The son almost rises

Ross Perot Jr. is pushing 40, and still trying to slip from his father's shadow. He's built Alliance Airport, bought the Mavericks, and is trying to ramrod a new arena. But he isn't a pit bull like his old man. That's where Frank Zaccanelli comes in.

The younger Perot's travails have become a regular fixture on the nightly news as his company squabbles with Tom Hicks, the owner of the Dallas Stars hockey team, over the arena project.

Although the Stars and Mavericks need each other to make an arena deal work, relations between the two have become so frayed that it appears neither will bend and give the other majority control of a new arena.

The most incessant bad press for Perot Jr., however, has centered on his first year of ownership of the Mavericks, a team that spirals ever further into the NBA basement.

One has to wonder why Perot Jr. is catching so much flak. The son's personality scarcely resembles that of his hard-edged father. Perot Jr. shares none of the famed piercing wit, accusatory tone, and know-it-all mannerisms. Instead, more than 25 acquaintances, employees, and business associates who were interviewed for this story say the son is a quieter, more inward-looking fellow.

"He is more of an I'll-listen-to-you kind of guy than his father," says Jim Francis, a Republican political consultant who has worked for Perot Jr. on business matters.

So where is Perot Jr.'s newly emerging reputation as a tough guy coming from? Two words--Frank Zaccanelli.

Not inclined to be a pit bull himself, Perot Jr. has turned to the Italian to be his hardball hitter. Zaccanelli has risen quickly from the ranks of Perot Jr.'s young company to become top lieutenant. Zaccanelli's office is right next to Perot Jr.'s (and down the hall from Dad's) on the seventeenth floor of a nondescript glass building in North Dallas.

A former health and beauty products salesman, Zaccanelli has earned his stripes in real estate circles, and is largely seen as the bite behind Perot Jr.

"Frank is a very competitive, hard-nosed businessman. He knows how to leverage his assets. He is not the proverbial good ol' boy. It's all business with him. He carries a big stick, and that is the Perot stick, and he keeps it in plain sight," says Bill Shaddock, a land broker in Plano, who has negotiated with Zaccanelli.

Zaccanelli's gruff manner has made him unwelcome in some quarters. Tales of his temper are legendary--and perhaps, at this point, hyperbolic.

"I never threw a clock at anybody, so you can take that one out," Zaccanelli volunteers during an interview, trying to preempt a question about one common rumor of a temper tantrum.

The clock may have stayed on the desk. But two former Hillwood employees say fireworks regularly flew in Zaccanelli's chambers. Secretaries were reduced to tears, the two recall. Subordinates were subjected to tirades in which every third word was an obscenity, they say.

If he was around, Perot Jr. usually just closed his door. "Ross doesn't like the dirty work. But he doesn't mind it happening. Zaccanelli is there to rip guys apart," says one former Hillwood employee who worked with Perot Jr. and Zaccanelli.

Whether negotiating with adversaries or dealing with friendly partners, Zaccanelli is known for confrontation. "He gets all red in the face. You can tell it's not acting. He's out of control," says a lawyer who has witnessed the episodes.

Zaccanelli shrugs off his reputation as the inevitable fallout from the role he plays as gatekeeper for a billionaire's son. "I tell my wife, sometimes you get a little disgusted being lied to 10 times a day by someone hoping to get your money. You have to siphon out what's real," he says. "Do I have a temper? Sure. Do I have a lot of passion about what I do? Yes. Have I, over the years, had some run-ins with people? Sure...That is the only way I can function...I have to have that edge.

"Ross' view is much more macro. My job is to get into the trenches and get things done."

Others come to Zaccanelli's defense. Randy Williams, an executive vice president of business development for the Dallas real estate powerhouse owned by Robert Dedman--Club Corporation of America--has participated in partnerships with Hillwood. About Zaccanelli's demeanor, Williams insists: "The stories are somewhat overrated. It hasn't at all been done by trampling over people. You know when you sit down with anyone the ilk of Perot...hey, he who has the gold gets to make the rules. If you or I had that kind of money, I don't know if we would have been any different."

Barbara Ryan, his assistant for five years at Hillwood, says characterizations of Zaccanelli as menacing are unfair.

But Zaccanelli's detractors, and they are numerous, question whether his blunt ways benefit Perot Jr. in the long run.

"Frank is bad karma," says a real estate broker who worked closely with Zaccanelli.

"If you are a hammer, the whole world looks like a nail. But every once in a while, you need a screwdriver. His is not an effective way to do business in the big leagues," says another businessman who has negotiated with Zaccanelli. "Anybody who has a chance will get away."

Several times, other businessmen have called or written Perot Jr. to warn him about his lieutenant. "I told him I thought Frank was injuring the family name," says one broker. He didn't receive a response.

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