A Portrait of the CFO as a Game Player

Dennis Durkin, the new finance chief of Activision Blizzard, a digital-entertainment company, finds the online games industry &doublequot;incredibl...
David McCannApril 12, 2012

CFO Dennis Durkin says he’s fortunate to be in “one of the most fun businesses there is.” Of course, even finance chiefs who work in staid businesses like insurance are known to say such things. But with Durkin, it rings true.

One month into his new job at entertainment company Activision Blizzard, Durkin, 41, feels blessed. The company owns some of the most popular game and toy franchises in the world. Its World of Warcraft is among the world’s largest “massively multiplayer online games,” with more than 10 million subscribers, and there are more than 40 million users of its Call of Duty line of games.

How Startup CFO Grew Food Company 50% YoY

How Startup CFO Grew Food Company 50% YoY

This case study of JonnyPops’ success highlights the unusual financial and operational strategies that enabled rapid expansion into a crowded and highly competitive frozen treat market. 

Other big hits include Guitar Hero and the new Skylanders, a video game and toy brand whose popularity began skyrocketing almost immediately upon its October 2011 release.

Durkin was an avid video-game player during his youth, college, and early working years, but says he became a “lapsed gamer” after he started a family. That suddenly changed in 2006, when he became CFO of Microsoft’s Xbox division. “I was reinvigorated,” he recalls. 

Combining work and play may be a common syndrome among those employed by game companies. Durkin says that shortly after he got the Xbox job, he noticed his corporate controller looking tired most mornings. “He told me he joined a guild in Korea and he was playing with them online in the middle of the night,” he laughs.

Gaming aside, Durkin likes being part of a dynamic, fast-changing industry where two days are rarely alike. “It’s a creative media, where consumer experience, innovation, and business models come together in a unique way,” he says. “I find it incredibly energizing and fun, and I imagine working in this industry for a long time.”

It’s also a high-margin and hence cash-rich business. In calendar-year 2011, Activision Blizzard scored a net profit of almost $1.1 billion on revenue of just $3.2 billion. “When you can drive scale with intellectual property, engage your audience, and monetize that, it makes for a very good business,” Durkin says.

But therein lies a big risk for the company. With media as ubiquitous as it is today, with phones, tablets, in-car devices, and more competing for consumer mind share, everyone in the audience is always just a click away from doing something else. Activision Blizzard’s business will continue to succeed over the long term only if it continues to build “deep and compelling experiences,” the CFO knows.

Still, with broadband Internet access continuing to spread worldwide and the appetite for social experiences online growing exponentially, there is much room to engage new audiences for games like World of Warcraft and Call of Duty that are built around social interaction among its players. “A business model that allows us to touch our consumers daily presents great opportunities relative to many other media,” Durkin says. And, like many companies, Activision Blizzard is eyeing massive growth in China.

It was a tough decision, Durkin notes, to leave Microsoft, where he helped grow the Xbox business from annual operating losses to profitability of more than $1 billion a year. He says that during his exit interview with CEO Steve Ballmer, he recalled the nonstop swarm of corporate recruiters at Harvard Business School, where Durkin got his MBA. “Those presentations are very sales-y,” he says. “They tell you all about what they’re going to do for your career and all the options you’re going to have. They’re all pretty much the same. But Microsoft delivered on all of the above.”

In fact, he took the job at Activision Blizzard not only to be the head CFO of a dynamic, growing company but also because he perceived a corporate culture similar to Microsoft’s. “The culture is to be hard-working, aggressive, hustling all the time, and really trying to win,” he says. “There’s a scrappiness here, and I felt like it was an environment I could add value to and be successful in.”