Bigger than The Games

With a budget of $1.4 billion and a catalyst for other investments, the Toronto 2015 Pan Am and Parapan Am Games have left their mark long after the medals were awarded

For Barb Anderson, the position was a dream job. To be CFO for the Toronto 2015 Pan Am and Parapan Games was something she couldn’t pass up. “It presents the opportunity to leave a true legacy,” she says.

Anderson has been the games’ CFO since 2010, when the organization began putting the event together.

The Pan Am Games are a major summer sporting event in which thousands of athletes from the Americas participate in a variety of competitions every four years in the year preceding the summer Olympics. They go hand-in-hand with the Parapan Am Games, a multisport event held after every Pan Am Games for athletes with physical disabilities. All 15 Parapan sports are qualifiers for the summer Olympics, as are 19 of the 36 Pan Am sports.

“It’s a very important sporting event for summer athletes—a sort of dress rehearsal for the Olympics,” Anderson says. “It’s helping develop the [paraplegic-sports] movement, which is gaining a great deal of traction in Canada but is still underdeveloped relative to able-bodied tournaments.”

A karate demonstration, one of the 51 sports at the event.
A karate demonstration, one of the 51 sports at the event. Photo by VisualBass Photography

This past year’s games were the third Pan Am Games hosted by Canada (after 1967 and 1999, both in Winnipeg) but the first hosted by the province of Ontario. The Toronto 2015 Games were the largest multisport international games that Canada has ever hosted—two to three times the size of the winter Olympics and smaller only than the summer Olympics and Asian Games. More than 10,000 athletes and officials from 41 countries competed in 51 sports in more than 30 venues. With a budget of $1.4 billion, excluding another $1.4 billion invested in the development of the West Donlands for the Athletes’ Village, the event has been a catalyst for other infrastructure investments such as the Pearson-Union Express, a train that connects the airport to downtown Toronto.

“To be part of something that would create an amazing legacy for the region—not just in regard to the sheer amount of sporting infrastructure being developed, but in regard to the social and economic catalysts the games are—is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Anderson says. “As a result of these games, we believe that Ontario’s GDP will increase by $3.7 billion up to 2017, and 26,000 jobs will be created. And we’ll be engaging 23,000 volunteers who will be trained on how to launch multisport games and large events, and they’ll be assets who will stay in the community once the games have come and gone. That’s just inspiring.”

It’s also challenging. The games, when you think about it, are akin to a start-up business running for a short period of time—roughly six years—and then shutting down. And the different phases require different skill sets. In the first and second year of planning, the challenge is creating the personality and scope of the games; when the games take place, the challenge becomes integrating roughly 1,000 employees into the culture in a short period of time. And every element has its own cadence and speed.

Pachi the Porcupine, the mascot of the Toronto 2015 Pan Am and Parapan Am Games.
Pachi the Porcupine, the mascot of the Toronto 2015 Pan Am and Parapan Am Games. Photo by Sue Holland

“It’s a complex project to manage from start to finish,” Anderson says. “But every year, we learn and plan more and get down to another level of detail, such that in late 2014 and 2015, we were in full execution mode, putting plans in place. But then we need to ensure we manage the budget, where surprises can always arise.”

As CFO, Anderson is responsible for finance, procurement, project management, information technology, office services, and risk management—the right grouping of responsibilities to support good governance of a project of this size, Anderson says. It’s not all that different from what a CFO at a traditional company does. “You have a finance shop,” she says. “The difference is that we have a simpler treasury area because our funding comes from sponsors, ticket sales, two levels of government, and 16 municipalities. And we also have $170 million worth of sponsorships in cash or value in kind, and the management of that is unique. We have to make sure we value and manage those sponsorships properly so that we can record them as revenue.”

But Anderson’s past makes her well suited for the endeavour. She was previously involved in third-party logistics and business development, so she knows the importance of understanding all components of a big project—costing it properly, guarding against scope creep, and having appropriate change-management mechanisms in place. Thirty years of managing people has also helped her overcome the organizational challenge of running a business that doubles or triples in size every year. Then there’s the flexibility and adaptability that comes from working with many organizations at a crossroads. “A great deal of change had to be managed in my past positions, and that was similar to the constant state of flux that exists with the games,” she says.

With the games now over, Anderson’s role still hasn’t ended. Although she was officially finished at the end of 2015, she’ll continue on a part-time basis for some time after that, given that financials, including a March 31 audit, need to be wrapped up, and other outstanding pieces of business may remain. From a career-management perspective, that’s difficult—less so for Anderson, who envisions a different type of work after her role with the games ends, but more so for some of her finance and procurement employees, who will move on to other full-time roles yet still need to be consulted from time to time.

Pan Am gold medalist Conrad Leinemann diving during a beach volleyball demonstration.
Pan Am gold medalist Conrad Leinemann diving during a beach volleyball demonstration. Photo by The Canadian Press

That said, the finite term of the work isn’t a deterrent for most people. “Of course, it takes a certain type of personality to do this—someone who doesn’t see it as a risk, and there were people in risk-averse disciplines such as finance who weren’t interested,” Anderson says.  “But many people saw this as an amazing opportunity—to be responsible for $1.4 billion, half of which is a capital program, one of the largest capital-development programs Ontario has undertaken in quite a few years. It provided phenomenal career-enhancing experience, particularly for young people. Even the closer we got to the games, when the opportunity was only for a year or two, I was surprised by how many people were interested.”

For those looking to follow in her footsteps, Anderson stresses it’s about finding a role in which you’re constantly learning. “If you accept roles that don’t broaden your horizons, one day you’re going to wake up and realize you haven’t built a career,” she says. “So, when you make choices, make sure you’re selecting a role that enhances your tool kit. Take it one step at a time. It’s a business, building your career, and it doesn’t happen by happenstance.”