Luke DeCock

Hurricanes’ would-be owner betting on himself. He’s won before. Can he win again?

Dallas businessman Tom Dundon, center, in ball cap, watches game between the Carolina Hurricanes and the Columbus Blue Jackets at PNC Arena on Dec. 16, 2017. Dundon has signed a purchase agreement to buy the Canes.
Dallas businessman Tom Dundon, center, in ball cap, watches game between the Carolina Hurricanes and the Columbus Blue Jackets at PNC Arena on Dec. 16, 2017. Dundon has signed a purchase agreement to buy the Canes. cseward@newsobserver.com

When the time came to cash in on the auto-lending empire Thomas Dundon started in the back room of a used-car dealership, Dundon and his partners split $636 million. His partners walked away. Dundon took a smaller share, kept a 10 percent stake in the business and continued to run it after it was bought by the Spanish banking conglomerate Santander in 2006.

It was, essentially, a bet on himself and his ability to continue to grow the business.

Eight years later, Santander took the division public at a valuation of $8.3 billion. When he left in 2015, Dundon walked away with $715 million.

For Dundon’s friends, this was the same thing they had seen from him on the golf course or tennis court, in the men’s basketball league where he met Mark Cuban, or for the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity in intramural competitions at Southern Methodist University. Not only did Dundon hate to lose, it didn’t happen very often.

The 47-year-old’s purchase of the Carolina Hurricanes, which is expected to be finalized in the next few weeks, is another bet on himself.

People around him say Dundon is the kind of person willing to bet he can run a pro franchise better than anyone else, or at least better than the Hurricanes have been run under Peter Karmanos’ passionate but remote-control ownership. There’s enough low-hanging fruit here, especially given the team’s gathering improvement on the ice, for someone like Dundon to eye an immediate impact.

“It’s a bet on his management style, a bet on his management abilities, his strategic abilities and his analytical and operational rigor to run the business better,” said Daniel Zilberman, an executive with private-equity firm Warburg Pincus who served on Santander Consumer’s board of directors when Dundon ran the company. “He’s not doing it for the money. He’s got all the money in the world.”

One thing is clear: Dundon does not act in half measures.

When Dundon needed an office for his new business after leaving Santander, he bought the whole building. When he wanted a better place to play golf, he built an entirely new club, one that immediately started hosting Dallas’ PGA Tour stop and has major-championship aspirations. He bought into Topgolf and helped turn it from a chain of ordinary driving ranges into a golf-themed entertainment mecca where the food arrives on time and the bathrooms are always clean.

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Thomas Dundon, who has signed a purchase agreement to buy the Hurricanes. Rose Baca AP

His $11 million Dallas home includes a water slide, indoor and outdoor tennis courts, baseball diamond, putting green, go-cart track and fishing pond, not for him and his wife Veruschka but for his five kids, ranging in age from 2 to 16. When built in 2009, it was the 36th most expensive house in the Dallas metroplex, not exactly the minor leagues when it comes to expensive homes.

Dundon’s name hasn’t been prominently mentioned among potential investors in professional sports franchises, but it’s a logical next step for someone as passionate about sports as he has been throughout his life. And while he doesn’t have the individual wealth to pursue an NFL or MLB team without partners, he does have more than enough to buy and run an NHL team on his own, the way he – and he alone – wants it run.

“He’s a super-competitive guy and sports gives him the release for it,” said Mark Molthan, a Dallas home-builder who has been friends with Dundon since high school. “He thinks he can do it better than other people. I think he can do it better than other people.”

So while Dundon remains a mysterious figure among Hurricanes fans, keeping a low profile while waiting for the sale to close, conversations with his associates make a few eventualities certain. He’s going to shake things up. He’s going to be involved at every level of the organization. And he’s the kind of person who will do whatever he thinks is necessary to do things right, even if that means getting things wrong at first.

“I’ve known Tom for a long time,” Cuban, the entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner, said in an email. “He is a good guy. He is super competitive. He hates to lose. More importantly, he is excited to do what he can to bring a Stanley Cup to Raleigh.”

