?

Frank: Well, I would say the best advice that I ever got was basically “keep your head down and work hard and the results will keep on coming. They may not come at a timeframe that you want but ultimately the cream always rises to the top but a lot of people give up too early. When I give advice to young entrepreneurs I always say, be punctual always, and work very hard at minimizing mistakes. The other thing that I tell a lot of young people is, continue to try and learn every day. Money is not the most important thing in your life. When you become better at what you do the money will eventually come but everything in business takes time.

As the Mavericks owner and president between 1996-2000, Frank made franchise-changing moves like hiring Hall of Fame coach Don Nelson, drafting future Hall of Famer Dirk Nowitzki and spearheading the development of the American Airlines Arena. He eventually engineered the $285 million sale of the Mavericks from Ross Perot Jr. to Mark Cuban in 2000, the biggest sale in NBA history at the time. He also played an integral role in the negotiations around the 1998 NBA lockout. Before jumping into the sports world, Frank started his career as a real estate broker at former NFL Hall of Famer Roger Staubach’s real estate company in Dallas, where his work ethic caught the eye of former presidential candidate Ross Perot. Perot ultimately recruited Frank to launch his real estate investment business in 1986, where they collectively invested, developed and harvested several billion U.S. dollars in operating companies and real estate across all property types and corporate assets for 14+ years. When Perot ran for president in 1992 & 1996, Frank also served as an advisor of the campaigns.