Controlling Costs through Digital Transformation: Sport Alliance CFO Shares Four Tips for Success

In this episode of the Workday podcast, Sport Alliance’s Philipp Rusch discusses how the right digital planning tools can enable fast-growing businesses to maintain agility while scaling. 


Germany-based Sport Alliance enables more than 8,000 gyms and studios across Europe to manage their operations—administering fees, supporting members, designing studios—through a suite of cloud-based software solutions and applications. Therefore, Sport Alliance’s branded tools must work across multiple countries and operations with different needs.

By nature, gym and fitness studio management requires partners who are nimble. With Europe’s fitness industry back to pre-Covid levels, Sport Alliance constantly adapts to support fast-evolving management trends. We spoke with Philipp Rusch, Sport Alliance’s CFO and managing director, at Workday Rising EMEA in Barcelona, where he shared how bespoke workforce planning through digital transformation has given Sport Alliance the agility it needs to thrive.


1. Digital transformation requires a clearly-defined purpose.

Rusch believes there is no “silver bullet” for digital transformation, but before embarking on a transformation initiative, stakeholders should ask themselves specific questions: 

  • What are our company’s central cost drivers? 

  • Where can increased agility improve cost control?

  • What specific processes should we target for automation at the outset?

“It’s about upgrading initiatives across the firm and establishing leading practice functions across finances and people,” Rusch said. “It’s a multi-year journey to establish leading processes that support the growth and trajectory of the company.”

The three areas Rusch focuses on at Sport Alliance are more efficient processes to make the company scalable, transparency on all revenue sources, and cost control.  

“This may not sound glamorous, but this is the day-to-day work of running a company and doing it well,” he said.

2. Leadership buy-in and alignment between mindset and talent are critical.

Automation of people and planning is iterative. Finance and HR leaders should be comfortable with refreshing data as soon as new information arrives—and upgrading their stack accordingly, Rusch says. 

For Sport Alliance, a firm with a technology and software background, that iteration comes very naturally, Rusch says, but that hasn’t been the case for every organisation he’s worked for. A waterfall mindset can be an obstacle to organisations’ ability to react quickly and smartly to market changes. 

But mindset isn’t the only potential pitfall. Organisations also need “the right talent on the team that knows how to operate these tools well,” he said. If not, that can result in too many highly manual processes. 

And finally, companies must ensure leaders are on board from the beginning. 

“These journeys start from the top, so if you don’t have buy-in from the leadership team, it permeates and slows things down dramatically,” he said.

3. Start with a basic initiative and build out the stack as necessary.

What’s the backbone of a successful digital transformation? When users can clearly see the benefits of adoption and the new tools are easy to use. Start with small wins and allow users to get accustomed to certain features first—you can add functionalities to your stack later, Rusch said. 

“Be willing to prioritise the minimum required features that you need to get going,” he explained. “You define what the end-user needs, what the product needs to do, and the first release you put out meets the required needs. It’s not perfect but you improve from there.”

4. Choose partners that can accommodate your specific needs.

As a company with year-over-year 30% to 50% organic growth, as well as numerous acquisitions, managing headcount is a critical piece of cost control for Sport Alliance. This can be challenging for a company with nearly 350 employees and relatively small finance and HR teams, but it’s possible with the right tools. And the right tools are those that scale without sacrificing flexibility.

“The way we do budget and planning is zero-based,” Rusch says. “We don’t just roll forward the past—we re-examine what’s needed for the future, so zero-base budgeting is particularly relevant on the headcount and staffing side.

“Workday Adaptive Planning allows us to plan our headcount very granularly, on a role-by-role basis, with a very small team for our company size. Other tools that I’ve seen don’t work if you are above 150 or 200 people.”   