‘SELF-MADE’ IN EVERY SENSE

The version of the Dundon origin story that would go in the airport-bookstore best-seller starts in a burger joint near SMU in Dallas. After graduating in 1993, he opened Izzy’s just off campus. He worked days and nights, slept on the floor and lost $80,000 when it went out of business amid mediocre reviews.

He started over as a back-room finance associate at a used-car dealership, quickly figuring out that there was more money to be made in financing used cars than selling them – especially to people with bad credit. They could be charged high interest rates, but they’d still do whatever they could to make the payments, because if their cars were repossessed, they’d often lose their jobs. That kept default rates down. Dundon made millions.

It’s a tidy story, but Izzy’s was merely a blip on what was otherwise a steady ascendance to the world of wealth he occupies now. Those around him like to use the phrase “self-made.” Not much is known about his childhood, and Dundon through the Hurricanes declined interview requests, but he moved from the Philadelphia area to Texas with his mother after his parents divorced and attended Plano Senior High School, where he was an accomplished tennis player.

“He wasn’t born on the inside,” said Jon Altschuler, an SMU classmate whose commercial real-estate firm manages the 33-story downtown Dallas office building Dundon bought for $131 million in 2015. “He’s self-made in every sense of the word. … He’s the most fearless person I know.”

At SMU, a university awash in money both old and oil, Dundon joined Phi Gamma Delta, a fraternity better known for intramural domination than trust funds. As president, he impressed his classmates in the wake of a fire at the fraternity house by leading the effort to house 40 suddenly homeless brothers and work with the alumni board to manage the insurance claim and rebuilding.

More important to the membership, Dundon organized Fiji’s 16 intramural teams and captained almost all of them, serving as the left-handed quarterback on the flag-football team, even though he was the fraternity’s best player only on the tennis court. Intramurals were a big deal at SMU at the time, since the football program was still recovering from the NCAA death penalty and largely irrelevant.

“We won everything,” said Molthan, who went from Plano to SMU with him and, later, built Dundon’s $11 million house. “It wasn’t that we were that much more athletically gifted. He’s just a lot smarter than everybody else.”

In the subprime auto lending business, Dundon’s original company, Drive Financial, was distinguished by its operational rigor and the analytical approach of its CEO. Dundon gained a reputation as a micromanager who had extremely specific ways he wanted his employees to do things, but with tremendous results. He scrutinized everything in search of efficiencies, right down to how long it took collection agents to end one call and start another.

Behind it all was an analytical mind that saw clear paths to profits in a sea of lending data. One analyst described Drive as the “most quantitatively operated business I’ve ever seen.” And it started with Dundon, at 24, with no money of his own, going head-to-head with the big banks in 1995 in a sector of the market he knew they were mishandling.

Douglas John, an investment adviser who is one of Dundon’s closest friends, met him in the late ’90s while Drive was just starting to grow. He marveled at the degree to which Dundon obsessed over details, then watched him reap the rewards.

“He really gets into the weeds on everything,” John said. “There are a couple things you can really control as a lender. One of them is your costs. Why Drive was so successful, and Santander Consumer when he ran it, was he had the lowest cost structure of anybody. He paid attention to the details.”

There wasn’t much marginal advantage Dundon could squeeze out of the burger business, as it turned out, but the data-driven world of subprime auto loans played to his strengths.

“He’s self-made, and he’s incredibly intense, incredibly driven,” Zilberman said. “His mind is like a computer. He can process data and information better than anyone I interact with. He’s unique. … I’ve sat on the boards of more than a dozen companies in my career. I deal with CEOs for a living. He’s the most talented, well-rounded CEO I’ve ever interacted with.”

