Errol Olsen: Ahead of the Curve

Thrill of constant reinvention drew Absolute Software CFO to the fast-changing tech sector

Errol Olsen, CFO, Absolute Software Corp. | Chung Chow

It’s a boardroom like countless others in downtown Vancouver: a dozen Herman Miller chairs arranged around a slightly scarred oak table, dark-tinted windows offering a floor-to-ceiling view of neighbouring towers.

“I know. A bank tower,” said Errol Olsen, CFO of Absolute Software Corp. (TSX:ABT). He shook his head apologetically, explaining that as much as he’d love to work out of a funky Yaletown loft, the fact is that for an IT security company with 430 employees and $90 million in sales, a foosball table and a beer fridge won’t cut it anymore.

As Absolute moves out of the startup sandbox and into the corporate big leagues, Olsen faces the biggest challenge of his professional life.

“We’ve been going through a transformation over the last five years and it’s really ramped up in the last year,” he explained. “It’s about internal structure, introducing more accountability within the organization, introducing more structure and narrowing our focus as an organization, which is one of my hot buttons.”

As CFO, it’s Olsen’s job to introduce structure and systems to the organization.

“In an entrepreneurial organization, you’re just going after market share, and sometimes things are more opportunistic in terms of how decisions are made,” Olsen said. “Now our focus is on repeatability and margins, the shift from intuitive decision-making to more data-driven decision-making.”

While he excels at structures and systems, Olsen could hardly be mistaken for a buttoned-down bean-counter. He lives for challenges, and it was the thrill of constant reinvention that drew him to the software sector, and to IT security in particular.

“The security landscape evolves very quickly,” he said. “We have a solution that fills a gap today, but something will happen – something always happens.”

A brilliant solution to today’s security threat will be obsolete tomorrow, he explained. An upstart competitor might emerge to challenge Absolute’s market share, or customer priorities might shift overnight. His job hinges on constant reinvention, and Olsen wouldn’t have it any other way.

Born in Vancouver, Olsen completed a business degree at Simon Fraser University. His initial inclination was to go into software engineering, but he opted instead for accounting because of the travel opportunities it offered. His first job, with KPMG, gave him the opportunity to transfer to Australia, where he worked for a couple of years. After returning to Vancouver he signed on as controller for Ritchie Bros. Auctioneers, where overseeing Latin American operations meant a lot of travel to Mexico and Panama.

When a call came from a former client offering the opportunity to get into the software industry, Olsen jumped at the chance and became director of finance at Infowave Software, a pioneer in mobile applications. As he pursued his passion for software, Olsen built up a resumé that today reads like a who’s who of Vancouver software startups: after Infowave, he served as vice-president of finance for Pivotal Corp., moved on to become CFO of Explorer Software, then CFO of Inetco Systems before joining Absolute in 2010.

If his professional life has been a story of chasing one challenge after another, his private life is no different.

“I pack a lot into a week,” he said. “I’m an avid biker – I have a big quiver of bikes in the basement. I’m an avid skier. I surf.”

His greatest passion, however, is trail running. “I’ll run three, four hours at a time through the North Shore mountains,” he said. He runs or cycles to his downtown office every day from his home on the North Shore, and in the summer when the days are long, he’s often running up Grouse Mountain before the sun rises.

It’s on the mountain trails that Olsen does his best thinking.

“It’s meditative,” he said. “There’s a saying that if you can’t solve a problem on a four-hour trail run, it can’t be solved.”

Now 46 and married with a 13-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter, Olsen may have traded his globe-trotting days for a job in a bank tower, but that hardly means he’s lost the thrill of seeking the next challenge.

He compares overhauling systems at Absolute to swapping out airline engines in mid-flight, without losing altitude or speed.

“I think we’re just on the cusp of something big,” he said. “I’ve been here for five years and it’s as exciting as when I started.” 

Errol Olsen will be honoured at the BC CFO Awards gala dinner on June 2nd at the Fairmont Waterfront Hotel. For tickets and event info visit www.biv.com/events/cfo