QRL CFO: Graham Maher

 Kicking Goals in a Challenging Year

Queensland Rugby League’s Chief Financial Officer, Graham Maher, says the past year has been the most challenging of his career, however, having the right people, the right data and new back-end technology has allowed the organisation to kick goals in a difficult operating environment.

QRL can now measure the cost of playing individual games, which means the finance team can see what it costs to move teams around the state for fixtures. This is critical data during the time of COVID, when shutdowns and lockdowns make it tough to run sporting organisations.

The infrastructure, first implemented in 2019, is the bedrock on which chief financial officer Graham Maher runs QRL. It means budget managers across its 35 cost centres have the autonomy to make decisions without needing to seek information from head office.

The software-as-a-service solution also supports QRL with high quality, sophisticated financial reporting, better decision making and fewer bottlenecks. QRL generates annual revenues of $35 million and employs 90 people across the state.

“Our tech investment was significant but necessary. Previously, many systems were paper-based and manual, which was difficult to manage with so many locations and so many people across Queensland. Now, communication and approval processes are more streamlined,” Maher says.

The Power of Tech

While COVID was a huge curve ball for QRL, its new back-end infrastructure supported staff to work remotely during initial and subsequent lockdowns.

“Our teams transitioned seamlessly to working from home and we were confident invoices were being approved and suppliers were paid thanks to the system’s control mechanisms. That would have been exceptionally difficult if most of our systems were still paper-based,” Maher says.

Maher says a COVID lesson for the QRL is the importance of planning for the future and the new system makes it much easier for the finance team to explore different scenarios.

“Having all the data to hand means that we can quickly make decisions. Our people are always a priority. When COVID hit we were faced with a range of options to reduce our staffing costs. We consulted the business and the overwhelming feedback was our people would prefer to take a pay cut than people lose their jobs. Understanding that, we could very quickly work out and model what our savings from wages would be over the course of the year. This modelling, with help from JobKeeper, helped us keep all our staff employed, except one person who left to pursue a new opportunity.”

QRL was back to full operating mode in November 2020, and state-wide competitions kicked off in March this year, albeit with some stop starts. For instance, QRL had to pause its state-wide competition when snap lockdowns were imposed in August in south-east Queensland and other areas.

“We could quickly model the impact on the business, our forecast and budgets. That meant we could identify areas where we could make savings,” Maher says.

Looking to the Horizon

While QRL is thrilled with the functionality of its new SaaS system so far, there are further opportunities to optimise systems and processes. Improving credit card reconciliations, expense claims and reimbursements are all in the finance team’s sights.

“We’ve picked the low-hanging fruit and now we’re digitising and automating manual processes across the business so they can be performed from a laptop, anywhere in the state,” he adds.

Forecasting is also a focus. Says Maher: “We want to explore how to use the system to produce simple models the senior leadership team, the board and business unit managers can use to make decisions. We’re great at producing historic performance information and short-term forecasts, but we can be better at longer-term forecasting and making the most of what the technology offers.”

QRL has also recently launched an e-commerce platform, www.maroonsshop.com as well as a new online equipment hub for players. “This provides pricing power to local communities and leagues for everything they need to facilitate a game, from tackle pads to footy boots. We’re working closely with major suppliers to make the game really affordable,” he adds.

While just over half its revenue is granted through a national broadcast deal negotiated by the Australian Rugby League Commission, QRL has ambitions to grow its non-grant revenue through avenues such as its new e-commerce portals. The finance team will play an important role supporting this, delivering the business the information it needs to support decision-making.

What’s Next?

Maher says the last year has been the most challenging of his career. “We moved from business-as-usual into a COVID environment almost overnight. Like most businesses, everything became about asset protection and capital preservation.”

QRL has recently appointed a data and commercial insights manager to work across the business to better understand its member and participant engagement data. This is further evidence of the organisation’s emphasis on commercial success. This, coupled with the underlying tech power it has only just started to explore, should stand the business in good stead though the pandemic and beyond