Date posted: 01/12/2016 6 min read

Meet the CA leading the NRL's Melbourne Storm

As the NRL finals heat up, one CA will be paying even closer attention than most

In brief

  • The Storm is a sporting powerhouse in Australia, with one of the highest fan bases of a domestic Australian sporting team
  • Running a profitable professional club involves successfully differentiating it in Australia’s highly competitive sporting landscape
  • Sport is such a great vehicle to bring communities together and raise awareness of important social issues

Danielle Smith CA has made a career out of her passion for sport. Having started at a Big 4 accounting firm, she is now an executive director and the chief operating officer (COO) of rugby league team Melbourne Storm — home to the “Big 3”, the superstar trio of Cameron Smith, Cooper Cronk and Billy Slater.

The Storm is a sporting powerhouse in Australia, with one of the highest fan bases of a domestic Australian sporting team, a massive social media following and a team that has played in nearly all of the finals series each year since it entered the National Rugby League in 1998.

The team boasts Kiwi skipper Jesse Bromwich in addition to Australian Kangaroos captain Cameron Smith, who’s widely referred to in NRL circles as “the accountant” for his relatively slim build and conservative appearance. Yet Smith the footballer leaves the financials to Smith the COO, who doubles as the club’s CFO.

The 43-year-old is a Victorian who grew up with a passion for Australian Rules Football, but is now a lover of rugby league.

Smith, who has 20 years’ experience, including 14 years in sport and major events, linked with the Storm in late 2011 and had a major involvement in the transition to private ownership after News Limited sold the club in 2013. In recognition of her contribution to the Storm, she was added to the club’s board as an executive director two years ago. At the time, Storm Chairman Bart Campbell said: “Danielle’s appointment is just reward for her ability and her commitment to the club and she adds further financial and governance expertise to the Board.”

First moves

Smith completed a commerce and arts double degree at Melbourne’s Monash University. “My arts major was Japanese and I took it at a time when there was plenty of talk about the benefits of being able to speak an Asian language,” she says.

This proved fortuitous, as it helped land her a job at KPMG.

“It was through their vacation program and they told me that the Japanese element appealed to them. I haven’t really had the opportunity to use it much since, but it helped me with my first start.”

At KPMG, Smith worked in the audit division, with her time spread between clients in banking, manufacturing, mining and sport. Her sport client was the Fitzroy Football Club, which today lives on through AFL club the Brisbane Lions.

“Working on the Fitzroy audit gave me the thought of a potential career in sport. It was just before they merged with Brisbane. I was 23 and relatively inexperienced but I thought I could make improvements and add value in such an environment.”

In 1997 she successfully obtained an accountant role at the Geelong Football Club.

“It was at a time when the AFL was starting to become a lot more professional and Geelong was keen to develop more robust financial systems and processes,” Smith says.

“They were very keen to recruit someone with audit experience and I was excited about being able to contribute to a business over a longer period.

"The club was under severe financial strain and I gained invaluable experience working with a newly appointed CEO and CFO on the development of the club’s first real business plan, which included restructuring debt facilities. This foundation work played a part in setting Geelong on its path to financial turnaround and it is now one of the most successful clubs on and off the field in the AFL.

“Working at Geelong also provided me with some great opportunities including being able to present to a high profile board at a very young age.”

Games on

Smith’s next move in 2001 was to become the financial planning and analysis manager of the Melbourne 2006 Commonwealth Games. Perhaps surprisingly, this five-year role is Smith’s longest to date.

At “Melbourne 2006” her key responsibility was to manage the A$500m budget, which she did by deploying 12 finance business partners across key operational areas.

“It was a very challenging role because you didn’t have any historical data to work from. Whilst we had some access to the financials of other events, they only provide guidance on the key revenue drivers and the sort of costs to expect — each event is so different in terms of its existing facilities, capital investment and temporary overlay requirements. Your role is to continually manage risk and financial exposure.”

Storm rolls in

After a three-year stint as the ANZ CFO of a USA headquartered business (Whirlpool, the world’s largest whitegoods manufacturer), Smith started at the Storm – just 18 months after the club was famously penalised in 2010 for salary cap breaches.

“During that 18-month period, the new CEO and management focused on sorting out the salary cap and associated tax issues, and rebuilding the brand.

“When I was appointed, the club was ready to move to the next stage of its transformation — to improve the financial viability of the club and take a longer term strategic approach to its operations. The new board was also very focused on further improving the new compliance culture, and with my role at Whirlpool, I guess I provided them with a strong mix of global corporate expertise, together with experience in the sport industry.”

Running a profitable professional club involves successfully differentiating it in Australia’s highly competitive sporting landscape. While the All Blacks, the NZ Warriors, a handful of Super Rugby teams (and to a lesser extent the Silver Ferns, Phoenix and Black Caps) virtually monopolise the professional sporting market in New Zealand, Australia has one of the highest numbers of professional sporting teams per capita globally, according to Smith.

“In Melbourne it’s even more competitive with 18 professional sporting teams servicing roughly six million Victorians. As a comparison, California has 21 teams servicing a population of 39 million.

“You have to take a corporate approach with respect to revenue generation and financial sustainability, but balance that with the need to keep satisfying your fans and investing in your football department to remain competitive on the field so that the team has the best possible chance of achieving its ultimate objective — to win premierships.”

Smith says the Storm has focused heavily on building a strong corporate culture to support the on-field operations, which are led by long-term coach Craig Bellamy.

“We are fortunate to have a very experienced board and shareholder group who are highly successful business people in their own right, complemented by a highly skilled management team, who have worked across a broad range of industries. When we recruit, seeking out highly-qualified and experienced people is essential. But equally important is ensuring that the person will engage with the club’s vision and purpose, and is able to demonstrate they hold our values, otherwise they will not fit into our culture.”

It is an intense year-round business — there is no ‘off season’ behind the scenes.

No off season

Smith recommends a career in the sport business.

“It has become an increasingly professional industry over time” says Smith, adding that she now has two chartered accountants, a CPA and a lawyer as part of her team.

“As a chartered accountant, your finance and governance skills are a great asset, but to be successful you also need a strong commercial and operational focus. It is the commercial aspects that I find most rewarding, being able to contribute to the club’s off-field success in a highly competitive environment.

“It’s also fantastic to be part of the celebrations that come with on-field success and see the positive impact it has on the fans and society generally. Sport is such a great vehicle to bring communities together and raise awareness of important social issues.”

However, Smith adds that while “it can be an exciting industry to be part of, it is not all ‘glitz and glamour’ — you have to work really hard with fewer resources. It is an intense year-round business — there is no ‘off season’ behind the scenes.”

To this point, Smith continues to work hard diversifying the club’s operations. Last year she led the acquisition for an investment by an associated entity in a hospitality venue. The venue now also falls under her responsibility — financially and operationally. This year she is project managing the formation of a new professional netball team based on the Sunshine Coast (where Storm also has a football presence) in Netball Australia’s new national league, which is set to open in 2017.

When she started with the Storm, it was A$10 million in the red.

“It’s now down to a couple of million dollars but with our non-football investments, we’re about break even.”

To underline just how far the former auditor has come, Smith represented Storm at Netball Australia’s press conference to announce its new league and broadcast deal and more recently was even involved in choosing a new coach for the netball team.

“I look at some of things I do now, and never imagined that this is where my chartered accountant qualification would take me.”

This article was first published in the September 2016 issue of Acuity magazine.

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