Christina Johnson: In an era where economic tides turn swiftly and unpredictably, the ability to navigate through financial ebbs and flows become the hallmark of a resilient organisation. As we stand at the crossroads of economic uncertainty, it's imperative to arm ourselves with the tools and insights that not just enable surviving, but thriving. And in this landscape, the digital revolution is reshaping industries. Fitness and sports are no exception here. And as Germany's market leader, Sport Alliance is at the vanguard, providing an array of organisations from gyms and sports centres to schools and yoga studios with a digital backbone that spans cloud-based gym management software to intricate financial services. I'm Christina Johnson, and on this episode of Workday Podcast, I'm delighted to be joined by Philip Rush, CFO and Managing Director of Sport Alliance. And we'll be talking about the role technology is playing in helping them to maintain agility and gain critical insights, even amidst the most tumultuous times. Philip, it's great to have you here today. So outside of Germany, people may not have heard of Sport Alliance before. Could you give us a quick overview of what your company does?

Philip Rush:  Sure. Great to be here with you this morning. Sport Alliance powers the fitness industry. We serve gym operators who rely on our software and our payment services to run their businesses. So we have around 8,000 studios that use the services of our companies.

Christina Johnson: Okay, fantastic. And when you look at your organisation's short-term future, what would you say are your top three initiatives for the finance function in, say, the next three years?

Philip Rush: I think to answer this, you need to keep in mind, I'm a CFO of a growth company backed by private equity. So this is a growth and transformation story. So it is about upgrade initiatives across the entire firm. And it is about establishing leading practise functions across finance and people. So there is not one single silver bullet, but it is, again, a multi-year journey to establish leading practises in both finance and people to support the growth and the trajectory of this company.

Christina Johnson: Right, I see. And kind of related to that, what would you say like the main challenges you're facing right now?

Philip Rush: I would answer this against the backdrop of, again, how we operate and what we do. We are a high-growth firm. So high growth meaning organically, our business grows between 30 and 50 percent year on year. So it's changing a lot. On top of this organic growth, we do acquisitions. So we, with the support of our investors, buy other companies, which means that you have an evolving and growing organism. From my vantage point, the three key areas that I am focusing on is, one, efficiency and automation in processes, so that the way we run the company is scalable. Second is it starts with revenue. So really having understanding and having control on order to cash and have transparency on all the drivers and manage them. That's sort of the second big thing. And then, third, it's about control and cost control. So this may not sound glamorous, but it's sort of the day-to-day work of running a company and doing so well.

Christina Johnson: Okay, great. Thank you for that. And I know you're using Workday Adaptive Planning. With economic uncertainty being such a headline topic, could you share how Sport Alliance is using our planning product to strengthen your financial planning and analysis?

Philip Rush: Sure. So Adaptive is the key tool that we use for budgeting and reporting purposes. So we use it as the key tool to assign budgets, to plan, to report. So it's sort of an additional employee in the finance team, only that it is scalable and available 24/7. For us, it has worked quite well. In fact, even though we introduced Adaptive at Sport Alliance only in September of last year, I've been using, together with a colleague of mine who is with me in the FP&A team, Adaptive since 2017 from a prior company. So we have seen it work very effectively. And I think one of the key highlights that I really like about it is that it is easy to use, that it enables department heads to understand what's happening financially in their own function. And third, it enables us to run scenarios, or then also refresh our budget quite seamlessly. So unlike some of the larger firms that I've worked for in the past, both as an executive as well as a consultant, our planning approach is a lot less rigorous, or not a lot less-- it's rigorous, but we are quite flexible and can evolve with the market needs. And that's just super helpful.

Christina Johnson: Okay. Well, that's great. That actually leads nicely onto my next questions. In terms of being agile and being able to be flexible, could you give an example of how you're using the technologies to sort of grab real-time data to drive the quick decision-making?

Philip Rush: I think there are two answers to this. The broader one is, as a software and tech company, we use real-time data across our entire firm. We run the infrastructure for a large industry and provide a leading cloud-based solution. And as you would expect from an infrastructure provider, we monitor what's happening across this solution live, and react accordingly. Same goes for monitoring our sales and go-to-market activities and how we interact with customers. And of course, it also evolves around how we manage our finances, yeah? So I think there's not one use case that jumps out.

