His skin may be Canadian, 'but my blood is Italian'
A ritual Saturday lunch is where the DeGasperis family makes business decisions
PETER C. NEWMAN | Sep 26, 2005
In the sixth decade of the previous century when the Cold War was still raging, the leaders of the opposing camps staged a macho contest to end all macho contests. The deadliest weapons extant(then and now)were the nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles housed in underground silos in the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., with neither side certain how many of the lethal weapons its enemy had in his arsenal. U.S. President John F. Kennedy kept his cool, but Soviet dictator Nikita Khrushchev staged a press conference for the world's media in the Kremlin to hammer down his claim to superiority.
He began by spotlighting his targets on a large map. "We have an ICBM, here in Vladivostok, pointed straight at San Francisco," he declared, "another one in Odessa aimed at Detroit . . ." And so on. At the end of the session the lone Canadian reporter in the hall shyly asked, "Mr. Premier, Mr. Premier. Do you have a missile targeted at Toronto?" Khrushchev, so the apocryphal story goes, seemed offended by the question. "No," he snapped. "Why should we? We have nothing against the Italians!"
All this is to make the long-winded point that the most significant presence in the last wave of immigrants to Canada before the current one -- on which this series of articles is based -- was the influx of Italians into Toronto. They turned the city's Little Italy into Big Italy, which dominated an otherwise WASPish metropolis.
That's no longer true, of course. Toronto has since become the most multicultural city state on earth, but succeeding generations of Italians are still important, none more so than the DeGasperis family, particularly Jim Vincent DeGasperis, who currently heads that powerful clan. At 48, he is the senior cousin of the second generation, and is flexing his muscles in varied and unexpected directions.
Like most Italian tales, this is a family saga: the story of the founding father, his two brothers, their sons and daughters, cousins, aunts and uncles, plus the extended tribe of in-laws. It is their tight web of kinship that makes them such impressive achievers. Their construction conglomerate, one of Canada's largest, employs 4,500 and grosses in the range of $1 billion a year.
The DeGasperis family are loyal Canadians, but their mentality still reflects their mother country. "My skin's Canadian, but my blood is Italian. That's how I put it," DeGasperis told me. He is inordinately proud of the fact that the family's third generation -- sons Julian and Adam, daughters Stephanie and Amanda -- speak fluent Italian, as does his wife, Lina. "I love the culture we come from," he says. "One thing we do in Toronto is to hold on to our Italian heritage more than say, in New York, or any other place in the world."
Still, it remains a fine balance between being a full-blooded Italian, and becoming a white-bread Canadian. Jim's father, Alfredo(now 71), fled an economically depressed Italy for Canada in the 1950s. "Italy was then going through a weird time where the rich were separated from the poor, while we came from a background where everybody was equal," the son recalls. "Our family was very poor in Italy. So my father, at his earliest opportunity when he was 18, told his parents he was going to Canada. He got on a boat, came here, and was met by some relatives who were already beginning to establish themselves." Alfredo(who quickly became Fred)started working as a truck driver, brought over his two brothers(Tony and Angelo), and began laying pipe for then-Cadillac Development Corp. Ltd., a large Ontario builder, mainly providing sanitation lines. By the sixties the family realized its members couldn't bury sewers the rest of their lives, and decided to move into more interesting dimensions. They acquired a building here, a building there, started buying land, and established several construction companies. But everything they did, they did as a family.
The DeGasperis empire is private. There are no outside shareholders; its management levels are manned by family, and each son of the founding triumvirate is grooming an offspring or two to take over. Every family member is preoccupied looking after his part of the business. During the week, they operate at the pace of a Marine boot camp, and hardly have time to talk to one another. They get up at six in the morning and return home at 10 in the evening, rarely slowing down long enough to qualify as run-of-the-mill workaholics.
But on Saturdays the family's doers meet at noon for lunch at Le Parc, a restaurant near their offices just north of Toronto. These informal family confabs have the air of a floating crap game that has lasted most of four decades. There is no agenda; anybody can join in. "We just sit down, eat, enjoy some wine and talk about what's going on," says Jim DeGasperis. "There's no vote. No structure. We're not corporate-driven in that way. It's all a matter of feeling. If I'm looking at a deal, I talk to my family about it, and if everybody in that dining room says, 'This is good, this is great,' I'll continue. If I feel some negative energy, I'll say 'It's not the right time, or the right thing to do.' I have to feel good about something new. We're all involved together." If this sounds old-fashioned and against everything taught at business schools, it is. But it works.
One of the divisions Jim started seven years ago with the family's blessing, for example, was a move into recycling. "In our industry," he says, "we build roads, but the life of a road is only 20 to 25 years. The biggest problem I was having was what to do with the concrete and asphalt that we were removing. Where to put it? We worked on this idea for a year and eventually opened a large plant in Maple, Ont. It crushed the concrete and asphalt and turned it into an aggregate that can be used over again in road construction. We didn't originate the idea, but we were the first to turn it into an efficient business."
