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Patriots Fanhood Was His Destiny, and Other CFO Sporting Tales

Here's how some finance chiefs blow off steam during their time away from their hectic offices.
David McCannApril 1, 2015
Patriots Fanhood Was His Destiny, and Other CFO Sporting Tales

Judging strictly by the facts, it seems possible that a tight affinity with the New England Patriots was imprinted on Jim Kelly’s DNA. (Don’t get riled, Buffalo Bills fans. We’re not talking about your Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback.)

Kelly, who’s the CFO at SunPath, an administrator of vehicle service contracts, has been a Patriots season ticket holder for 27 years. A nice run, but it doesn’t exactly make him unique.

Consider this, though: While Kelly was in high school, the Patriots held their summer camp practices at the school’s football field. Not impressed? Try this: While Kelly attended Bryant University in Rhode Island, the Patriots held their summer camp there.

We assume you’re starting to get the point, but throw in this factoid: In 1986, Kelly built a house in suburban Boston 200 yards from Foxboro Stadium in the Boston suburb of Foxborough, where the Patriots played their home games. (The stadium was replaced in 2002 with Gillette Stadium, which occupies virtually the same site.)

Super-fan Kelly, left, with two brothers and a friend at Super Bowl XLIX, 30 seconds after the Patriots' victory.

Super-fan Kelly, left, with two brothers and a friend at Super Bowl XLIX, 30 seconds after the Patriots’ victory.

The kicker: all of it was a coincidence, even the location of the house. Kelly and his wife decided to move to Foxborough because of the quality of the school system, but when he was shown a home from which he could see the stadium just on the other side of a thin wooded area, he was overjoyed.

“I was destined to be a Patriots fan,” Kelly says. “I worked at the [old] stadium when I was 16 as a parking lot attendant, and if the seats weren’t full they’d let us in to watch the game after all the cars were parked. Even when I was a very young kid, the stadium was built with concrete that came from a company that was located right behind our back yard.”

To boot, Kelly has for 12 years served on a committee that pre-reviews all applications for licenses to hold events at the stadium and submits recommendations to the town selectmen for approval.

As a stadium neighbor there are some notable fringe benefits. For one, he gets to forgo the notorious traffic jams heading to and from the stadium on game days. Also, he holds pre-game tailgate parties on his own deck with a regular group of local season ticket holders. It’s usually cold, but no colder than in the parking lot where the other tailgaters are shivering, and the deck is connected to a warm house with bathrooms.

“Being a Patriots fan is a terrific, fun, and a social hobby that goes to my competitive nature and spirit,” Kelly says. He’s seen the Patriots play three times in the Super Bowl, including last February’s triumph over the Seattle Seahawks in Glendale, Ariz.

Kelly, who has spent most of his career as a CFO at technology startups, has developed a deep respect over the years for Patriots coach Bill Belichick and consciously tries to emulate several aspects of his approach to his job.

“First and foremost is the serious nature of things,” he says. “He’s a very hard worker and does things based on well-thought-out, intelligent decisions. As a fan it’s a joy to know that even if he makes a decision that appears bad on the surface, in the end it will work out best for the Patriots. There are also teamwork lessons, how he manages the team so that it works as a team, and gives credit to the team. I apply that professionally, giving credit to my team instead of myself individually or individuals on the team.”

(Editor’s note: Kelly, like the other CFOs profiled below, entered a contest on the website of CBIZ, an accounting and professional services firm, for which they submitted a photo and description of their hobby. Site visitors vote for their favorite contestant. If you’d like to enter for a chance to win a gift basket of Apple devices and other items, you can do so through April 6. See coverage of last year’s contestants here.)

Pedaling for Perspective

When your bicycle racks up more mileage than your car, you’re a pretty serious cycler.

Jeffrey Ishmael, CFO at cyber-security startup Cylance in Irvine, Calif., rides 250 to 300 miles per week, rising at 4:15 every morning to pedal approximately 40 miles before arriving at his office (which he cycles to) at 7:30. “It’s the only time I’m going to get my training in. It’s not going to happen after I get to the office,” he says.

Ishmael in competition mode.

Ishmael at the grueling SPY Belgian Waffle Ride.

The training is necessary because Ishmael is a semi-professional cyclist who often competes in races against full-fledged pros. He rides for a team called Elite Masters (in cycling, “Masters” is an age category, usually composed of riders over 40). Last year he won the Southern California Time Trial Series in a division called CAT 3 (indicating he’s a semi-pro; professionals are in CATs 4 and 5).

He also races annually in what’s been called “the toughest one-day cycling event in the country,” the SPY Belgian Waffle Ride in North San Diego Country. It’s patterned after the Paris–Roubaix, which cycling experts generally agree is the hardest one-day event in the world. In California, about 150 cyclists pedal 130 miles on the county’s back roads (20 miles of which are on dirt), climbing 11,000 feet in the process. “It’s not a day for the faint of heart,” Ishmael says. “It is a brutal day.”

The training sessions give him time to think about solutions to work challenges. “It’s uninterrupted time,” he says. “Nobody’s calling or dropping by my office, and I don’t have a meeting to go to. It gives me perspective.”

For example, Cylance, whose technology aims to detect and thwart hacking attempts before they happen, recently edged out other local companies for a lease at an office facility. Ishmael credits the victory to ideas he developed while cycling.

“We were up against some pretty big incumbents, including a home manufacturer and a bank, and here we were, a relatively new startup that wasn’t as well capitalized as they were,” he says. “Office occupancy is more than 95% in our local market, so building management doesn’t want to take a risk. So how could we make our story compelling enough for them to side with us? Spending two hours a day on the bike gave me the quiet time to think how to present this and work through different scenarios.”

