Profile: Steve Baker '90
Kellogg helped Steve Baker '90 make the leap from athlete
to sports CEO
Baker had plenty of firsthand experience with the team approach
that the Kellogg School of Management emphasizes before he
enrolled in its one-year program in 1989. Like many of his
classmates, Baker's professional experience informed him.
But his résumé was anything but typical.
was a former Major League Baseball player. No star, he was
good enough to log four seasons as a pitcher after making
it to the show in 1978 at age 21. Eight years later, stuck
in the minors, the newly married Baker retired. His career
stats: 7-16 with six saves and a 5.13 ERA.
finally came into my life," he reflects, "and I
thought 'I can't pitch five or six more years and hang on
and try to make it back to the big leagues and then start
my life at 36.'" Cindy, his spouse, was a United Airlines
flight attendant based in Denver. Baker, who already had a
smattering of college credits, studied finance at the University
of Denver. After taking an accelerated schedule to graduate
in 2 1/2 years, he applied to the Kellogg School.
said the school's collegial approach turned out to be just
what he needed. "Because I had no practical business
experience, those students in my classes with whom I was on
study teams were the most important thing to me because I
learned from them," he says. Enrolled in Kellogg's fast-track
one-year program, Baker began seeking a post-graduation job
soon after classes began.
credentials impressed corporate recruiters, but his lack of
business background snuffed employers' interest. Taking the
advice of a Kellogg School career counselor, Baker called
baseball executives he knew. His inquiries led to a vice presidency
at Major League Baseball International, a new venture that
would sell the game abroad.
second day of work in the spring of 1990, Baker took a business
trip to Paris on the Concorde. That whirlwind pace continued.
He spent 220 days a year on the road for several years, visiting
more than 50 countries. But, the rigors of travel, coupled
with a 90-minute commute to and from his home in suburban
New York, grew tiresome. Frustrated by what he viewed as a
dearth of leadership in baseball and upset with team owners'
lack of interest in his business, Baker began seeking another
job. "I wanted a chance to try to make my imprint somewhere
as a leader," he said.
quest led to the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics
(NAIA). Again, his introduction was unorthodox because all
of the association's previous leaders had been college presidents
or athletic directors. The challenges, Baker said, were similar
to what he had faced trying to sell baseball in countries
where the sport was practically unrecognized. The NAIA's profile
was just as low, he says.
daunting, he says, was the organization's "don't-rock-the-boat"
internal culture. Baker fired most of the people who didn't
leave, instituted the first strategic plan and struck a resonant
chord after he became the organization's CEO in 1997. His
strategy focused on differentiating the NAIA from its competition
— chiefly, the larger and better-known National Collegiate
Athletic Association — by accentuating his organization's
historic emphasis on student-athletes and community service.
"The question was 'can character be a brand — something
unique enough to get people's attention?'" Baker says.
that distinction, the suburban Kansas City-based NAIA is introducing
a "champions of character" program that will use
coaches and players in outreach. "We're in a sense living
our brand," Baker says. "And it's addressing the
need for exposure for our schools."
whom Baker hired four years ago and who now serves as the
NAIA's chief operating officer, says his boss gives him and
the rest of the 24-person staff autonomy to make decisions.
"He instills confidence in people to go out and do their
job," Carr says, "but you know you're accountable
to get that job done."