From hiring new financial staff to refining business and accounting functions, Westerner Park is in the midst of a major systems overhaul, says its chief executive officer.
CEO Mike Olesen said the gaps identified by an independent Deloitte audit into Westerner Park’s past business practices came as no surprise, since he’d been working with auditors for the past few months to track down financial information.
Through the process, Olesen discovered that “basic functions were definitely broken,” and there was a need to “realign” the organization’s business administration and financial management.
“We need to have better systems to challenge assumptions,” said Olesen — so his priority has been building in processes that will examine and analyze the risk levels of proposed decisions.
The Deloitte audit found inflated projections were in large part to blame for Westerner Park’s financial crisis: The governance board approved construction of a new exhibition hall and entered into a contract for the Canadian Finals Rodeo based on over-optimistic data provided by a former CEO about leases and ticket sales.
“Where that fell down is in analysis of the level of risk,” said Olesen, who was hired last November, a month before Westerner Park went public with a financial crisis that had been building since early 2018.
“You can make anything work on paper, there need to be controls in place…
“What you learn from holding huge events, like the CFR, is that you can guarantee that nothing goes according to plan,” he added. “So you need to leave in as much financial flexibility as you can, because there needs to be room to pivot.”
Olesen said a chartered professional accountant was hired about a year ago and a new controller was hired at the same time as he came on board last fall.
“We are breaking down the business and accounting systems so they are back where they need to be.”
Some aspects of the operation that weren’t working were dropped — such as Westerner Park’s in-house catering service, which was a net cost.
Olesen said the exhibition grounds has gone back to its previous partnership with Red Deer Catering.
New software was purchased for better events management.
Olesen is also planning for his administration to work as a team — with different managers presenting to the board on their various areas of expertise. One problem that Deloitte found was that the former CEO was the board’s only administrative contact.
“There should be opportunities for staff to get past me” and deliver information straight to the board, said Olesen.
“They are the experts… This operation is too darned big and complex for me to know everything.”
Olesen said he intends to work with the City of Red Deer to better define the role of city councillors on Westerner Park’s governance board.
While he doesn’t feel “city council should be telling an independent operation how to operate,” he also doesn’t want to ignore “our key partner” and the suggestions or assistance city representatives can provide.
Another priority is rebuilding relationships with community groups that use Westerner Park facilities. Olesen admits that these were not given enough attention during the financial crisis.
Although many events, including Agri-Trade were cancelled due to concern about crowd sizes, Olesen is pleased plans are going forward for smaller events, such as the Dairy Showcase and next spring’s Bridal Gala.
Westerner Park plans to assist the Red Deer Rebels in holding whatever kind of season the pandemic will allow. And Olesen is already planning to host Westerner Days next summer, despite continuing uncertainty around COVID-19.
“I’m not mothballing Westerner Park,” he stressed. “We have to work towards things” and deal with challenges as they arise.