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.

But just as Perot Jr. jumped into real estate, the North Texas market cratered, and the savings and loan crisis ensued. There was no longer easy money to be made sitting on empty land and waiting for prices to rise. As the one responsible for making his dad's real estate investments work, Perot Jr. realized he was going to have to become a developer. And he was going to need some help.

It was right before the real estate slump--in 1986--when Frank Zaccanelli entered the employ of Ross Perot Jr. Zaccanelli was one of about a half-dozen real estate professionals in the office, a novice Perot Jr. hired as he began to feel his way into the industry. Zaccanelli, though, would quickly rise from the ranks and become second only to Perot Jr. himself.

Zaccanelli has the proverbial good looks that mothers are supposed to warn their innocent daughters about: tall and swarthy, with a wide mouth, piercing eyes, and a fit build. His is a commanding presence. He can be as genial as any good salesman, dropping his guest's name frequently, asking about hometowns, and eagerly engaging in small talk about the bad habits of drinking coffee. "My parents drank it all the time," he says.

The son of a tool grinder, Zaccanelli grew up in much more modest circumstances than his future boss. Born and raised in Syracuse, New York, he was the only child of first-generation Americans. His grandparents on both sides had immigrated from Italy.

When Perot Jr. was still finishing up at privileged St. Mark's in North Dallas, Zaccanelli was fleeing the dirty, industrialized East Coast of his birth. He decided to try his lot in Houston, moving there in the late '70s and landing a job selling health and beauty products. Zaccanelli survived, but didn't thrive. In 1980, when his employer transferred him to Dallas, Zaccanelli began eyeing greener pastures in real estate. It was the industry to enter in Dallas if one was financially ambitious. Going to school at night, Zaccanelli earned his real estate brokerage license in 1982, and set out to make contact with the high rollers.

It was expensive--more than he could afford, really--but Zaccanelli kept a membership at The Cooper Aerobics Center. There, he could run into North Dallas powerbrokers on the basketball court, shooting hoops and making connections. The investment paid off.

At that gym, Zaccanelli began playing ball with Roger Staubach, the former Dallas Cowboys quarterback turned real estate mogul. Staubach took a shine to Zaccanelli, who established a reputation as an intense, if argumentative, player who sometimes got in trouble with referees for overreacting to foul calls. Staubach hired Zaccanelli as a real estate broker.

Zaccanelli was working for Staubach on a transaction when he ran across Perot Jr. As a sort of test, Zaccanelli confirms, Perot Jr. agreed to invest in a real estate deal Zaccanelli had found in Atlanta, Georgia. But Perot Jr. wanted Zaccanelli to keep his broker's fee invested in the property. Zaccanelli not only complied, he moved his family to Atlanta for a summer so he could personally oversee the property's management. "Ross saw that and admired his drive," recalls another real estate broker who has worked with both men. Perot Jr. hired Zaccanelli.

Initially, Zaccanelli was just one of five or six real estate aces in the office who had all been in the business longer than their boss. There was no top dog, a former Hillwood employee says, but a pack competing for Perot Jr.'s attention. "Frank used to say whoever leaves Ross' office last will prevail," the former employee recalls.

Ever looming over the office was the specter--if not the presence--of Perot Sr. A former Hillwood executive remembers the old man trying to give his son independence. "His dad was pretty good. Once in a while, there would be a meeting without his son, but usually he said, 'It was Ross Jr.'s decision,'" recalls the former employee.

Zaccanelli, apparently, was able to ingratiate himself early on with Perot Sr. These days, Zaccanelli says he only greets Perot Sr. in the elevator, engaging in all substantive business discussions with the son. But in those early days, one former Hillwood employee says, Perot Sr. used to meet as often as twice a month with Zaccanelli and other Hillwood employees. Indeed, two former Hillwood employees speculate that, in some ways, the father took comfort in having a scrapper like Zaccanelli near his understated son. Perot Sr. could take care of himself, they say, but wanted Zaccanelli to guard his son--and his assets.

If at first Frank Zaccanelli was just a member of Perot Jr.'s pack, that changed with the Alliance Airport development. "After Alliance, he was the man," recalls one former Hillwood employee.

The 418-acre industrial airport north of Fort Worth that opened in 1989 ranks as Perot Jr.'s chief accomplishment to date. It also serves as a model for the "public-private" developments that Perot Jr. likes to trumpet.

The concept for Alliance was novel, and Perot Jr. usually gets credit for the innovation. (Two former Hillwood executives, though, say Perot Sr. had just as much to do with it as his son.) The notion was to build an airport specifically for industrial users--manufacturers and companies who needed easy access to planes shuttling in parts and supplies.

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