“Sam Kennedy, our current CEO, was taking over. And Sam was the one who said to me, ‘Hey, Tim, what do you think about overseeing the finance department?’ And I remember vividly saying, ‘but I'm not an accountant, and I don't have formal finance and accounting training; my degree is in mechanical engineering.’ And he said, ‘that's perfect.’”
Tim Zue, born and raised in the Boston area and an avid Red Sox fan, is working his dream job. As the finance chief of his hometown’s favorite team, a recipient of the Sports Business Journal’s top 40 under 40, and a father of three, Zue’s journey from being an eighth-grade math teacher who took a chance by taking an unpaid summer internship with the Red Sox, to now holding the CFO spot nearly two decades later, is inspiring.
During the development of his career with the Red Sox, he has had a front-row seat, literally, to the franchise’s journey through overcoming a near century-long “curse” to being a champion and sustainable competitor. Zue has had a direct impact on the Red Sox’s ability to captivate, lead, and bring together a city that has gone through ups and downs on and off the field during his time with the team — and has four World Series rings to prove it.
From his office at Fenway Park in which he spends most of his working time overseeing three departments of about fifty people, Zue, much like many CFOs, is balancing task delegation, technology implementation, talent management, and more. While according to him, baseball knowledge “probably” isn’t required to be a CFO of an MLB franchise, it makes him that much better and has helped him build a team around him to which he credits his success.
CFO and executive vice president, Boston Red Sox
- First CFO position: 2017
- Notable previous companies:
- Patrick Lyndon School
- Bain & Company
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
ADAM ZAKI: You oversee a lot of people doing a lot of different things. How would you describe your leadership style?
TIM ZUE: I’ve learned over time that you must delegate. In my earlier years with the team, when I was more of an individual contributor, I just rolled up my sleeves and tried to do everything myself. And in many cases, I thought, ‘Oh, I'll just do that myself, it'll be easier to do it that way’. And when you oversee 40 or 50 people, you have to learn to sort of hand over the keys to most of the day-to-day work. And I've done a much better job at that.
The other part of my leadership approach is the teacher in me. I've tried to keep focused on being empathetic and making sure my employees know that I truly care about them, not just as an employee but as a person. I focus on getting to know them and their family, what makes them tick, what makes them happy, and looking for ways to ensure they're constantly coming to work happy.
If I'm in my office doing work, or even if I'm in a meeting, and an employee shows up and knocks on the door, and says, ‘Hey, do you have a minute to talk?’ almost exclusively, the answer is, yes, no matter what. If they think something is important enough to come to talk to me, it must be important to them.
You’ve been with the Red Sox for over 20 years. Besides the glamour of being a part of a Major League Baseball team, what has made you stick around for so long?
ZUE: The first thing that comes to mind is people. All of those around me, like John Henry, Tom Werner, and Mike Gordon, the three principal owners of Fenway Sports Group who own the Red Sox, and Sam Kennedy, my direct boss, our CEO. I feel like I couldn't ask for a better sort of support system above me from a leadership and mentorship standpoint.
The other part I love about my job is coming to work every day because it’s always different and never gets boring. There are different challenges that we're addressing, and as a big Boston sports and Red Sox fan myself, the idea that I get to sort of work on solving problems and challenges that ultimately help the Red Sox maximize revenue so they can maximize payroll and win World Series championships — it's just kind of amazing to me.
You’re an engineer by trade and a former math teacher. A very non-traditional CFO, nonetheless. What aspects do you bring to the role that may be considered unique?
ZUE: I sit in meetings when we talk about marketing strategy, ticket sales, and events, and to do so, you must have the underlying understanding of how Red Sox fans tick, and I know what does because I am one. To understand how Red Sox fans think and feel when the team does well and poorly, I put myself in their shoes. I follow all the writers on social media, I listen to all the different interviews of players; I'm in the middle of it.
I think in order to get the whole understanding of the brain of a Red Sox fan, if you are one by nature, it makes that part of it easy. It's like, I am a customer of our product, and therefore it makes it easier to think about it from both a financial and marketing perspective.
What are some baseball-specific KPIs, and how do wins impact your forecasts and projections?
ZUE: We try not to focus on wins, because we know we have very little control over that on the business side of things. We don't really work on the roster construction and putting the team together. However, fans want to come down and watch a winning team in post-season contention, so we root for wins just as much as the baseball side of the company because they help us, too.
Among lots of things, we keep an eye on average attendance. We're looking at how many people are buying tickets to each game relative to our budget and relative to last year’s expectations. We keep track of the average ticket price and average spend on food and beverage. We also look at how much people are spending when they come to the ballpark and how that compares to previous periods.
We're also tracking the number of events we're hosting in different spaces on non-game days, the revenue from those events, and how many people are coming to take tours of Fenway Park. We track all sorts of things that help us understand the health of the business. On the cost side of things, we compare labor costs and other related data to previous seasons.
What are your thoughts on fintech products and the incorporation of AI and advanced analytics in both finance and the baseball field?
ZUE: I come from a family of computer programmers, I am one of four boys and out of my [family], four of six of [us] have computer science degrees and one of my brothers has a mechanical engineering degree. So, I have paid attention to new technologies like ChatGPT. I think there are a lot of practical uses that we could potentially think about. I would say here at the Red Sox we have not yet dipped our toes in the water of what those would be, though.
That being said, we embrace technology and automation on the business side of things. Our finance operations, especially tasks surrounding interoffice duties like processing invoices, have greatly improved over the years thanks to the technology we’ve invested in.
We have not yet used a whole lot of bots, however, like the ones these software companies are pitching now, where you can eliminate human resources by automating processes. We've studied it and looked into it, and I'm not opposed to it, but I just feel like we actually still are a pretty small team in terms of the volume of things. Some of these newer technologies don’t make sense to us right now.
"On the baseball and business side, we pride ourselves in decision-making being collaborative between the old school and new school ways of doing things."
CFO, Boston Red Sox
This approach also translates to the baseball side of things, too. There was a team in the league that eliminated their entire scouting department and relied solely on technology and film in their player evaluations to scout players in a much cheaper way. They did this because they thought, ‘Who needs these former players who are driving around watching guys and writing down notes on pads of paper?’
We don't subscribe to that mindset. We believe that it's a balance; we believe that we can collect data on players that highlight certain things, but sometimes you have to look and talk to a kid and get a feel for whether or not he has the motivation and drive to be a superstar. A computer is probably not going to tell you that. So, I think both on the baseball and business side, we pride ourselves in decision-making being collaborative between the old school and new school ways of doing things.