Jelena Alonso is an accountant by trade and a storyteller by vocation. As vice president and chief accounting officer at the New York Racing Association (NYRA), she believes her role is not only numbers and statistics but also to weave the data into the larger business narrative.
Her unique approach originated from her background in music. At first planning to pursue a degree in music theatre, Alonso quickly realized she was on the wrong path, signed up for some business classes, and learned she had a knack for accounting. This was not as big of a surprise as it would seem. “Music and math are very similar—they use the same side of the brain and require you to count,” Alonso says. “They’re both about creative storytelling. Music tells a story set to the counts. Accounting tells a business story set to numbers.”
She began her career as an auditor at PricewaterhouseCoopers. While there, she learned she wanted to be in-house, where she could influence strategy and be an agent for positive change. “I audited companies in many different industries,” she says. “A big aha moment was when I realized that I was always checking someone else’s work. I regularly saw processes and account schedules and reconciliations that could be improved. I had an itch to fix things.”
Alonso’s philosophy of accounting as storytelling deepened at PwC. “The CFOs and accountants who caught my attention were the ones who really told a story and took me away from the numbers,” Alonso says. When she began delivering reports in her career, she followed suit, always referencing the larger narrative behind the numbers. “I never want to just say ‘revenue went up 2 percent’—that’s boring! I want to say why it went up. I always try to dig a little deeper and get to the color behind it.”
“Music and math are both about creative storytelling. Music tells a story set to the counts. Accounting tells a business story set to numbers.”
When an opportunity opened up at NYRA in 2009, she jumped at the chance. “I’m a Long Island girl and was eager to get out of the city and be able to work on this beautiful racetrack,” she says. She relied on her background in auditing to quickly get up to speed at NYRA, going line by line to understand where each item came from and how it fit into the larger business.
In her current role, Alonso oversees all accounting functions, as well as financial compliance with regulations, and cost savings for NYRA, which operates three racetracks. Her accounting oversight includes the finances stemming from the organization’s racetrack, gambling, concessions, TV broadcasting, parking, and ticket sales operations.
In other words, it’s a complex business. “There’s a lot of information from all these different areas that needs to be captured and reported correctly,” Alonso says, noting that as a quasi-governmental agency and a gambling institution, is heavily regulated. “There are many statutes I have to be compliant with regarding racing, gambling, and anti-money laundering laws. Having so much money moving through here translates to a big focus on internal controls, particularly over financial reporting.”
Alonso always has an eye out for process improvements and works with CEO David O’Rourke and other senior managers to drive strategy and innovation. In reporting numbers, she still relies on storytelling and has taught her team to do the same. “It’s important to be technically correct as an accountant, but I also teach my team to really understand the results so they can tell the larger business story behind the numbers. It’s not just about putting numbers in place, it’s about translating them into business trends, driving operational efficiencies, and improving profits. It’s about making the story timely and interesting and talking to the audience in English, not financial language.”
“Anytime I ask why we do something a certain way and I hear this is how it’s always been done, that triggers me to think there’s a better and more efficient way forward.”
Alonso’s improvements to business operations at NYRA include her work on an RFP for software to manage and centralize sponsorships sales, which include seating, signage, races, and TV spots, among other things. “With new revenue recognition rules, it’s important to capture all the data in one place so we can account for it correctly,” she says. This software will also help operations run more smoothly. Salespeople will always have accurate information on what’s available for sponsorship at what rate and individual departments, from ticketing to the TV crew, can fulfill sponsorships as contracted. The software is expected to roll out in 2020.
Racing is an old business, and Alonso relishes the challenge to update and fix outdated, inefficient, or broken processes. “I’m still constantly asking questions,” she says. “Anytime I ask why we do something a certain way and I hear this is how it’s always been done, that triggers me to think there’s a better and more efficient way forward.”
Alonso doesn’t see her career at NYRA as all that different from her original aspirations in musical theatre. “Belmont Park is right outside my door, and my office overlooks the paddocks. I get to see those beautiful animals every single day,” she says. “I really think of our business as putting on a show.”