- FCA Stephen Dawes plays a leading role in improving the form of Port Adelaide on and off the field.
- Joining the flagging club in 2012 was a risk but membership has doubled and the club is back in the black.
- Dawes was awarded a CA ANZ fellowship in 2017 and leads an Aboriginal training scheme for the club.
Antipodeans are widely famed for our collective sporting passion. So, on the face of it, an offer to join a professional sporting club as its Chief Operating Officer would usually be a no-brainer for a sports-loving CA.
However, the AFL’s Port Adelaide wasn’t a winning club in 2012 when CA Stephen Dawes accepted the challenging role as its COO. The proud club that has won 36 South Australian league premierships as the Port Adelaide Magpies and an AFL flag in 2004, had a turnover of $36.6 million but a consolidated operating loss after grants of $2.12 million. “There was a time in late 2012 where it was unclear whether Port Adelaide Football Club (PAFC) had a long-term future as an AFL club or as a business,” Dawes recalls.
Given its parlous financial status, Dawes an avid AFL fan, was naturally cautious about linking with the club known as the “Power”. His powerful resume included senior finance roles with London Stock Exchange, Shell, and NYSE-listed Genesee and Wyoming’s Australian subsidiary. Dawes recalls: “I just happened to see a role advertised for a COO and the way it read; it didn’t mention it was Port Adelaide. It was when I made it through to the short list of candidates that it turned out to be Port Adelaide.”
“I just wanted to become a part of it.”
The University of Adelaide graduate was excited about the chance to be a part of the AFL, but cautious about whether it was the “right opportunity”. Apart from its financial predicament, the Power struggled to win games; membership dropped to below 30,000; and crowds were down to an average of 19,911 a match. However, the FCA took the leap of faith after Port Adelaide CEO Keith Thomas presented his plans for the business and the challenges. Dawes remembers fondly: “I just wanted to become a part of it.”
Starting in footy
Dawes was recruited at the start of 2013 to work with Thomas and new chairman David Koch as a critical adviser on the aggressive rollout of the club’s transformation program. This aimed to return Port Adelaide to financial and on-field strength. The strategy leaned on several critical pillars, including:
- implementing a ‘One Club’ strategy, which unified two brands – the 150-year-old Port Adelaide Magpies with the Power
- finding a way to invest in and rebuild the core product – football
- getting supporters and members to trust the club again
- restoring the trust of corporate Australia to establish the club as a great way to leverage their brands
- investing in and attracting great people to deliver the strategy
“I have worked side by side with Keith to deliver all aspects of this strategy, and rebuild our business,” says Dawes. “My role has been to ensure the department level managers were clear on the standards and contributions required to achieve success, provide mentoring and leadership to help them succeed, to re-shape the people and resources required to achieve success.
“I’ve also ensured our financial systems and reporting provide a clear and precise picture of our progress at all times.”
Back to Adelaide Oval
Securing an excellent stadium deal is the financial lifeblood of any professional sporting organisation and Dawes was responsible for negotiating and reviewing contracts that saw the transition of the business from Football Park to Adelaide Oval in 2014. To be fair, the wheels of change were set in motion by former CEO Mark Haysman and the board, according to Dawes. Haysman pushed the club to leave the unpopular Football Park in West Lakes, a western suburb of Adelaide, and play its matches at the popular Adelaide Oval. “While Mark was not able to see this through, without his commitment to push this move, PAFC was facing a difficult financial future.”
The Oval deal played a significant role in the turnaround of the business, which has gone from reporting million-dollar losses in 2013 and 2014 to recording three years of consecutive profit in 2015–17. Membership has gone past 60,000, and match-day crowds have averaged 40,000, which is double the numbers in 2012 when the club fumbled along at Football Park. The club finished fifth in 2017, with some commentators predicting Port Adelaide will improve on this result this season. With good reason, Dawes contends: “The future now looks strong.”
Port Adelaide’s Aboriginal program
Port Adelaide Football Club’s guiding mantra since 1870 is simple: “We Exist to Win Premierships and Make Our Community Proud.”
To deliver on this refrain, the PAFC created an independent legal entity, Power Community Ltd (PCL) that employs 11 full-time staff. Programs focus on youth, aboriginal and multicultural offerings and reach a variety of audiences from those in metropolitan Adelaide to remote communities in South Australia and the Northern Territory. Dawes has acted as Executive Director of PCL and takes immense pride in the leadership position the club has taken in driving education and employment outcomes for Aboriginal youth. “If Aboriginal students can complete year 12 and enrol in further education or join the workforce, this helps to significantly reduce the gap between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians.”
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Supporting the Aboriginal community has played out well for Port Adelaide’s footy goals, thanks to the on-field deeds of Paddy Ryder, Chad Wingard, newly recruited Steven Motlop and past players Peter Burgoyne, Shaun Burgoyne, Daniel Motlop and Gavin Wanganeen to name but a few.
A key message to staff and supporters of the Port Adelaide Football Club is that building an elite business requires a level of commitment beyond that needed by many organisations. “We are the custodians of this organisation for our 60,000 members and over 300,000 supporters,” he says. “They all have high expectations of us. We have high expectations of ourselves, and the output of our efforts is highly visible.”
Consequently, some stakeholders are no longer part of the PAFC fold. “Our message has been that to achieve transformational change, we need to be comfortable being uncomfortable,” Dawes says. “It means that we have lost some people along the way, but we have pushed forward regardless.”
CA passport to the world
Being a CA exposed Dawes to a broad range of businesses and industries, but also a diverse group of CEOs, boards and leadership styles. “A CA career has allowed me to think through the impact of strategy and decision-making on the financial outcomes of a business,” notes Dawes. “It has taught me to think about the right questions to ask and to help consider and mitigate the risks involved with a project or decision.”
His training as a CA has also taught him how to condense complex and sophisticated information into a format that allows a CEO and the board to make quick and decisive decisions.
Dawes received a CA ANZ Fellowship in December 2017. “I’m proud to call myself a chartered accountant as the qualification has enabled me to work in primary production, hospitality, financial services, rail and now elite sport.
“The CA has allowed me work and live internationally and develop a fantastic business and social network. To be granted the designation of Fellow is humbling and hopefully reflects that on some small level, I have given back to a profession and the community that has given me so much opportunity.”