A future venture will involve an alternative to processing Toronto's garbage, which at the moment is trucked daily to a mammoth dump in Michigan. DeGasperis is trying to perfect the process of turning garbage into pellets that can be used as bulk or industrial fuel. He already has an experimental contract from York region, but it could become a major industry. Another recent departure has taken the family into Florida house building and land assembly.
The furthest afield the DeGasperises have ventured -- under Jim's family's aegis -- is to build a winery, which started as the hobby of a grappa-conscious family and has since become a profitable business. The DeGasperis family visited the Napa Valley, planning to buy a winery, but nothing affordable was for sale, so they purchased land at Vineland on the escarpment of the Niagara Peninsula instead. There they planted imported shoots six years ago, and this year Vineland Estates will produce 80,000 cases of prime vintages. "We have the right soil, the proper climate, and brought in a variety of plants from France," he says as he pours me a glass of Meritage. It tastes bodacious and subtle at the same time.
His most significant flight into doing business for himself, with three outside partners, has been the construction of the $32-million Eagles Nest Golf Club on top of a derelict sand and gravel pit, northwest of Toronto. In 1994, as managing partner, he purchased 200 hectares surrounding the landfill site, aware that local government didn't want any development there until 2033. He and his partners spent millions of dollars, and years, trying to alter that covenant to use nearly half of the land to build the course.
He hired Doug Carrick, probably the best course designer in Canada, who began by asking him: "What was the best golf experience in your life?" "The best game I ever played was at St. Andrews in Scotland," DeGasperis replied. "That's where it was born, and of all the golf I played around the world, that sticks with me as the best experience I ever had. So if I was going to build a golf course in Canada, I wanted to bring Scotland and Ireland to Toronto. And that's what we did. We started five years ago, and opened the par-72 course last year."
It's a links-style design with waves of fescue, a type of grass that makes it look like a country meadow. Its sand scars are shaped to resemble eroded sand dunes. The hilly sand traps have 91 sod-walled bunkers; the courses' edges are made up of the rugged terrain preserved from the original gravel pit. DeGasperis didn't copy any specific Scottish golf course but adapted their style, careful not to Americanize it in the process.
It's too early to assess Eagles Nest's success, but the 19th hole is a stunning replica of a weathered Highlands clubhouse, its 37,000 square feet encompassing four wine cellars, a luxurious dining room, and the oxblood-and-leather feel of an elitist retreat. Which it decidedly is not. DeGasperis is gambling on maintaining Eagles Nest as a public golf course(at $175 per game)instead of being a club with a heavy entry fee($100,000 or more)and all the trimmings of an exclusive institution. "We want people to leave Eagles Nest thinking, 'I can't believe this is a public golf course,' and have them feel like they've just played in one of the great private clubs, where service and attention to detail are surpassed only by the golf experience itself," says Euan Dougal, the director of golf operations. Eagles Nest is unique in having a certified heliport on its site for downtown duffers impatient to tee off.
The golf carts' sports car wheels -- more suitable to be adorning Ferraris -- betray the obsession of Eagles Nest's managing partner. "I've always been fascinated with automobiles or mechanics, and that's why I love the construction business, because there's equipment with the loud rumble of powerful engines," says DeGasperis. "My wife and I are big into Formula One. We travel the world and go to four or five races a year. That's the highlight of my life. To me, the engine noise is the whole thing, the energy of the sport -- the technology of watching guys trying to win within that precision of the rules. It's an incredible sport, and my favourite team is Ferrari, of course." He could field his own Ferrari racing team. He specializes in buying vintage models and restoring them -- DeGasperis has three Ferraris and is working on a fourth. He also has a 1967 Corvette, and until recently, owned a red 1953 MG TD.
When I was growing up in Toronto in the 1950s, it was bicultural: English and Irish, except for the bankers, who were Scottish. That hegemony has vanished, with WASPs now the city's most visible minority, and roast beef rapidly becoming an ethnic dish. All cultures have a voice in Toronto now, and worthy citizens like the DeGasperises are moving to a category of more subtle concerns.
"Canada doesn't embrace entrepreneurs and say, 'Wow, there's a person who has worked hard and with his family has created thousands of jobs, and helped the community by giving back money and time,' " DeGasperis complains. "Canada doesn't do it like, say, the Americans. And that makes us very sad. Sometimes when you put yourself in a high-profile position, instead of people embracing it, they want to pull you down. And that's what stops a lot of people like myself from going forward." Then he shrugs, and adds: "I still believe that Canada is the best country to live in."
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