THE GOLF CONNECTION

Sports have played an important role in Dundon’s life, and his business interests started to move that direction even before he left Santander. In 2013, Dundon bankrolled the construction of Trinity Forest Golf Club, designed by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, the same duo that oversaw the dramatic renovations to Pinehurst No. 2. A links-style course built on a landfill in a windswept corner of south Dallas, the course was specifically designed to bring major championships to Dallas, and will become the new home of the AT&T Byron Nelson this spring less than two years after opening.

Dundon is a single-digit handicap – his USGA index is 6.1 – who has played in the Pebble Beach National Pro-Am and is close friends with tour pros Hunter Mahan and Matt Kuchar. He partnered with real-estate developer Jonas Woods to build the club, whose members include Tony Romo, Jordan Spieth, Roger Staubach and Mahan. It’s also the new home of SMU’s golf team.

“He’s very customer-focused, and I can relate to that from what he’s done here at Trinity Forest,” said Pinehurst owner Bob Dedman Jr., another of Trinity Forest’s co-founders. “He’s really focused on the quality of the experience for the golfer. I’m sure he’ll do the same for the hockey patron. When things are going well, he’s very hands-off. When they’re not, he’s very hands-on. He’s a situational leader from that standpoint. Very creative. Very energetic.”

Dedman noted Dundon’s willingness to challenge the status quo, not only with the unusual location and ambition of Trinity Forest but with his investment in Topgolf. That chain now has has 38 locations in the United States (the closest is in Charlotte, although there were discussions in the past about building one at both Cary Towne Center and Research Triangle Park), and Dundon’s active involvement helped turn a small chain of driving ranges into an international entertainment success, applying a Dave & Buster’s-style food-and-fun concept to golf.

“I decided to invest in no small part because I had hopes my two sons, then 7 and 10, would get interested in golf,” Dundon told Golf Digest last month in an interview in which he specifically refused to discuss the Hurricanes purchase. “The combination of good food and a fun atmosphere with a little golf competition seems to draw people in. What’s key is making the game accessible. You can just show up with nothing and start playing. Other than bowling, I can’t think of another sport that offers that accessibility. I don’t think golf was that way 10 years ago.”

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The Carolina Hurricanes head coach Bill Peters, left, and general manager Ron Francis watch the skaters as the team holds prospect camp for young hopefuls at PNC Arena on June 29, 2017. Chris Seward cseward@newsobserver.com

When he’s not fine-tuning his golf swing, a perpetual work in progress despite his ability, bearing the fingerprints of just about every instructor in the top 100, he still plays in the same men’s basketball league where he met Cuban. And long before he started looking at a pro team, he was heavily involved with his kids’ teams, coaching them in several different sports while quietly playing a central role in the growth of lacrosse in the Dallas area.

For Dundon, whose circle includes franchise owners like Cuban and athletes like Mahan and Romo – Dundon reportedly attended Romo’s 2011 wedding; Romo, through a CBS spokesman, declined to comment – a pro franchise was a logical next progression. While another Dallas businessman, sports lawyer and minor-league baseball impresario Chuck Greenberg, was trying to secure financing to purchase the Hurricanes from Karmanos over the summer and fall, Dundon was quietly attending games and observing the franchise.

In December, after Greenberg’s deal fell apart, Dundon reached an agreement to buy 52 percent of the team from Karmanos for a reported $230 million with an option to buy the remaining 48 percent in three years for $275 million. (That price includes assuming some of Karmanos’ accumulated debt; Karmanos would also presumably have to buy out the remaining local minority investors to deliver the rest of the franchise to Dundon.) As that deal awaits NHL approval, which is expected before the end of the month, Dundon is already making his presence felt around the hockey team.

“He’s going to be involved, that’s for sure,” said Hurricanes forward Justin Williams, who met with Dundon on a recent road trip to Toronto and Nashville. “That’s important. Everyone’s all working toward the same goal. He can certainly help out.”

THE NEW REGIME

That December road trip was Dundon’s first public and acknowledged appearance around the team, although he had been watching closely since the preseason. In the first game of the trip, the Hurricanes lost 8-1 to the Maple Leafs in what was unquestionably their worst performance of the season. It was a less-than-auspicious public bow for the would-be new owner.

