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Stu Cowan: Vincenzo Guzzo sheds light on Alouettes sale circus

What would happen if CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie went on the Dragons’ Den TV show and tried to sell the Alouettes?

That’s a question I put to Vincenzo Guzzo, the president and CEO of Cinémas Guzzo and one of the dragons on the CBC reality-TV show where Canadian entrepreneurs pitch business and investment ideas to a panel of venture capitalists (dragons) in the hope of securing financing and partnerships.

“My reaction would be there’s a lot of work here and because it’s a product that’s in my community I’d consider putting in the effort to turning the team around and actually making the deal,” Guzzo said during a phone interview Monday night. “But, for example, if this was a team in another country, let’s say, I wouldn’t even look at it twice. If it wasn’t for the fact that I’m a Montrealer, I wouldn’t even look at this deal after I saw what I saw.”

Guzzo was one of three Montreal businessmen whose interest in actually buying the Alouettes went public before the CFL finally announced last Friday it had taken over the team from owner Bob Wetenhall and his son, Andrew, who was co-owner and lead governor. The other two interested businessmen were Clifford Starke and former Alouettes player Éric Lapointe. Guzzo didn’t get into details about what he saw or didn’t see from a financial standpoint about the Alouettes and added he was approached by the CFL about the possibility of buying the team. It has been reported the Alouettes lost $50 million since Wetenhall purchased the club in 1997, including $25 million over the last three years and $12.5 million last season.

Not a pretty picture.

While Guzzo said he had real interest in buying the Alouettes, the business dragon, Starke and Lapointe have all announced they are out of the running. It is believed the CFL has decided to negotiate with a fourth group. During a phone interview Monday morning, Ambrosie said he wouldn’t comment on any of the Alouettes’ financial details or make specific references to any of the bidders, adding there were interested groups who wanted to remain anonymous. The CFL’s silent stance has led to plenty of speculation about who might buy the Alouettes and the latest names to pop up are Montreal natives Joe Poulin and Patrick Pichette. Poulin is CEO of Luxury Retreats, based in San Francisco, and Pichette was a senior vice-president and CFO of Google Inc. from 2008 until 2015 and is now a general partner at iNovia Capital.

When asked why the CFL has been so quiet and secretive about the Alouettes’ situation, Ambrosie said: “In part, it’s a respect for the Wetenhall family. We did not want to be out in public with some of the discussions we were having with them. That was based on our respect for them. Also, some of the groups we were speaking with demanded confidentiality as part of our conversations. We just felt, in the end, it’s kind of like CBA negotiations. They don’t do well through the media and so you often have to live with the criticism that you’re being quiet. I’m not sure I especially like the word ‘secretive’. But the process just works better when it’s done in confidence.”

The Alouettes have missed the playoffs in each of the last four seasons while bleeding money, but Guzzo said there is reason for hope.

“Because of the financial situation of the other teams there’s actually a light at the end of the tunnel,” he said. “Because five out of those nine (CFL) teams make money, so that means there is a way to make money. You’ve just got to run it like a tight ship, like a real corporation and not like: Oh, it’s a sports team, so it’s OK to lose money. It doesn’t work that way.”

There will be no quick fix for whoever ends up buying the Alouettes. It took time for them to get this bad and it will take time to make them better. The timing for this sale couldn’t be worse and it will be interesting to see how many fans show up at Molson Stadium for the Alouettes’ final preseason game Thursday against the Ottawa Redblacks (7:30 p.m., RDS, TSN 690 Radio) after they lost their first exhibition game 45-20 last week in Toronto. The Alouettes kick off the regular season next Friday night in Edmonton.

Guzzo didn’t rule out the possibility of getting back in the running to purchase the Alouettes.

“It’s happened before to me where someone goes exclusive in a deal and it falls through,” he said. “It’s not always about ability to close, but it’s desire to close. If it was a Dragons’ Den deal, yeah I would have made them an offer and that’s what I did. I did make them an offer and the offer was their offer.”

The CFL could start its own reality-TV show, titled As the Als Turn.