SBJ/October 24 - 30, 2005/Opinion

Benefiting more than bottom line

An era of excess is feeding an erosion of character in our country unequaled in recent history. The financial industry has been roiled by it, much like the sports industry. Insider trading, price manipulation and market timing abuses have sidelined some in the financial industry, and many in the business world are waiting to see excessive executive pay and stock options put in the penalty box.

Some companies are using the word “character” like an advertising campaign. They think “enlightened self-interest” is good enough, proclaiming transparency and irreproachable ethics as if they were revolutionary business concepts.

It’s going to take more than that. We must exhibit character and a strong sense of values in everything we do, right down to the organizations and causes we sponsor. That means sponsorships must yield something greater than visibility and brand awareness. And the return on investment has to be about more than dollars.

As president and portfolio manager of a $5 billion mutual fund company, I know a thing or two about return on investment. And, as a 35-year industry veteran, I also know the critical role image plays. Investor confidence hinges on reputation. Anything my company sponsored had to have a deeper impact.

While Technicolor NASCAR sponsorships and multimillion-dollar endorsements most certainly would have created awareness, we were after more than brand recognition. We wanted a sponsorship that would align with our company’s culture and underscore our values, but more than that, we felt an inherent commitment to contribute to the greater good.

That’s why we chose to be the national sponsor of the NAIA’s Champions of Character program. Champions of Character is designed to help student-athletes, coaches and parents “know the right thing, do the right thing and value the right thing” — inside and outside the sports setting. Participants pledge to not only play by, but live by, five core values: Respect, responsibility, integrity, servant leadership and sportsmanship.

The program reaches thousands of students, coaches, parents and athletic directors at about 300 colleges and universities in the United States and Canada. In addition, the NAIA provides training and motivational presentations to youth, community and corporate organizations and certifies academic and community participants to develop outreach program centers.

The Champions of Character program reaches out to numerous audiences about making great choices on character based on a sports model. There are 30 instructors in 20 program centers at NAIA schools that conduct community outreach initiatives, such as character workshops or summits, and provide character development resources specific to college students, youth, coaches, parents and fans. The NAIA has special presenters that bring principled messages to corporate, athletic and community teams across the country.

My company believes so strongly in Champions of Character that we don’t just sponsor it, we live it.

Every one of our employees has gone through the program. As one of my portfolio managers said: “Now when I go to my son’s soccer game I give him a hug and tell him I really enjoyed watching him. I used to compliment him only on scoring goals. You should see the difference in his face.”

They get it: Just as the NAIA holds its Champions of Character to standards higher than victory, we, as businesspeople, must hold our companies to standards higher than profit. For that reason, we have become even better stewards of our investors’ money.

I believe that in the same way that one athlete of character improves a team, one employee of character will improve a department, and one department of character will improve a company. One company of character can affect a whole industry, community, and even the nation.

Yes, a sponsorship — the right sponsorship — can do all that, if, as I tell my investors, you stay in for the long term.

John Kornitzer is president and portfolio manager for Buffalo Funds.

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