BC CFO Awards: Pandemic tests resilience, adaptability of top B.C. financial stewards

Q&A | Winners of BIV’s 2020 BC CFO Awards share lessons learned in helping steer their organizations through COVID-19 stormwaters

Top row, from left: Don Matheson, vice-president and CFO, UBC Properties Trust; Simon Bodymore, CFO, Tasktop Technologies; Andrea Johnston, CFO, Pinnacle Renewable Energy. Bottom row, from left: Amy Lam, executive vice-president, corporate services, and CFO, Chartered Professional Accountants of British Columbia; Hitesh Kothary, vice-president and CFO, BC Children’s Hospital Foundation; Greg Gutmanis, CFO and corporate secretary, Diversified Royalty Corp.

The chief financial officer is a stabilizer, a fixer, an adviser, a leader. The economic vitality of an organization depends on wise financial management, and that usually leads to the door of the CFO for solutions. In the pandemic, the strategic and tactical leadership of the organization has been even more crucial to its success.

Our six recipients of the 2020 BC CFO Awards at BIV are emblematic of the qualities inherent in great leadership. They have demonstrated a profound impact on their organizations and were certainly critical to their operation in recent months in this unprecedented challenge.

The recipients this year are Don Matheson of UBC Properties Trust (large private company), Simon Bodymore of Tasktop Technologies (small private company), Andrea Johnston of Pinnacle Renewable Energy (large public company), Amy Lam of the Chartered Professional Accountants of British Columbia (publicly accountable organization), Hitesh Kothary of BC Children’s Hospital Foundation (not-for-profit) and Greg Gutmanis of Diversified Royalty Corp. (rising star).

BIV’s publisher and editor-in-chief Kirk LaPointe interviewed them for a series of podcasts, and while judges awarded their honours before the pandemic, the discussions focused on how they’ve managed through this difficult chapter. The following is an excerpt of the conversations, edited for space and clarity.

 

Let’s start with a simple question. What have you learned in the last few months?

Amy Lam, Chartered Professional Accountants of British Columbia: Well, you know, the pandemic hit us right at the time when it was at our financial year end, in March. So, as we know, the world basically flipped upside down in two weeks. So what we learned was that we needed to adapt very quickly and reflect the current environment in our business plans. We quickly reviewed our operational plan and adjusted our financial forecast, so that we have a good idea of where we are financially, so that we can adjust our expenditures to make sure we preserve our cash flow. And again, casting our minds back to March, when there was significant uncertainty, I think preservation of cash flow was paramount, to ensuring that we survived financially intact through this pandemic. So that’s what we learned – that we really need to have a good handle on our finances and where we are financially. And then the second thing we learned was how important cultural capital that we already have with our staff really helped us work so effectively, remotely. So we closed our office – I remember March 17. And we had our teams working remotely within days. So the collaborative and transparent workplace culture that we do have in place allows us to work successfully while working from home. And, you know, we’ve been working really hard to maintain that culture, even though we can’t get together anymore. So we’re trying to keep the same social events, even though we’re doing them virtually now. For example, we held our annual summer, social, this past summer, although virtually, and you know, and everyone seemed to really enjoy that. But yeah, we’re really paying attention to that.

 

Don Matheson, UBC Properties Trust: We learned a few things. We had a couple things that we weren’t set up for, [like] remote working. We have a significant construction business, and we didn’t know if they would be shut down or not. We obviously were concerned about the safety of our employees and what we were going to do. And we have a significant rental portfolio, and we’re concerned how we’re going to interact with our tenants – how we’re going to turn suites over, how we’re going to do maintenance. So we had a lot of challenges that we had to face. And we covered them off pretty well.

 

Simon Bodymore, Tasktop Technologies: I think we learned just how resilient our staff really were, because we went from watching things on the news and realizing that something was happening to the following day closing the offices sending everyone home, and going, well, how do we now interact? You know, we turned the business on its head, and we came through just fine. There was really only a period of about a week where we had to figure out just how to enable people to continue working. And then we realized that all our staff, they’re rock stars that are completely resilient, and they adapted quickly. It hasn’t been without its challenges, we still have them today. We haven’t opened up our offices yet. And we’re having to be accommodating for people who have, you know, less-than-ideal situations at home or less-than-ideal work situations. But, you know, the team has pulled through. I’m also dealing with enterprise customers; they are large enterprises that cannot adapt quickly to things. And that was likely the biggest challenge for us helping work with customers in an environment where we can no longer go and sit down with them and work with them. That was probably the biggest challenge we had.

