Kellogg World Alumni Magazine, Spring 2003Kellogg School of Management
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Steve Baker '90

Alumni Profile: Steve Baker '90

Team player
Kellogg helped Steve Baker '90 make the leap from athlete to sports CEO

Steve 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.

Baker 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.

"Responsibility 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.

Baker 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.

His big-league 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.

In his 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.

Baker's 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.

Equally 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.

To make 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."

Jim Carr, 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."

— Jim Davis

©2002 Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University