The Dallas Stars’ situation couldn’t have been much worse when Toni May started as vice president for finance and administration. The team had missed the National Hockey League (NHL) playoffs for several years, but the organizational structure off the ice was also in dire straits. The coach was fired, and the NHL was managing the team. In 2011, lenders voted for the Dallas Stars to file for bankruptcy and to sell it at auction.
That’s when May, who had a background in public accounting with a publicly traded company, was brought in to turn the team around. She converted the Dallas Stars into one of the fastest growing sports organizations in the United States.
“I knew coming in it was going to be a challenge, but I didn’t fully understand how big of a challenge,” May says. She thought it would take a year to clean up the finances, but getting back on track took double that time.
ASK YOUR FINANCIAL LEADER THESE QUESTIONS, BY TONY MAY
- How much “blue sky” or stretch is in the budget and forecast, and how and where are the amounts expected to be achieved? This helps to set a realistic understanding of the company’s performance as well as the risk involved with achieving those expectations.
- What are our cash cycle needs? Basic financial statements don’t tell the whole truth. Companies in growth mode will consume cash that may not immediately show up on the financial statements.
- Will finance leaders join our contract negotiations? Slight changes in the language can improve accounting treatment, enhance cash flows, or ease compliance requirements.
May looked at every single process the company had to find out what was working and what needed to be fixed. The solution took the form of a different accounting system and a new staff managing the numbers.
“It’s really important to have a strong finance department, especially at a growth company,” May says. “When you’re putting money into a company, you have to understand which way it’s going.”
Even if the numbers are bad, it’s important not to hide from them, she says.
“Be as honest as possible,” May says. “I don’t want people telling me what they think I want to hear and then going off and doing something else.”
She put in controls for each department and added rules about handling cash to increase the accountability.
“When you have people being held responsible for something, they tend to spend more time looking at it,” May says. “Maybe they will think twice before they incur that expense.”
Transforming a company from the bottom line up wasn’t easy, but it’s been worth it, she says. “I got the opportunity to come into a company on the upswing, which is always a fun ride,” May says. “It’s a lot of fun to actually get in here, spend six months killing yourself, and see the product of that hard work.”
Coming to a sports team, where the processes are generally more casual, was also a big change for May. Working in the upper management of a sports team is rare for a woman, but she says the Dallas Stars has been extremely supportive. May has always been a sports fan and loved being a part of the company’s turnaround, she says.
Now the Dallas Stars looks like a different organization. The team leads the NHL in new tickets sold, the number of season ticket holders has grown, and the number of employees has risen. May says more good news is on the way.
The Dallas Stars made three acquisitions in 2015, adding two skating rinks to increase participation in the area. It also acquired its American Hockey League affiliate team.
That success all starts with the numbers, May says, adding that consistent numbers are the foundation for a strong company.
“If something starts to derail you, you can identify it quickly,” she says. “You can see trends and understand if you need to shift your strategy.”
It also helps owners know what they are getting for their investments. That means having good reports, strong forecasts, and being able to see how much money was put in and its results. If a company spends more money on advertising and later sees an increase in ticket sales, for example, it will prove a strong return on investment.
“Every department head gets reports they can rely on, where before they would go months without knowing what the reports were,” May says. “Now they have control over their results and for the money they are spending.”
The goal is to become profitable and then expand beyond Dallas, according to May. With very few other NHL teams in the South, she says there’s a large market area to go into Louisiana, Oklahoma, and New Mexico. Recently, the team acquired its minor league affiliate team in Cedar Park near Austin, Texas.
“There aren’t a lot of other hockey teams to compete with at the national level,” she says. “So we can start to expand our footprint.”
All lines are trending upward for the Dallas Stars. Yet accounting should be a partner to the rest of the company, according to May.
She doesn’t have an accounting degree, but her bachelor’s degree in business management and master of business administration help May understand the operational, marketing, and human resources sides of the company, and the challenges the company faces.
May is also treasurer for the organization’s foundation, which focuses on three pillars: youth hockey, youth engagement, and youth health and education. The foundation puts together fundraising events and gives out grants for community projects. Last year’s casino night brought in 600 people and helped fund projects, such as playgrounds and Hockey Fights Cancer.
“It’s important that you understand the whole company and not just the accounting behind it,” May says.