small business, starting a small business, John Elway, John Elway broncos, John Elway dealership, Chase Ink, 2019 AICPA Engage, former NFL quarterback, entrepreneur, business owner
Small Business

Financing Your Business

How a former NFL quarterback is preparing for a long run in business

The following article is part of Numbers Games, an original Chase Ink series in which pro athlete entrepreneurs offer insights on leadership, accounting and business ownership.

Choose what’s right for your business

Successful pro football players and entrepreneurs share many of the same characteristics: drive, ambition and a willingness to work as part of a team. Few know this better than the legendary former Denver Broncos quarterback John Elway. Besides his job as General Manager and President of Football Operations for the Denver Broncos, Elway owns a number of small businesses, including several automobile dealerships and restaurants, as well as a wine label.

One reason he's able to manage it all, Elway says, is having the support of his close-knit business partners—a team that includes his longtime CPA.

During a talk sponsored by Chase Ink at 2019 AICPA Engage, one of the leading conferences devoted to accounting and finance in North America, Elway spoke about building a team and the critical role that accounting professionals have played in supporting him as a business leader.

Q. What did you learn from football that's helped you as a leader?

One of the biggest lessons I learned was how to work with different people and different personalities. In football, you have 11 guys that have to be doing their job well in order to be successful. As a quarterback, you rely on everyone and you're only as good as the guys around you, so it's not only your job to play well, but also to help them play better. The business world is also about people. You have to have a good product, but what makes a business successful long-term is having good people around you.

Q. What are some of your top tips on motivating a team and creating a culture of excellence?

First, you need to have clear goals and expectations that you can articulate to your team. When everyone understands their goal, it sets the motivation for what they have to do. And it also creates accountability—both for the team and for the manager as well.

For the Broncos, the goal is simple—winning championships. It's more complicated in business. It's not just about selling the most cars. We do have to sell cars, of course, but we also want to create customers for life. Our philosophy is that when we get the opportunity to get in front of a customer, we have to make sure we take care of that customer the best way we can. That's the motivation, whether we're in the car business or selling steaks.

Q. Clearly, having the right team is a key ingredient for success. What characteristics do you look for when you're hiring?

I like competitive people, smart people and people who are good at what they do.

In every business, I've tried to surround myself with good people and hear their ideas. I always want to get better at what I do, and I want the people who work for me to be the same way. If you are managing people who are looking to expand and move up the ladder, that's going to be good for you, too.

Q. Let's talk about another crucial member of your team—your CPA. What are the critical characteristics you look for in hiring a CPA?

Trust is a huge factor. I've had the same CPA for 35 years, and he's helped me gain a lot of knowledge and expertise. When you're talking about your money and your livelihood, you have to be able to trust that you're being taken care of and that things are being done the right way.

Q. What role has your CPA played in your success?

When I first got into the car business, I didn't know a lot about it. I was fortunate to have an attorney who was very smart and told me that I needed a CPA who knows the business. I was lucky—I found someone who knew the business and always had my back. I run a lot of things by my CPA, from the impact of things on my taxes to estate planning. I lean on him very heavily.

Q. What is your biggest piece of advice for someone starting out as a new business owner?

Number one, know what you're getting into. If you don't know what you're getting into, find someone who knows. Find a partner you can trust who knows the business and can teach you the business.

Second, sometimes the worst decisions are the best learning experiences. I got involved in the arena football league in 2002 and had the team for about six years. Monetarily it was not a good decision, but the knowledge I gained by running that business from scratch helped me so much to get to where I am right now as the General Manager of the Broncos.

Q. Any tips for managing not just one, but several different businesses?

Delegate to the people you trust as much as possible. I'm very close to the two operating partners I have, who oversee all the managers in each store. I'm also a big believer in diversification: I have a diverse set of managers and even financial advisers. Obviously, you don't want too many opinions on every decision, but the more perspective you can get, the better. Then as long as you have a diverse set of advisers you trust, you're in good shape.

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