Why Finance Should Be Played as a Team Sport

Amanda Sims Finance, Issue 11 - May/June 2014 Leave a Comment

Bob Feller, EVP and CFO at Palace Sports & Entertainment, explains why ball hogs are harmful in the Finance Department

By Amanda Sims

Bob Feller, Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer (CFO) at Palace Sports & Entertainment (PS&E), can honestly say he loves his job. The lifelong Pistons fan joined the company—which owns the Detroit Pistons NBA team as well as DTE Energy Music Theatre and the Palace of Auburn Hills arena—in July 2012 after more than 15 years spent in tech startups, such as salesforce.com.

Feller landed in a Finance Department that was still in transition after a change in ownership, without a strategic plan or reporting group and unstable from a period of higher employee turnover. But Feller, the man who always has a plan, made structural changes that allowed the Finance Department to serve as a business partner for the organization, even as he adjusted to the sports and entertainment industry.

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Tackling a New Industry

While his background in building financial structures at tech startups certainly helped him, Feller faced two difficult challenges when he transitioned to PS&E. First, the company was experiencing a period of higher employee turnover as it transitioned from ownership by the Bill Davidson family, who owned PS&E for more than three decades, to new ownership by Platinum Equity and Tom Gores. The reporting and controls requirements for Platinum Equity, a private equity portfolio company, were very different;  there was a considerable effort to find new staff to best fit within this new structure.

The second challenge for Feller was communicating to potential hires the benefits of working for a private equity portfolio company. He modified how he hired and retained employees based on the static growth typical in sports and entertainment organizations.

“Almost nothing that we do will make the company bigger,” Feller said. “It’s still going to be a finite team that plays in a finite stadium and will need a finite number of people.”

During the interview process, Feller looks for people who are as excited by the sports and entertainment industry as he is; he explains what he calls the non-financial benefits of the job, including free tickets to basketball games, access to entertainment events and working at a spectacular arena. He said, “It’s always fun to work in an area where you have a personal interest, so for me I really enjoy being around the two industries that I have the most personal affinity for.”

Bob_Feller_sidebarFinancial Planning & Analysis

When Feller joined PS&E, he formed a financial planning and analysis (FP&A) Group with mostly new hires to track financial metrics and implement budget forecasting.

He also implemented a business partner model for the FP&A Group, a successful tactic he saw tech and consumer products companies using. The team consisted of finance business partners who completely understood one aspect of the organization, like concerts or the NBA team, and would help everyone on both the finance and business sides of the company. This allowed each executive to have his or her own direct, single point of contact within finance and eliminated confusion over budgets.

From the accounting and transactional side, the Finance Department was an organization of narrow specialists—too narrow, Feller said. (Accounts Payable was subdivided into Invoicing and Purchasing; Accounts Receivable was subdivided into Billing and Collections.) He instituted cross-training in the Finance Department in the hopes of giving everyone a fair shot at demonstrating their ability to execute within the new structure. The employee responsible for accounts payable under the old structure, for example, showed great potential and grew significantly after she received training in cash management, Feller said.

Planning Ahead

PS&E began intense strategic planning when Feller joined the company. He made an assessment—tried to understand the business, how and why it was changing, and what was driving revenues—and created a plan in a triage-like fashion, focusing on what needed to be done immediately and then what could be solved over the next few months or years.

Luckily, Feller’s background in tech startups helped him as he instituted changes. He estimates that 80 to 90 percent of his job is very similar to his former CFO positions, even though they have been broadly tech, because he still consistently deals with the people, systems and processes for finance, accounting and information technology.

Strategic planning is essential to Feller. He admitted he wouldn’t know what to do without it. It’s how he approaches leadership. Communicating priorities and expectations, both from an upfront, global vision for the company but also in one-on-one settings, is the simplest way to ensure a cohesive organization.

Feller sees a good plan as having four or five levels. It begins by addressing a company’s overall vision and goals before narrowing down to the yearly strategy. From there, the plan can focus on the execution of day-to-day tactics and specific projects.

“To me, that’s how good strategic planning always works, by having both high-level goals and very measurable objectives,” Feller said. “It doesn’t have to be as bureaucratic or corporate as it sounds, but you have to have some structure that people can look back on.”

The structural changes Feller made at PS&E—incorporating a strategic plan, creating a FP&A group and implementing a business partner model—significantly helped to stabilize PS&E’s Finance Department, which gives the CFO some peace of mind, at least until the NBA playoffs begin.

Amanda Sims is a freelance writer based in Chicago, Illinois.

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