A championship CFO's data-driven leadershipThe Super Bowl victors' finance chief helps the team use data to seek the best talent, meet customer preferences, and more.
Dan Crumb, CPA, CGMA, is equal parts voice of reason, risk manager, innovator, and strategic partner as CFO of the Super Bowl-winning Kansas City Chiefs.
He is a leader in the organisation, but he will confess to being a fan as well. That passion for the game helps him connect with the team's numerous repeat customers, including many of the 70,000 fans who turn out on Sunday afternoons at Kansas City's Arrowhead Stadium.
"One of the unique things about working in a professional sports organisation is the connection to the team you are working for," Crumb said. "Seeing the passion and excitement of the fans, it drives me to do the best job I can. I can't think of much that equals the feeling of seeing our fans pack Arrowhead Stadium and make it the loudest outdoor stadium in the world."
He's not exaggerating; Guinness World Records has certified the home crowd's decibel level. That game day atmosphere — notable just as much for noise in the stadium as for the aroma of Kansas City-style pork or other meat on portable grills in the parking lots — is something that makes a game there special, and now the team has the on-field acclaim to match it. Fifty years after the franchise's first National Football League championship, Kansas City defeated the San Francisco 49ers 31—20 on 2 February to win the Super Bowl.
Crumb has been on the job in Kansas City for a decade, and before that he was the CFO for another major US professional sports team, the New Orleans Hornets (now Pelicans) of the National Basketball Association. Crumb grew up a sports fan, but he never figured that he would be able to apply his expertise in finance to a job so close to the action.
Since Crumb was hired in 2010, the team has had seven ten-win seasons in ten years, with seven playoff appearances. In the previous ten seasons, Kansas City posted ten wins just twice, with two playoff appearances. A CFO obviously can't affect a team's win-loss record as much as a Hall of Fame coach or a star quarterback, and the finance job remains mostly the same regardless of the team's performance on the field. But a data-driven approach can help any organisation, and the tools available to leverage data in 2020 make the CFO job quite different from what it was a decade ago, providing new opportunities to make an impact on an organisation.
The theme that emerges throughout Crumb's many responsibilities — he has oversight of finance, IT, strategy and analysis, and more — is his commitment to seeking data-driven answers to challenges the franchise faces. These are issues that are not much different from the obstacles nonsports businesses face every day, such as finding and keeping the right talent, increasing sales, and protecting valuable data.
"We are able to collect, store, retrieve, and analyse so much more about our customers, suppliers, business relationships, and practices," Crumb said. "Technology has enabled us to accomplish more through automation and efficiency and at the same time increasing accuracy through pulling data directly from the source."
Any organisation is only as good as its talent, and the IT team Crumb oversees embarked on a data effort designed to improve the ability to identify the strengths and weaknesses of current and future players. About six years ago, staff that Crumb supervises built a custom database for the football operations staff, which includes head coach Andy Reid, general manager Brett Veach, more than a dozen assistant coaches, as well as scouts and analysts. The database has information on prospective players not yet eligible for the NFL and on every player for the other 31 teams.
"It gives the football staff the resources necessary to properly scout and have all the information on players they need in one place, easy to access and with a platform that's easy to use and easy to store and retrieve data from," Crumb said.
In addition to oversight of data on NFL players, the departments Crumb manages have data on the Chiefs' customers, from those wanting a Super Bowl T-shirt or player jersey through an online store to those longtime, regular fans who show up each game day, people the team calls its season ticket "members". Data on customer preferences helps the team create a more satisfying experience on game days and throughout the year, reinforcing the franchise's reputation with its loyal fans.
Crumb said a framework of people, systems, and processes protects the customer data. Collaboration with other departments is one of several steps the finance function takes to ensure the organisation has strong cybersecurity controls in place. Providing those departments with sound principles, along with the right resources, training, and processes, goes a long way toward mitigating or eliminating cyber risks.
"It's one of the most important risks that we protect against, as a cybersecurity incident can be damaging to our entire organisation in many ways, including reputational damage," Crumb said.
The role has changed, yet it remains the same
The Chiefs finished the 2019 regular season with 12 wins and four losses, and then they had two additional home games in the January playoffs. Even if the record had been 4—12 with no playoff appearance, Crumb said, the role of finance would have been the same. "As we do have a connection to the team and our fans, we do feel the emotions of those ups and downs," he said. "We still have the same work to do, and a big part of that job is to be prepared for success. So, regardless of the record, we are always preparing for success and doing the fundamental work that has to be done."
Compliance and innovation might not always go hand in hand, but Crumb said the two can be intertwined. For example, he welcomes feedback from his finance team on ways to make compliance efforts more efficient. "Compliance is a core piece that you can't compromise on," he said. "You can be innovative in how you achieve compliance, and we always ask our people to find the most effective and efficient way in doing this. We exhibit leadership by providing guidance and the systems, tools, and technology to achieve compliance in our organisation."
One recent example was the creation of an automated system for the signing of waivers by outside groups holding events at the stadium. Another, Crumb said, was the digitisation and visualisation of the organisation's enterprise risk assessment, which can be customised with a new sorting capability. "We were able to present the compiled data in a very flexible, dynamic format which is always accessible to our executive team," he said.
The rewards and challenges of leadership
One obvious reward of leadership for Crumb was attending the Chiefs' Super Bowl victory at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida. It was not his first Super Bowl, however. He worked as event security as a university student at the Louisiana Superdome for the 1986 game, Super Bowl XX. The sports enthusiast never thought he'd get back to that big stage.
Crumb said the main challenges of leadership today are managing change and trying to find balance. "Times are changing so fast, and there's so much disruption," he said. "How to navigate that change goes back to developing trust and having the people you lead trust that you're going to lead them down the right path."
The roles we aspire to can at times be all-encompassing, so it's important to remember that life is more than work, he said. "We're so connected today, so it's important to maintain balance."
The most rewarding part of leadership for Crumb is simple: "Seeing your team achieve success."
Crumb saw the organisation reach the pinnacle of its sport, and he and his team had a role in making it happen.
Advice for young finance professionals
Dan Crumb has been a CFO since 1994. He offered the following advice for finance professionals who aspire to be a CFO one day:
- Be adaptable to change and embrace technology.
- Be committed to lifelong learning and innovation. “Don’t let that term innovation become more than what it is,” Crumb said. “It’s nothing more than finding a better way to do things. Always try to find a better way.”
- Don’t underestimate the importance of building the right culture. “Trust is the core foundation upon which you build everything,” Crumb said. Right now, for him, emphasising culture includes reminding the Chiefs’ staff to appreciate the good times: “You hear the phrase ‘live in the moment’. If there was ever a time to live in the moment, this is it.”
- Keep in touch with your professional network. A single conversation with a former manager helped him get an interview with the New Orleans Hornets (who were renamed the Pelicans in 2013), a role that helped him be considered for the CFO job with the Chiefs.
For more from FM's interview with Dan Crumb, listen to the podcast "Success Secrets From the Super Bowl Champs' CFO".
Neil Amato is an FM magazine senior editor. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact him at Neil.Amato@aicpa-cima.com.