Neil Klompas: Doing good

Career detour led BC CFO Awards winner to discover a passion for helping people

Neil Klompas, CFO, Zymeworks | Chung Chow

When Neil Klompas started on his professional journey as a fresh-faced undergraduate student, he wasn’t sure what the future held in store. He certainly didn’t envision he would be at the helm of a multimillion-dollar public biotech company.

As a kid growing up in the 1980s, at the peak of science fiction and fantasy fandom, Klompas thought studying the classics like Greek and Roman literature was the best way to align his passions with his future career.

As it turned out, Klompas wasn’t destined for a life as an ancient mythology expert, but it didn’t take long to find another career path that he cared strongly about.

Klompas, now CFO of biotech company Zymeworks (TSX, NYSE:ZYME) is a man of many interests. As a classics major at the University of Victoria, he took a not-so-obvious step and joined the army reserve. There, he would discover his passion for helping people, one that would follow him throughout his professional life.

“I really didn’t discover this passion until I started working with the Armed Forces as a medic and I realized that I’m good at this and I like it,” said Klompas. “And that’s pretty damn empowering.”

Klompas began to realize that studying classical texts wasn’t for him, so he enrolled with the army reserve full time. While preparing to serve as part of the Canadian Forces mission in Yugoslavia, Klompas heard of a job opportunity with the BC Ambulance Service, a notoriously hard team to get on. He jumped at the chance.

Working as a paramedic in Victoria, he took on a leadership role within the medical professional community, sitting on a committee with nurses and doctors to review and improve responses to problem calls. Eventually a number of physicians suggested he go back to school, this time to study chemistry and biochemistry.

While working towards his science degree, Klompas started taking business courses as electives. This showed him the intersecting opportunities that came with business and science.

Despite his focus on biochemistry, Klompas applied for a summer job at  one of the Big Four accounting firms, KPMG. Though his competitors for the job may have had stronger accounting and business skills, Klompas didn’t necessarily see that as a big disadvantage. The others excelled at their understanding of accounting, but he had a better understanding of the industry he’d be working in. What Klompas lacked in technical accounting expertise, he made up for with his knowledge and understanding of life sciences both academically and through his industry experience. He got the job, turning what could be perceived as a liability into his strongest asset.

“I decided that was where I could add value,” he said. “All financial advisory firms look for ways to add value to their clients, and there’s no better way than to speak their language and understand their business.”

Klompas honed his life science skills and knowledge at biotech and pharmaceutical companies while being lent out by KPMG to work within the industry. Eventually, he made his way to New Jersey to work for KPMG’s biotech and pharmaceutical M&A team. This is where he would be recruited by Zymeworks, a start-up biotechnology company with a five-person team.

Since then, Klompas and the Zymeworks team have taken the company public, increased its workforce to 200 and raised its revenue to tens of millions of dollars each year. The company has become the only Canadian biotech firm to be simultaneously listed on two exchanges in the past 10 years.

While Klompas is a long way away from his years as a classics undergrad student, he is much closer to his initial goal of aligning his passion with his career. Klompas’ true obsession turned out to be not fantasy or mythology, but helping people. That’s something he strives to do at Zymeworks every day. •

Business in Vancouver and the Chartered Professional Accountants of British Columbia will honour the province’s top CFOs at the BC CFO Awards gala dinner, being held June 6 at the Fairmont Waterfront Hotel. For more information or to register, go to biv.com/bc-cfo-awards.