 

Greg Gutmanis, Diversified Royalty Corp.: [We learned] that the world can change very quickly. And obviously working, you know, with all the stakeholders involved has been very active, right from the start. And we have six realty partners, fantastic businesses, and different challenges affect different businesses in various ways. And some a lot more than others…. But across the board, working with those management teams, being proactive with our lenders, chatting, obviously with our auditors and shareholders and keeping everyone apprised of what we’re doing, and has been really the lay of the land – for the beginning of the chaos, anyway.

 

Hitesh Kothary, BC Children’s Hospital Foundation: The really quick transition from working from the office to working remotely from home was amazing. [Our team] did a great job. And, you know, with the advent of the technology that’s available nowadays, you know, with virtual private networks, and, for our case, Microsoft Office 365, I mean, you can really work seamlessly from anywhere. And that’s the lesson that came to light. Prior to the pandemic, we were very much an organization that preferred people to work from the office, because there were a lot of cultural benefits to doing so. And while that has obviously been lost a little bit, I would say, the ability to work from home has been pretty seamless, in terms of our business. Similar to what Greg said, there’s been some parts of our operation that I’ve definitely had to pivot very significantly, for example, our galas. Obviously, you can’t have 500 people anymore. So we’ve had to look at digital fundraising strategies to offset that. But thankfully, we are quite a diversified operation. And that has meant a big deal to us, because parts of our operation continue to do very well, even in this pandemic environment.

 

Andrea Johnston, Pinnacle Renewable Energy: It goes without saying that one of the key things we’ve learned during this period is the importance of communications. And, of course, we’ve all had to learn new means of communication. We don’t have the opportunity to get together internally as a team, very often at all, and certainly with our external stakeholders, and during a time of so much transition, change, new risk profiles, we have to use the new methods,… learn how to use them effectively, and use them even more frequently. And throughout our careers in business, we hear about the importance of communication. But if I think about the things that we’ve come across during COVID, it starts first and foremost with our employees in terms of safety. And we run a number of different wood pellet production facilities in the U.S. and Canada, including some in Alabama. And we had to communicate safety measures across cultures, and not only to keep our employees’ safety within different regulatory regimes, but making sure to be able to continue to deliver to our utility customers who are very dependent on our products, no matter what’s going on in the world. So communications with employees internally, certainly my own finance team, as Amy mentioned, we’re learning how to communicate with people that we used to be able to just lean across to another desk and collaborate quite easily. Now you have to sometimes plan your collaboration or again, look to new technical tools to be able to do that. We had to collaborate … and communicate in a different way with our bankers with the risks that come up during COVID – and the importance of cash management.

 

When a pandemic hits, how does the CFO lean in? 

Don Matheson: Certainly my management style is a bit more collaborative and hands-off. But in this particular situation, I became quite hands-on. I think, people were looking for more leadership and direction and how to do things. So I rolled up my sleeves, got in there. I’ve reverted back to my previous style right now. But at the time, I think they were just looking for some direction.

 

Simon Bodymore: I think the experience was the team wanted guidance, and they wanted to feel that we have things under control. Very different experience in a small company – you know, the CFO wears many hats. Kind of rolls up to me, you know. And I think the decisions didn’t necessarily have to be the right ones. They just have to be made confidently, and you have to be willing to change your mind the following day. I think that’s become our life right now.

 

Amy Lam: I think during times like this financial stewardship is extremely important, because it’s the lifeblood of a business. And if you don’t have clear visibility on what your financial position is, you really don’t know what you can do and what you cannot do…. I think we were told at a board meeting not to refer to something as a budget but a scenario.

