Nearly a decade ago, hockey legend Wayne Gretzky was interviewed in the old Nassau Coliseum, or “the barn” as Islanders fans refer to it. Even casual observers of the sport know Gretzky as the unstoppable goal scoring giant he was for most of his illustrious career. Yet the vaunted Edmonton Oilers team he captained ran into the brick wall that was the NY Islanders in the early 80’s. When asked about that Islanders team, Gretzky recounted their Stanley Cup loss in 1983 saying, “We walked by their locker room in the corridor and saw after they won they were too beat up to really enjoy it and savor the victory at that moment." Instead of champagne bottles and victory cheers, the locker room was filled with ice packs and groans. “We learned from it,” continued Gretzky, “and often credit the Islanders players and Islanders teams for teaching us exactly what it’s all about and how hard it is to win."
“He was so right,” laughs Gillies. “We left it all on the ice and our bodies really paid the price.” It’s difficult to reconcile Clark Gillies of today versus the fearsome legend he carved for himself as one of the toughest players ever to play the game. “They wound up beating us the next year and, of course, Wayne went on to enjoy one of the greatest careers in sports,” notes Gillies. “It was a great rivalry and one that both sides really appreciate to this day.”
In some ways, Gillies never stopped competing. He traded in his jersey for a suit and registered with Smith Barney in 1990. By 1994 he had opened and was running Raymond James offices in New York and Florida. “We built a nice firm,” recalls Gillies, “but there’s no question I missed the team atmosphere. We had grown significantly and it was getting increasingly difficult to find the balance between adjusting to market changes, speaking with clients and staying on top of compliance. Normal growing pains and issues, I suppose, but when the markets crashed in 2008, it obviously brought an enormous amount of pressure to bear on the operation.”
Few professional athletes are able to make the transition from one career to another as successfully as Gillies, and his reputation began to grow in financial circles. “I had known Larry [Rafferty] for a while, and through him I got a chance to really get to know Bill [Garvey],” says Gillies. “Like most people, I developed a deep respect for his mind and process.” The trio began speaking about a partnership in earnest when Gillies signaled a desire to join an operation with greater resources so he could focus more on business development. “Bill gave me an opportunity to go out and just be me. It was truly a gift that couldn’t have come at a better time,” he recalls. “I had a lot of faithful clients who expressed an interest in coming with me and, over time, every single one that met with Bill came over.”
When asked whether he has been able to identify any parallels between his hockey days and his Hilton days, Gillies responds enthusiastically. “Oh, without question. I know it probably sounds like a cliche but the similarities are real. The Islanders were built from the top down. Ownership was innovative and gave us anything and everything we could possibly need to succeed. Very similar to how Larry Rafferty operates. Then there’s Bill who reminds me so much of Al [Arbor],” he continues. (Arbor was the head coach of the Islanders from 1973 to 1986.)
“Al had to manage a lot of egos but instilled in us a fierce desire to win as a team and not individuals. He always said no matter what happens in the locker room or outside of the rink, when you come through that door you kill for each other. That’s what happens here at Hilton. The investment committee meetings are something to behold because everyone has a voice and every opinion is considered.
“Al was a player first so he knew us inside and out. And he never got flustered. Bill is the same way. You can’t rattle Bill and every member of the Hilton team is loyal to him and the Hilton vision. If he has one shortcoming, it’s that he kills a lot of trees. The man needs a hard copy of everything,” jokes Gillies.
Gillies speaks as effusively about the rest of the Hilton team as he does leadership. “There’s an incredible amount of talent around here,” he says. “Kevin [McCarthy] and Dave [Jennings] have a gift for managing advisor relationships because they really speak their language. Alex [Oxenham] is an absolute monster who provided some serious depth on the analyst side. Craig [O’Neill] runs a tight ship as President and is a phenomenal presence inside and outside of the organization. I really can’t say enough about how satisfying it is to be part of such a well-oiled machine.”