What Building a Baseball Team Can Teach You About Building a Career

Nancy Flagg Finance, Issue 10 - March/April 2014 Leave a Comment

Having landed his dream job, Arizona Diamondbacks CFO Tom Harris offers tips for getting yours.

By Nancy Flagg

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Most red-blooded Americans would jump at the chance to work in major league sports. Tom Harris had the opportunity, took the leap and has never looked back. For 19 years, he has served as Chief Financial Officer (CFO) of the Arizona Diamondbacks baseball organization. Frequently people approach him to ask how they (or a friend or relative) might land a job in sports. Harris explains that there is no magic formula, but that it is a combination of being in the right place at the right time and taking opportunities to network and learn the ropes from the ground level.

Changing Career Course

In the late 1990s, Harris was working in his father-in-law’s tax practice, Gene Schwarzkopf, CPA, Ltd. Schwarzkopf was close to retiring, and Harris was preparing to buy the business. The purchasing agreements were drawn up when Harris received a call from Jim Pitman, Controller for the Phoenix Suns basketball organization, a friend and former Arthur Andersen colleague. The Suns were moving into the new America West Arena, and Pitman needed assistance for his expanded workload. Harris agreed to support the Suns part-time for six weeks, while continuing to work in his tax practice and take classes towards his master’s degree in Taxation at Arizona State University.

His six-week term turned into six months, after which Pitman was promoted to CFO of the Suns and Harris was asked to come on board as Controller. Harris had a life-changing decision to make. He had recently completed the purchase of his father-in-law’s practice, and it seemed that his career course already had been charted.

One thought, however, kept recurring to Harris: “I have one shot to work in sports.” This overriding thought convinced him that he had to take the opportunity. Harris joined the Suns. Not long after, the team’s owners acquired a Major League Baseball (MLB) franchise, the Arizona Diamondbacks, and Harris became its CFO.

Now Harris has been in the sports industry for 20 years, and he has enjoyed the ride. What is most rewarding for him is that the organization is “relevant in the community—we’re in the newspaper every day for seven months… and we are a social institution that does a lot for the community.” When people meet him and learn that he works for the Diamondbacks, their “eyes perk up,” Harris noted.

If 25 people were asked how they got started in the sports industry, there would be 25 different stories, according to Harris. As for his own story, “lots of things happened by happenstance.” When he saw an opportunity, he took it, “not knowing where it would lead.”

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Building a Baseball Team from Scratch

In 1995, Harris and three others from the Phoenix Suns—Owner Jerry Colangelo, President Rich Dozer and General Manager Joe Garagiola, Jr.—held their first meeting to create the Diamondback organization from scratch.

“The first thing to do was to create a to-do list,” Harris said, which included everything from naming the team to planning for all the stages of growth. “We were starting with seven people, but knew we were going to get to an endpoint of 250 to 300. In the meantime, we had to build the minor league clubs.”

There was a big learning curve to overcome, and Harris relied heavily on other teams and the Commissioner’s Office for help. He developed quick and long-lasting relationships with those in the industry and usually found that “someone on another team had already tackled what we were going through.”

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For example, the first two players signed to the team were Cuban defectors, which raised a host of questions about legal issues, salary payments and IRS rules on withholding. Harris was able to gather advice from other teams to guide him through the steps. Harris credits Michael Kent and Hal Roth of the Colorado Rockies, geographically close and also a newer franchise, as his main “go-to resources.”

In setting up the Diamondbacks’ financial infrastructure, the team borrowed a lot from the Suns. “The Diamondbacks were like their little brother, and we patterned our accounting system and charts of accounts from them, but modified for MLB,” Harris said. The organizations share a payroll system to this day.

For its accounting transactions, the Diamondbacks use Chase Bank, the naming rights partner for the team’s stadium. Harris recalls setting up the bank account, receiving an ordinary starter set of checks and manually writing checks for expenses of all sizes.

Financial discipline is key in building and maintaining a sports organization. Harris has guided the organization through equity and debt restructures resulting in the elimination of more than $175 million of debt. Financial discipline is possible to do because the owners adhere to the philosophy of “we can’t spend what we don’t have,” Harris said. In addition, if the organization makes extra dollars, the owners prefer to put it back into the business in the form of players or fan comfort.

Starting a new baseball franchise is similar to starting any new business, Harris explained. The business office setup and its functions are much the same. The difference lies in the nuances of the MLB industry, such as hiring 40 seasonal staff of coaches, trainers, managers and players as each minor club opens and then trading and moving players. These types of transactions make MLB a “unique animal.”

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Shaping & Growing the Financial Team

In creating his financial team from scratch, Harris also borrowed staff from the Suns. His first outside hire was Larry White, a jack-of-all-trades referred from another team. Harris needed someone versatile who could handle any duties, from writing a check to developing financial statements and budgets.

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The Arizona Diamondbacks have been named one of the “Best Places to Work” by the Phoenix Business Journal and BestCompaniesAZ. Harris says the healthy employee culture starts at the top. Owners Ken Kendrick and Jeff Royer and CEO Derrick Hall believe that employees come first and that if they are well taken care of, they will take good care of the customers.Many more positions have been filled over the years. Harris advises that people who want to work in the sports industry need to be willing to accept the job slot that is open, even if it is at a low level in the organization. For some, that can be “a tough pill to swallow,” Harris noted. “Don’t be afraid to come in and get your feet wet, and let’s see where the job will take you.”

In Harris’ own department, there has been little turnover and several junior staff members have worked their way up. Harris manages his team by giving them latitude to make decisions and freedom to be innovative and creative. In addition, the leader acknowledges that there are many long days and nights during the baseball season that can be a “grind on family.” Employees are encouraged to bring family to games and even some employee events.

Twenty years ago, Harris made the decision to take a chance on a career in the sports industry. He has thrived in the dynamic sports environment, but his biggest satisfaction comes from seeing a father taking his child to a first baseball game or a kid catching a foul ball. “What joy is that,” he remarked. “That’s what we provide, and it makes us a unique industry.”

Nancy Flagg is a freelance writer based in Sacramento, California.

Tom's Key Partners:
J.P. Morgan Private Bank(Banking/Credit) | PWC (Audit and tax consulting) | Willis/Global Sports Services (Risk management consulting)

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Nancy Flagg

Nancy Flagg is a freelance writer based in Sacramento, California.
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