Speedway, CIB leaders travel parallel paths

December 21, 2009
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Whoever thought we’d be drawing parallels between the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Capital Improvement Board. But here we are.

Two institutions that were once bulletproof are now sinking like the Titanic or crashing like the Hindenburg. Choose your metaphor.

Ok, that might be a little over dramatic. But the fact remains that these once powerful entities in Indy’s sports kingdom are now struggling through an economy as bad as most of us have ever seen.

Interestingly, but not really surprising, both have turned to a leader with an accounting background to put matters to right. And if you look at the path the Speedway’s new boss Jeff Belskus is taking, you might get a glimpse of CIB’s future.

Belskus on July 1 replaced Tony George as Speedway boss, and quickly began examining the IMS’ business plan and bottom line with a magnifying glass and razor sharp scalpel. Belskus, who formerly served as IMS’ chief financial officer, trimmed the work force and month of May activities with one swift swipe.

And you can bet, there’s more to come. It’s clear with Belskus there is more interested in cash cows than sacred cows. Nothing is off the table when it comes to shoring up that operation’s bottom line. It’s the sort of approach most stockholders like.

I was recently asked how difficult it is for Belskus to make such cuts. The answer depends on how emotionally invested he is.
Because, while these decisions may be difficult emotionally, financially, I’m sure they’re quite cut and dried. Tony George, let’s just say he was pretty emotionally invested.
Now comes Ann Lathrop’s turn. Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard tapped Lathrop, an executive in the local office of Illinois-based accounting firm Crowe Horwarth LLP, to replace Bob Grand as CIB president.

There are a slew of other new Capital Improvement Board members coming aboard, but none of them figures to be as instrumental as Lathrop, who formerly served as CIB treasurer, in determining this organization’s direction in 2010.
I distinctly remember former CIB boss (and current IU athletic director) Fred Glass telling me that the CIB is an organization whose path distinctly reflects the will of its president.

Those who have been paying attention over the last year could see Lathrop had a very firm grasp of the CIB’s challenges as it struggled with a $47 million operating budget.

She also was careful not to overstep her role. Now, she won’t have that concern and can impose her will on the board that is charged with operating Lucas Oil Stadium, Conseco Fieldhouse, the Indiana Convention Center and Victory Field.

Chief among Lathrop’s concerns (and she has many in her new role) are what to do about the Indiana Pacers’ request for $15 million annually to help operate Conseco Fieldhouse and IUPUI request for at least $4.4 million to fix and upgrade the aging Natatorium.

I’m sure the Pacers aren’t too thrilled with the apparent departure of long-time CIB member Pat Early, who was the lead in dealing with the Pacers and seemed to advocate on their behalf.

I’m not sure which way Lathrop will lean. I’m not sure anyone does, and I imagine that’s what makes leaders for organizations like the Pacers and IUPUI more than a bit nervous.

Like a typical accountant, I wouldn’t expect Lathrop to tip her hat until a thorough cost/benefit analysis.

I sense that IUPUI and the Pacers (and any other entity coming to the CIB with its hand out) will have to prove to Lathrop and the new CIB that there is a clear return on any investment they expect the CIB to make going forward.

Because Lathrop, like Belskus, knows that bottom line issues in a lean economy can kill even the most seemingly bulletproof among us.
And emotion will only get you so far.


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