Over the summer of 2019, SB Nation interviewed several women who currently hold or have previously held leadership positions within the NFL to find out more about them and the work they do. This Q&A series highlights the powerful women who have dared to shake up one of sport’s biggest boys clubs. Previously: Amy Trask, Charlotte Jones Anderson, and Hannah Gordon.
This week, we’re spotlighting Jeanne Bonk, who serves as the Los Angeles Chargers’ vice president and chief operating/financial officer. Bonk started her professional career as an accountant with Price Waterhouse before joining the team in 1991.
Aside from managing the team’s day-to-day financials, one of Bonk’s most important jobs is overseeing the Chargers’ new stadium being built in Hollywood Park, where they are slated to play alongside the Rams beginning in 2020. That includes strategizing the stadium’s revenue efforts and fan experience.
SB NATION: You started your career as an accountant. How did you end up with the Chargers, and was working for an NFL team something you thought about as a career path for you?
JEANNE BONK: I’d like to tell you I had some grand plan to become the chief operating officer of the Chargers or an NFL team, but truth be told, I probably didn’t even know what a COO was. I was the first person in my family to graduate college, so that was kind of my immediate goal: to graduate and get a job.
I was lucky when I was working at Price Waterhouse that I was working with a couple people that were also working on the Chargers’ client. Because they enjoyed working with me on a few other clients, they got me on the Chargers’ client. So that’s how I got interested in even knowing the people at the team.
And then when the CFO position became available, I put my name in the hat and was fortunate to be chosen. I say it’s the best business decision that I ever made as far as putting my name in the hat and working for this organization and the [Chargers owners] Spanos family. Looking back at it all, I should’ve known that I would’ve gotten into sports. As a 10-year-old little girl, I had giant posters of Jerry West and Wilt Chamberlain in my bedroom. I was a huge Lakers fan.
SB: What were some of the hardest parts about going from a traditional accounting firm to running the finances of an NFL team?
JB: It’s funny; the one thing I never really anticipated was the highs and lows associated with winning a game on Sunday. I should’ve known that just because knowing myself and how competitive I am, I played sports growing up and I don’t like to lose. But I just didn’t realize the impact the winning and losing would really have and how you really get into the game. I used to joke with my friends, everybody knew not to call me before noon on Monday if we had lost.
The other thing was because I did the [Chargers’] audit, I knew how things looked at year-end as far as the books and records go, but I didn’t know necessarily the process during the year [for] how to get there. So it was like kind of putting a puzzle together at first — I knew where we needed to end up but needed to figure out how we were gonna get there.
SB: What’s your job like from an overall perspective, and a day-to-day one?
JB: Overall, I would say problem solver and strategist. There are things that happen that you just have to come up with an answer, sometimes on the fly. And also from a strategy standpoint, just where we need to be as an organization going forward, and try to put us in the best spot to be the most successful.
On a day-to-day, I have legal, I have the accounting department, I have IT that report to me. But probably my biggest single project is working with the Los Angeles Rams and the stadium corporation on the new stadium.
SB: Moving to a new stadium sounds challenging and interesting. What’s it been like to work on that?
JB: Just contractually, to make sure we are all living up to the terms of the contract as well as come up with strategy and sales efforts to maximize the revenue as well as to maximize the game day experience for our fans.
So right now I joke we have a day job, which is Dignity Health [Sports Park] and a night job, which is the new stadium. The night job is starting earlier and earlier as we’re getting closer, and we’re thinking of what we need to as far as educating our staff first so that they can educate the fans to make their gameday experience the best.
And it’s all going to be new for them, so we want to make it as seamless as possible from the moment they leave their driveway. So that’s something clearly that we’re focused on. This new stadium’s gonna be phenomenal. Every day you go out there and see it, and it’s an amazing feat.
SB: What have been some of the most rewarding parts about your job?
JB: When the team wins and you see how it galvanizes your fans and the city as well as your staff. There’s nothing like winning — the high point probably was when we went to the Super Bowl [in 1994], from a team standpoint. But also seeing staff develop and mature and advance in their career. That’s always a good thing to see.
We went through a relocation from San Diego to Los Angeles, and relocations are hard. But when I see how our staff stuck together and worked hard and personally made the moves, that to me was fulfilling watching that, and seeing people rise to the occasion and working as a team together.
SB: You’ve said before how you never felt as if you were treated like a woman in the NFL. What did you mean by that, and do you think more women should take the mindset of not letting gender define anything?
JB: I’ve always felt that if you let gender be an issue, it’s going to be an issue. For me, it just never has been. I grew up, my dad had his own family-run business and we used to talk about it around the dinner table at night. But I grew up with, “You can do whatever you want to do. Whatever you put your mind to, you can accomplish.”
I just kind of put my head down and go and do what I need to do. I honestly don’t think about it when somebody says to me, “Oh, were you the only woman in that meeting?” and I’m like “Oh yeah, I guess so.” When I first started, I’ve always gone to the NFL owners meetings, and there were very few of us and we would joke, “Well, there’s no line at the ladies room.”
I really try to look at the bright side of things. I just think if you’re gonna make things issues, they’re gonna be ones. Just be who you are. Everybody brings — whether you’re a man, woman, black, white, or purple — you bring who you are and what talents you have to the table, and that’s just an addition to the group. And so, I’ve just never really focused on gender.
SB: You’ve seen more and more women get hired on NFL teams. How inspiring is that to see being one of the first?
JB: It is inspiring and fulfilling, and it’s because they did it the right way, forging on their own and working hard. We have Allison Miner in our office who’s a physical therapist and assistant athletic trainer. When I first started, our GM didn’t even allow women on the team plane, and for her to be in that position, that’s awesome in my book.
SB: What advice would you give to women wanting to do what you do?
JB: Look at what the job is in its totality. With the move, we hired some new people and a year afterwards we had somebody that said, “You know, I don’t really like working on Sundays. I didn't know I was gonna be involved on the weekends,” and I’m like “Really?” So, know what you’re getting into. Don’t go into this with a big grandiose view of working for an NFL team.
Just with every job, there’s gonna be sacrifices that are made. For us, most of our games are on a Sunday; for the road games, we’re traveling. So when are a lot of birthdays, or weddings, or bar mitzvah or first communions? The majority of those fall on the weekends, so we make the sacrifices and miss those. For us that work here, it’s worth it, but it’s not worth it for everybody.