Riding high

Dreams of being in the football world have come true for a lifelong fan, making Craig Reynolds the king of Rider Nation.

Just months into his new role as president and CEO of the Saskatchewan Roughriders last year, things were incredibly tense for Craig Reynolds. After losing starting quarterback Darian Durant in the first game of the season and veteran backup Kevin Glenn, both due to injuries, the team was down eight straight games without a win. Things got worse in the ninth game with a 35-13 loss in Ottawa. Fans and the press were furious with coach Corey Chamblin’s performance. Within 24 hours of the ninth loss, Reynolds let Chamblin and general manager Brendan Taman go. Now Reynolds was faced with the tough decision of where to take the team.

How did it come to this?

Born in the Roughriders’ home base of Regina, Reynolds, 40, grew up in Foam Lake, Sask., roughly two hours away but still in the heart of Rider Nation. As a kid, Reynolds was a big Riders fan and trekked out to Regina with his father to experience games live in Mosaic Stadium.

“It must have been the early ’80s; we sat on the east side of the Mosaic, which was a bit more of the rowdy side. I remember hearing words I’d never heard before being yelled out to the field,” he says. “The excitement of being at Mosaic Stadium, seeing the Saskatchewan Roughriders live, was pretty thrilling.”

Reynolds’ love for the speed and pace of football landed him on his high-school football team. “I was a quarterback for the season [in Grade 12] when we didn’t win any football games,” he says. “But I enjoyed it. It was one of those things [where I knew I wasn’t] going to play the game at a higher level, but it certainly was a dream to be involved in football in some capacity.”

He may not have had a future as a football player but he turned his sights to another career where he showed more promise. With his interest and success in math and a desire to be involved in business, he thought accounting would be a good fit. “I viewed it as a good way to gain some well-rounded business experience, skills and acumen,” he says. “I thought having a designation would open a lot of doors, and it did.”

THE EARLY YEARS AS CPA

After attending Arizona State University and the University of Saskatchewan, Reynolds got his first job as an accountant at KPMG in Saskatoon in 1998. Always interested in working abroad, he decided to pursue an international transfer to another KPMG office. He wound up in the firm’s Luxembourg location and then moved on to Thomson Scientific (now Thomson Reuters) as a senior revenue accountant in London, where his then-girlfriend, Lisa — now his wife — had a job at the Canadian Embassy. “We did a sort of long-distance relationship between Luxembourg and London, but I decided the time was right to leave the accounting firm and move to London,” Reynolds says.

When they decided to start a family, Canada called them back. “Calgary was the first spot we thought of to raise a family and we had a nice little network that was already in existence there,” Reynolds says.

About a year after getting married, the couple landed in Calgary, where Reynolds joined Suncor as senior manager of financial accounting. He worked for a few years in a series of management roles, ending up in Fort McMurray, Alta., as a senior manager for the company’s oilsands cost management program. Then one day on a whim, he decided to respond to an online job posting for CFO of the Saskatchewan Roughriders. He got the job.

In his first week as CFO in 2009, he met football legend George Reed, a big moment for a lifelong fan. “I remember just sitting there thinking, ‘Man, I’m having a meeting with George Reed,’ and remembering how cool that was,” Reynolds says. “Now, you don’t take that for granted.”

Although the position was a football fan’s dream, it was still a job, one for which Reynolds was uniquely qualified. Handling the team’s budget, financial reports, treasury reports and strategic planning allowed him to call on his CPA training and expertise. “Everything you’ve learned as a CPA is all very, very relevant,” Reynolds says. “Through the course of career experience and the CPA training, you have good business acumen and strong financial knowledge.”

That knowledge and training also served him well as he helped the Roughriders achieve a stellar financial performance. His first year as CFO the team saw a record profit of more than $3.1 million and $30 million in revenue, and in 2010 the Roughriders achieved a record $6.6 million in profit and more than $38 million in revenue. The team’s strong financial performance continued, with earnings of $34 million and a profit of $1.1 million for the 2012 season.

But the stellar performance took a hit. In 2015, although revenues climbed to $39.3 million, the team had a deficit of $4.2 million, due in part to its tumultuous season. Adding to its costs were expenses associated with renovating the old Mosaic Stadium and building a new stadium.

Overseeing both the renovation of the old stadium and construction of the new one — scheduled to open next year — while still CFO kept him busy. As part of conducting design research for the new stadium, Reynolds travelled to 22 stadiums in cities such as New York, Kansas City and Indianapolis and worked with architects, the city of Regina and outside organizations.

