Darius Kasparaitis was drafted as the fifth overall pick in the first round of the 1992 NHL Entry Draft by the New York Islanders. He played a total of 16 years in the NHL for the Islanders, Pittsburgh Penguins, Colorado Avalanche and the New York Rangers. Previous to that, Kasparaitis played five seasons for Dynamo Moscow.
In over 20 years of hockey, he played in over 1000 games and saw great success professionally and on the International level where he won three Olympic medals, including gold in Albertville in 1992. He also won three Junior medals including gold in 1992.
Known for his time as a hockey player, this veteran of the rink had dreams after hockey, the dream to build something from the ground up. The competitive spirit has not been lost even though Kasparaitis is no longer on the ice. With his partners, they created the Verzasca Group, a Florida based real estate development company where the former first-round pick holds the title as president.
I was fortunate enough to speak to Kasparaitis about his days in the NHL as well as his new venture as a businessman.
The GM’s Perspective: Tell us about your new venture and what Verzasca Group is all about.
Darius Kasparaitis: Even though I retired from professional hockey back in 2009, up until a little more than a year ago I was still playing the game, while my friends in Miami were involved in real estate. My partners and I decided to open the Verzasca Group, a real estate development group based in South Florida. We realized the market was already hot at that time and had a great opportunity.
In the business world I was a nobody but in the hockey world I had a name. My partners, however, were well versed in the business world, so we figured, why not try to start a business in South Florida. If we don’t try, we’ll never know if we could succeed. Slowly we started to build our company and realized that we could actually fulfill our dream and compete with the big guys in the real estate space down in South Florida. Basically, this all started when we were all sitting at a hockey game and watching the Panthers play; after that game and the conversation that we had, we began to put the plan down on paper and Verzasca was born.
GMs: Is real estate something you’ve always been interested in?
DK: Since I came to the US, I always liked real estate and the market. I always imagined helping people and helping them build, especially in the sports market. Even when I go back to Lithuania, I think about what people would think if I created something and built a building here or there. I never thought about the business aspect though. I was always a dreamer. I did buy a lot of real estate while I was playing, and most of the time I made money on it.
GMs: Having played professionally for 20 years, what did you find was the key to success for your hockey career and how does that translate into the business world?
DK: I wish I used the knowledge I have right now for when I was playing. When I was playing I was quite a bit younger and I was probably more stubborn and cockier.
With athletes, sometimes you get close-minded. You don’t really listen to the message. You have your own beliefs. You’re part of a team, but sometimes you treat the coach as an enemy. I realized that when I retired, that if I had all the wisdom I had today with running a business, things could have been different. Why didn’t I think like this when I was younger? Not on the business end, but during my hockey career.
It’s very important to have a good team and good teammates. Just as in real estate, you have to have people who do the paperwork, a good construction company etc…It’s a long process, but you always have to believe in the people on your team. So far, I’ve been more than happy. We have a great team. We’re moving slowly, but in the right direction, same thing in sports and in hockey. A good team doesn’t just happen over night. From the young players to the old players, development and chemistry takes time. Just like me, I’m a young businessman. I’m affiliated with people who’ve done this before me. I’m not afraid to ask questions. In hockey it was different. I would never ask my defense partner anything; my pride wouldn’t let me do that. I wish I had the opened-mindedness I have now, when I played so I would learn more about the game. Sometimes you feel like you have to play the same way for the rest of your life.
The business world is different. I’m always learning new small business management techniques.
GMs: It takes a special person to do what you’ve done. You had immense success in the NHL, and multiple medals at the Olympic and amateur level. Do you look for the same leadership traits that you possess in the people that you work with?
DK: I’m a perfectionist. I really love people who are honest. Sometimes that’s hard to find in real estate. It’s all about having good people around you. You can tell right away if the chemistry is there. You learn as you go. Verzasca’s name came from a very clear river in Switzerland. It’s very important to have an honest and transparent company.
GMs: I totally agree. In sports it all comes down to chemistry and people working together. Like you said, you have to have the right people and the right pieces in place to ensure success. You’ve been involved in athletics for quite some time and not directly, but, in business to an extent. Because of this you can read people and that is a telltale sign of being a leader. People look up to someone who can determine what’s right and what’s wrong. It’s very honourable.
DK: Having connections from the past doesn’t hurt either. Because of my experience in sports, it’s easier for me to call up someone (as long as they remember me, time flies), and use my name to my advantage. I meet a lot of people who are very big fans of mine and supported me when I was a hockey player. Some didn’t like me when I played, but they still appreciated the style I was playing. It helps me a lot continuing to be a leader. I want people to be able to rely on me. That’s why the “teamwork” from my past carries over today. You can never let your teammates down.
It’s also not classifying people in jobs saying, you do this and you do that. There’s not just one leader. We have a lot of leaders in Verzasca right now. We want this to feel like a family run business.
GMs: What advice would you give other entrepreneurs or business owners as they strive to better their businesses?
DK: I truly believe that if you have a dream and want to follow your dream, you should put in a lot of heart and a lot of effort. You do that and you can achieve anything you want.
A lot us, even I sit on the couch dreaming about what we could accomplish. It used to be that I would never get up and do it because I was afraid of failure. But you can’t be afraid to fall. If you don’t even try, you’ll never be successful. You always experience a loss or pain so that you can learn and grow in whatever profession you may happen to be in.
I’m still scared. There are a lot of things in this business that I don’t know. We start building two buildings, in Bay Harbor Island, in a month. Scary, yes, but I am also very excited. Even though I am not building it, per se, I can still go and touch that wall. It’s something that we created. It’s like winning the Stanley Cup, something that unfortunately I never did, or winning an Olympic gold medal. When you start a company and you build something where other people can move in to live, that’s the WOW moment.