Philip Rush: In a firm like ours, the one thing that I will say is that the way we do budget and planning is zero-based. That means we don't just roll forward the past, but re-examine and really revisit what is needed for the future. And this zero-based budgeting approach is particularly relevant on the headcount side and the staffing side, because as you may imagine, in a software and services company, headcount is our key expense position. So Adaptive, even without the Workday HR tool, allows us to plan our headcount on a role-by-roll basis very granularly. And I would say we are sort of in the range of employee size 300 to 800. And Adaptive enables us to do this very granular planning with a pretty small team for this type of company size. And other tools that I've seen, lo and behold, including Excel, don't work if you are above 150 or 200 people.

Christina Johnson: Okay, great. Thank you for that. Sort of reflecting on your experience, what would you say are the common pitfalls in financial planning during uncertain times? I know you've already sort of gone through about how Workday Adaptive Planning helps you. What would you say are the common pitfalls that you've been avoiding?

Philip Rush: The first thing that one needs to be clear about is it is about iterative improvement and being comfortable to refresh data based on updated information, yeah? And I think for us as a firm with a technology background and a software background, that comes quite naturally. But if I compare this to more traditional settings that I've operated in, they are operating, frankly, a little bit more in a waterfall mindset. So that's one pitfall. A second pitfall is you don't have the right talent on the team who know how to operate these tools well, and they don't make-- and by corollary, you don't make the best use of the technology that is available and resort to very manual processes. And last but not least, these journeys start from the top. So if you don't have appropriate buy-in from the leadership team and you are in a situation where this buy-in doesn't permeate the organisation, this slows things down dramatically. So these would be the three items that I would [inaudible].

Christina Johnson: Okay, fantastic. Then my next question was, what sort of foundational steps would you recommend organisation starting with the Workday Adaptive Planning? But I think you've kind of covered that quite nicely in your last answer, but is there anything else you'd want to add to that?

Philip Rush: The degree of boldness that organisations need when introducing such a product and aspiring to do so at pace is to be willing to prioritise pretty radically on the minimum required features that are actually needed to get going. Again, for a software company and a tech company, I think what modern software firms do is quite instructive here. You work in an agile way. You define what the client needs are, what the product needs to do. And yes, the first release that you put out meets the required needs, but it's not perfect yet, and then you improve from there. And I think this is an important mindset. And I think sometimes finance, especially if you come a little bit from an accounting background, the answer is, you want the correct answer, the complete answer, the 100% answer, and sometimes, as you introduce such tools, you need to be willing to take certain shortcuts.

Philip Rush: So to give you one very tangible example, in the fall, when we introduced Adaptive in just four weeks, we did not do in the first iteration revenue planning in Adaptive. We did it outside of Adaptive and basically hard coded in the four different revenue lines that are really driving the P&L. But the driver-based revenue model that is aligned with the sales organisation and that is informed by our go-to-market motion, which you can introduce in Adaptive, we didn't do in the first instance. So there are ways to take shortcuts or to phrase it more favourably, to just focus on what is most important for the next release, and then you take it from there.

Christina Johnson: Okay, fantastic. And to wrap up, what kind of advice would you give to finance leaders looking to really improve their cash flow analysis and planning given the current economic climate?

Philip Rush: I mean, that's sort of the $1 million question these days, right? So it's not easy to answer, and it's certainly not limited to just what you do in planning, yeah? And I think the recent times with the focus on what's generally labelled as efficient growth, is really around cost control. And it's really around [music] understanding your cost drivers under different scenarios.

Christina Johnson: hilip, it's been great to hear how Sport Alliance is not just weathering the storm but charting a course through it. To our listeners, thank you for joining us. That's all we have time for today. If you enjoyed the show, you can subscribe at Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and SoundCloud. You can also read more on the Workday blog. Thank you for listening and have a great Workday.

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