Despite the costs, the Mosaic project turned out to be a boon to Reynolds’ career. His ability to manage financial concerns related to the new stadium and his performance as chair of the operations committee for the Grey Cup (a position he took in 2012) helped win him a promotion to senior vice-president, but they also highlighted another characteristic that made him stand out: his personality. A smart, likable persona has defined the man to those around him and his affability stood him in good stead in areas beyond the numbers side of the business, where people skills are a necessary complement to good business sense.

“Craig is one of those guys who you’ve never heard anyone say anything bad about. He’s very intelligent. We always joked that he [was] the CFO and the finance guy but he has the personality,” says Gregg Sauter, the Roughriders’ vice-president of marketing and business development. “He’s not your typical finance guy. He has a good understanding and grasp of other areas of the business, whether it be marketing or sponsorship or partnership development.”

Opportunity arose again for the atypical finance guy in early 2014, and it would prove to be a blessing and a curse. Jim Hopson, then president and CEO of the Roughriders, announced he was going to retire. The role was one Reynolds had thought about since his start with the franchise, but he was apprehensive. He was concerned that the public role might put his family in the spotlight, but after speaking with his wife and children, he decided to interview for the position.

“He felt that he did very well in the interview process but still had low expectations because he understood that there would be a very, very deep list of candidates applying for this position,” board chair Wayne Morsky says. But Reynolds’ reputation preceded him and many were rooting for him. “He had a lot of respect before he received this position. A lot of people hoped that he would put his name forward.” Ultimately, Morsky says, Reynolds was chosen because of his passion for the organization and for the game.

TROUBLE AT MID-FIELD

That passion helped get him the job, but he would need more than love for the game to deal with the challenges that would soon arise. Challenges such as the 2015 season.

The poor season had fans and the media up in arms; the criticism was swift and harsh. “If you saw the game, you wondered about the stupidity of Chamblin benching his best quarterback and best chance to win because he didn’t meekly accept a benching after throwing an interception in the second quarter,” Greg Urbanoski, a columnist for local Saskatchewan paper paNow, wrote.

“[Chamblin’s] incompetence has been showing as the team has suffered through nine straight losses, most of them directly attributable to his atrocious decisions,” Darrell Davis, a veteran Roughriders reporter, wrote in 3DownNation.com, a blog about the Canadian Football League. “He basically held up his middle digit, told Rider Nation to f*** off, that he was never wrong and he would gladly take a buyout so he didn’t have to coach here anymore.”

Facing the question of where to take the team, the new CEO decided to let coach Chamblin and general manager Taman go. As a result, Chamblin and Taman each received buyouts for two-and-a-half years, for an amount Reynolds declined to disclose but which has been estimated at $750,000.

The dismal performance on the field, the sacking of Chamblin and Taman and the sidelining of injured players such as Glenn and Durant had a ripple effect, throwing the income statements off balance. “Injuries impact the bottom line. And when you make changes in your personnel, football operations and guaranteed contracts, those come at a cost,” Reynolds says.

Now, Reynolds is betting those costs will pay off as the team puts plans for a turnaround into action, starting with a dramatically different roster this season. At press time, some of the big names who joined the team are pass-rusher Justin Capicciotti, linebacker Otha Foster and running back returner Kendial Lawrence. It’s clear Reynolds is excited about the additions. “We’ve added a lot of talent that has a lot of speed and height, so there’s plenty to look forward to,” he says.

The turnaround also includes new general manager, head coach and vice-president of football operations Chris Jones. Jones, who brought along a new coaching team, impressed the CEO with his work ethic and long-term vision and approach for the team’s sustained success. “Everywhere he has gone, he has had success,” Reynolds says. “He has actually won as many Grey Cups as a coach as this franchise has in our 106-year history.”

Today, the Roughriders look ahead to their farewell season at the old Mosaic Stadium before moving on to the new stadium. In addition to being the home of future Roughriders memories, the new Mosaic Stadium will also give the team more opportunities for business growth, including new amenities and sponsorship assets.

And with the changes he has made, Reynolds remains optimistic about the future. It’s clear what direction he wants to take the team in — one of consistent wins. “We’ve had a lot of ups and downs. We seem to hit these peaks and valleys, and for me it’s important that we’re consistently good,” he says. “I do think we’ll be successful, and we’re building something here that’s going to be successful for a long time.”

About the Author

Dexter Brown


Dexter Brown is a freelance writer based in Whitby, Ont.

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