The Business Side of Biking

A somewhat less arduous form of bicycling appeals to Ware Grove, finance chief for contest sponsor CBIZ.

Grove and daughter Erica pause during their tour of Utah.

Grove and daughter Erica pause during their tour of Utah.

He’s a member of the Hudson Velo Club in Hudson, Ohio, near Akron. The club gathers for rides on Wednesday evenings and Saturday and Sunday mornings. With this group, socializing may be almost important as the exercise. There are well over 100 members, but the number of cyclists for any given outing tops out at about 35. While riding they generally stay as a group, stopping together at the tops of hills and at stop signs. On Wednesdays, they gather after the ride for communal food and drink.

For Grove and others, there are also professional benefits from the socialization. “The reason I do it is that I enjoy biking, and riding as a group is fun,” he says. “But it’s also a business network. I don’t know that there are any other CFOs in the group, but there are CEOs, senior operating people, and private equity people. The diversity is very interesting, and you create ties that sometimes lead to unpredictable business opportunities.”

Biking isn’t quite the same as golf, another pastime that Grove pursues avidly, in that you can play with just about anybody and spend four or five quality hours together. In a cycling group, you can’t invite just anyone, like a beginner, to join; he or she would have to be able to keep up with the group.

But within the group, the dynamic is similar. Relationships start with light personal interaction, which eventually morphs into business conversations. “If you’re building trust and a close personal relationship, it can lead somewhere,” Grove says.

While Grove may not be as rugged on a bike as Jeffrey Ishmael, he’s in good shape. Last year he went on a week-long Trek Travel bicycling tour with his 31-year-old daughter, Erica, a U.S. Army captain. The tour totaled about 300 miles, and the group rode for four or five hours each day. “It was a real bonding experience, and we want to do it again this year,” he says. “We may do the Crater Lake/Cascades Oregon trip.”

Water World

The picture Carl Bock submitted for the CBIZ contest shows him in open-mouthed triumph after reeling in a small shark during a fishing expedition to the Florida Gulf Coast with a friend last year. But while he does indeed love fishing, it’s only a component of his overall attachment to water activities.

Godick landed this Mahi Mahi in the Dominican Republic. It was the main feature of a big dinner party.

Bock landed this Mahi Mahi in the Dominican Republic. It was the main feature of a big dinner party (but wasn’t, despite the reference to it above, in the picture he sent to the CBIZ contest; this is simply a better picture).

Bock, CFO at Agrana Fruit USA, a provider of preparations for the dairy industry, took an interest as a kid in the exploits of Jacques Cousteau. That conjured a vision of a career as a microbiologist. Practicalities eventually intervened and he went into business, but his love of the water never abated. Not only does he pursue all types of fishing, Bock finds a place in his life for scuba diving, snorkeling, sailing, and paddleboarding.

Unfortunately, Bock lives in Ohio, so opportunities are limited. So he’s got a deal with his wife. “The deal is, I take her someplace really nice in Mexico, Florida, or the Caribbean. Last year we went as far as French Polynesia, and I got four scuba dives in and caught some barracuda.”

Bock has done a fair amount of deep-sea fishing and hauled in some impressive “trophy” fish. His first sailfish is on the wall in his house. But while he also goes in for less extreme experiences, for him, unlike many fishermen, the main attraction is not relaxation. “I’m never out there just to relax,” he says. “I’m out there with a goal, which is to get a great fish that I’m going to be proud of and can talk about.”

That goal orientation mirrors the way he sees his job. “In fishing, you’re on and off again, which compares to the cyclicality of finance. With fishing you have to force patience, wait for the thrill of the strike and the battle of getting the fish in, especially if it’s large. It’s a lot of hard work, then you get it done, and then you go back into that next mode of waiting for the next battle.”

In finance, there are multiple plans to prepare during the year, such as budgets, five-year plans, and year-end audits. “These are on-again, off-again cycles, just like with fishing,” he says.

Focused concentration is also an element of both vocation and avocation. “When you’re bringing the fish in, you have to be careful not to let slack in the line, and you need a good handle on what the fish is doing, to keep it on the line,” says Bock.

Disconnection

Another finance chief who makes an annual pilgrimage to pursue his passion is Gene Godick, who runs G-Squared Partners, a contract-CFO firm, and currently serves as finance chief of PeopleLinx, a social-media platform for sales teams.

Godick and his wife on their annual "tune-out" trip.

Godick and his wife on their annual “tune-out” trip.

Godick takes off the last two weeks of each year and heads with his wife and two teenage kids to a Western ski resort, usually in Colorado or Utah. “I try to totally disconnect,” he says, but adds that it’s not always possible. One year he raised some equity during the trip. Another time he took a call and was informed his boss had been fired.

But it’s not difficult to detach, because of the scenery and sense of solitude that are inherent in the sport. The whole family looks forward to the trip, for which Godick is thankful. “This is the only vacation we can all agree on — it’s not one that somebody doesn’t want to participate in,” he says.

Godick’s son is “hard core,” he notes, tackling the toughest slopes. “The rest of us are sane,” he says. Still, Godick’s wife tore her arterial collateral ligament one year. The following year, though, she was back on her skis.

Each year it takes a few runs to shake off the rust. “The first day you try to get back into it,” he says. “The last day you pray not to get hurt.”

Like fishing, skiing requires concentration. “I play golf as well,” Godick says. “I’m not good at it, but if I concentrated at golf like I do at skiing, I’d be a much better golfer. Of course, if you don’t concentrate when you’re skiing, the consequences are a lot greater.”