The NHL season only runs from October to June, but for Ken Zaba it’s always hockey season—and it happens to always be lacrosse and football season, too.
As the vice president of finance and administration for the Calgary Sports & Entertainment Corporation (CSEC), Zaba leads the finance department year-round for not only the Calgary Flames but four other teams and their affiliated charitable foundations. He’s a finance-minded individual through and through who grew up sleeping with a piggybank literally in his arms, but after stints at PricewaterhouseCoopers, Petro-Canada, and Suncor Energy, his other childhood passion—sports—remained untapped. He parlayed his zeal into his current position at the CSEC, and now he’s building the organization’s finance team back to full strength.
1 STANLEY CUP
The Flames won the championship during the 1988/89 season. They’re currently in a rebuilding phase and hope to soon recapture some of their former glory.
The Calgary Flames are the 3rd major professional hockey team to represent the city of Calgary, following the Calgary Tigers (1921–27) and the Calgary Cowboys (1975–77).
Calgary’s team began life as the Atlanta Flames, and they were there for eight years, from 1972 to 1980, before the team was ultimately sold and moved.
The Calgary Sports & Entertainment Corporation has five owners.
CSEC’s charitable organizations bring positive change to the lives of southern Albertans and have raised and donated millions of dollars, including $1 million to the Red Cross after the 2013 floods.
The CSEC controls or is affiliated with six teams: the Calgary Flames, the Calgary Stampeders, the Calgary Roughnecks, the Calgary Hitmen, the Adirondack Flames, and the Colorado Eagles.
6 GREY CUPS
The Calgary Stampeders have won six Grey Cups.
2 CHAMPIONS CUPS
The Roughnecks have won 2 NLL championships.
4 SEASON TITLES
The Calgary Hitmen have won four Western Hockey League regular-season titles.
The Hitmen will celebrate their 20th anniversary in the WHL this season.
“I’ve always had this mind-set that you could marry personal interest with your education,” Zaba says. “I refused to give in to the notion that work has to be work.” He first got serious about pairing his two passions in 2010, when the wife of one of his former colleagues took seriously ill. She was about the same age as Zaba. “It was time to get after it,” he says. “Life can be short, and that could just as easily be me.”
So Zaba focused completely on breaking into the sports and entertainment industry. He went to eight separate search firms and told them he only wanted to be called if something related to those markets popped up. Soon, Zaba narrowed his choices down to three organizations: the Calgary Stampeders, the Calgary Flames, and the Calgary Zoo. One day, while heading out for a vacation, Zaba stumbled upon an opening at the zoo, and he ended up working there for 19 months as its CFO.
Lighting struck again in April 2013. The phone rang, and it was someone from the Flames. The organization was interested in chatting, and after four meetings over a number of weeks, Zaba joined the CSEC as its vice president of finance and administration on July 2, 2013. And there was an added bonus. “As we are now majority owner of the Stampeders,” Zaba says, “I’ve been fortunate to work for all the organizations I’ve wanted to.”
Today, Zaba remains ready for the next puck to drop at his job, but with his age has come perspective. “Our eight-year-old son was a long time coming,” he says. “So when my wife, Heather, and I found out we were going to have him and he was healthy, I made a commitment to myself that I would not watch him grow up through photographs.” The first year on the job has been hectic for Zaba, but he still tries to find time to be with his son every morning before school. “Work-life balance is different for different people; I know my priorities shifted when my son was born,” Zaba says. “But I always try to ensure my team is getting a good balance.”
Amid the transition, Zaba and his team have been busy. The CSEC is the biggest sports gig in town. It owns or is the controlling owner of the Canadian Football League’s Calgary Stampeders, the National Lacrosse League’s Calgary Roughnecks, the Canadian Junior Hockey League’s Calgary Hitmen, the American Hockey League’s Adirondack Flames, and, of course, the National Hockey League’s Calgary Flames. It is also affiliated with the East Coast Hockey League’s Colorado Eagles, and it oversees three charitable foundations—the Calgary Flames Foundation for Life, the Calgary Stampeders Foundation, and the Calgary Hitmen Foundation—as well as the Flames Alumni Association.
The broad scope makes Zaba and his direct reports’ roles atypical in the finance world, and the majority of them were rookies in the field when they first joined the CSEC. “I’m in the same boat as the rest of my team that is new to the organization,” Zaba says. “At one point, 80 percent of the finance team had less than a year with the CSEC.”
The finance team, like the Flames team itself, Zaba says, is in rebuilding mode. “When I first got here, I was asked to stabilize the team,” he says. So, over the past 12 months, he has been tied to the hip of the CSEC’s recruiting advisor, and he has already hired 18 people, who are helping the finance team manage its workload and deliver to its business partners.
At a macro level, Zaba focuses on providing leadership, oversight, and direction for both the finance department and the administration department, which includes the IT team. He’s setting the priorities and making sure his teams have adequate resources (including additional hires and upgraded tools) and guidance to execute while having some fun along the way. Still, Zaba’s role can be hands-on and wildly different. “It’s unlikely many of my team will have seen something like their job now in another organization—unless they’ve worked for another sports team,” Zaba says.
HOW ARE YOU GROWING?
“It’s important that people find what they’re passionate about and [that] they pursue it. I’ve known for a long time. It took some life-changing moments, but at the end of the day, I feel fortunate to have merged my interests with my education and work experience.” —Ken Zaba, VP of Finance & Administration
Additionally, Zaba is still growing and learning on the job. “There’s not a day I look at my watch and say, ‘Geez, is this day over yet?’” he says. Even with his department having accomplished so much in the past 12 months, he feels as if he’s just at the beginning. “There’s been some heavy lifting that’s part and parcel of taking on a new job in a new industry with a lot of moving parts, but year two will be better than year one,” he says. Game on.