Meanwhile, Dundon spent time in Toronto meeting with players and coaches and staff. He talked with Williams at the team hotel. Cam Ward was among a group of players who had dinner with Dundon at a steakhouse across the street from the Air Canada Centre.

“He was really upbeat and excited meeting about everybody and trying to make an impact on this organization,” Ward said. “Everything we were told as players, we were extremely positive, and collectively as a group we were excited to hear what he had to say.”

The surprise came the day after the loss, after the team flew to Nashville. Dundon took the players, and players only, to Topgolf’s Nashville location for a private outing, dinner and informal brainstorming session. The Hurricanes bounced back with a 4-1 win in Nashville that resumed the team’s holiday hot streak – wins in seven of eight, including six straight at home – that by Tuesday’s overtime loss to Washington finally elevated the team into the playoff picture for the first time this season. The team continued its strong play with a 4-0 win in Pittsburgh on Thursday.

The 8-2-1 run going into Saturday night’s game in Boston has had more to do with Ward’s goaltending as he usurped the No. 1 job from newcomer Scott Darling than anything Dundon had to say to the players, but for a group that has dealt with the ownership uncertainty for years, there was an eagerness to hear what the new regime had in mind.

“He’s passionate, that I can say,” Williams said. “Some owners will just come and put up the money and aren’t really worried about what’s going on. But he’s been successful in business for a reason and you can tell – his attention to details and what he expects from his team, what he wants from his team.

“Not being a hockey guy, he doesn’t have the lingo, but he’s been watching a long time and he kind of knows what’s going on out there, and that’s nice. He’s paying attention, for sure. Once he dials down the lingo and knows the hockey talk, he’ll have everything.”

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The Canes' Victor Rask (49) celebrates his goal with Justin Williams (14) during the first period against the Washington Capitals at PNC Arena on Jan. 2, 2018. Chris Seward cseward@newsobserver.com

As Hurricanes co-captain Jordan Staal, who has yet to make the playoffs with the team, put it: “These were good things to hear.”

How Dundon intends to put his stamp on the franchise, assuming the sale goes through as planned, remains to be seen. The analytical aspects of his past businesses suggest an even stronger focus there on the hockey side, although the Hurricanes have taken strides in that area under Ron Francis. His hands-on approach at both Drive and Santander point to a remaking of both the business side of the franchise and the in-game experience, areas where the Hurricanes have stagnated for years.

Certainly his association with Cuban should offer ideas how to improve the way the players are treated, taking a page or two out of the Mavericks’ book with regard to travel and nutrition and treatment, all of which is designed to minimize excuses and maximize performance. The Mavericks, with their posh, high-tech locker room and custom 757 jet have set the NBA trend for years.

And Hurricanes fans are acutely aware of the other issues unique to this franchise that cry out to be addressed, from what is almost certainly the worst practice facility in the NHL to a ticket policy that has, somewhat by necessity under Karmanos, placed an emphasis on revenue ahead of atmosphere. (The Hurricanes’ recent home success has coincided with an uptick in attendance, although that’s certainly a chicken-and-egg debate.)

There’s every reason to expect radically new ways of doing things around the Hurricanes under Dundon.

“He single-handedly changed the landscape of auto lending,” his old friend Molthan said. “I have 100 percent confidence he can do the same in sports.”

Either way, his associates say to expect Dundon to move quickly once he takes control.

“He’ll take time to evaluate. And he’ll be decisive,” Altschuler, the SMU classmate, said. “It’ll feel like a tornado at times: fast-paced, frenzied, exciting. It will be a really fun environment. It would be fun to be a part of the organization next year to see all the action.

“I know he has no track record for pro sports, but I’ve seen the track record for his life. If I had to pick a sports owner to own my teams, I’d want (Patriots owner) Bob Kraft or Dundon. Kraft, because he has the track record. Dundon, because he’s going to do the same thing.”

Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock

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