 

Hitesh Kothary: Every organization is different. I will tell you that at our organization, we have built some contingency reserves for the unknown for crisis times like this. And so for us, it was very much steady as she goes…. We didn’t want to panic our employees with what was going on. And for us, it was really important to convey the opposite to our employees, to convey job security and the fact that we’re here for them during this difficult time, and we’re going to stay with them. And you know, hopefully that loyalty will pay off once the pandemic passes. You know, prior to this pandemic, it was a very tight job market, both in the non-profit, not-for-profit sector, but I think even in the for profit sector. And so to me, one of the lessons learned is really, you’ve got to show that that trust in your people on a long-term basis. So that’s one takeaway for myself. And the other one, like I said, is we’re lucky that we’ve got contingency reserves, so we can still stand something like this. I worry about smaller [organizations], especially charities that might be relying on one or two primary sources of funding. It’s going to be hard for them.

Greg Gutmanis: I think communication is important. I think everyone wants to be in the loop and know and even if you don’t have the answer, at least chatting with them and telling that you don’t know the answer is very important. So even if you don’t know, or the information isn’t great, [it] was better to reach out and just, you know, inform people what you know.

 

Andrea Johnston: We went through very methodically all of our decision points about things like levels of inventory to maintain, and various investments to make sure and again, preserve capital and thus also approach the banks. I think the CFO can really lean into at times like this … in the realm of enterprise risk management as a whole.

 

Isn’t it also the ability to manoeuvre and navigate on the basis of almost the last week’s financial performance? 

Matheson: Definitely, from our perspective, there’s a lot of short-term actions and short-term thinking. And, you know, we still have an overarching longer-term goal, but we know that the outcome in a year, two years is going to be very different to what we think it is today. You know, flexibility is key. Yeah.

 

What has surprised you in this? 

Johnston: What’s most surprised me, I must say, is on a good side – is that people did adapt and adjust. And for the most part, people, be it employees working from home, continued to provide leadership and adapt their work styles. Our suppliers have very quickly adapted when we make new requests of them. If you’d asked leaders a year ago: could you imagine a world where your whole accounting team has to do your year-end from home? Oh, no, no, we need three years to plan ahead and adapt. But we were planning our year-end audit completely remotely this year.

 

Lam: I would have to agree with Andrea. I think how quickly [we responded], particularly on the technology front. With the pandemic, I think the need to adopt technology has really accelerated. And I’ve been really pleasantly surprised at how well businesses have adopted technology. Within our own organization, I have been really pleased with how quickly we’ve been able to deploy our technology.

 

Bodymore: Many things have surprised me. I think the adaptability of the team surprised me. You know, there was no complaint, and people were engaged, and they wanted to make this work. You know, we run regular employee engagement surveys to see how our teams are feeling. We’re hitting the highest scores we’ve ever had in the six years we’ve been running those surveys right now. Because people are appreciating the little steps that the company is doing. That completely surprised me. I thought people would be so miserable, working from home; they’re just not prepared for it. You know, that lack of collaboration without colleagues? You know, I do think we have proven that we can operate a business with large customers in a remote fashion. It’s not ideal, and things need to change again, going forward. But I think for now, it’s been incredibly surprising that we’ve made some of the biggest sales we’ve made in the company’s history over the past six months.

 

Matheson: The fact that we adapted and we were agile. We went to this remote working, and it was pretty seamless. There’s a few hiccups along the way. But once everyone got settled down with their laptops and monitors, we became pretty efficient. And we changed our processes along the way, so that we have basically gone paperless right now. But what we found about people working from home – that’s kind of a positive and negative. Some people were back open full time, 100% right now. You know, not everyone’s excited to come back full time. Some people, they missed the face-to-face interaction, the water cooler banter and all that kind of stuff. And others were like, ‘Well, geez, you know, why are we back full time?’ So we said, OK, fine. So we actually piloted a two-day work-from-home on a rotational basis. And … our survey results show that people are thrilled. They’re very happy about that. We’re also a little bit concerned about people’s mental health. Isolation is an issue. And so we’ve actually changed our benefit plan to include a mental health aspect, which has been well received from staff as well.

 

Everyone’s pointing to the changing of the seasons that we have going on right now as perhaps a bit of a portent of some challenges around mental health and all that. Simon, are you are you noticing that at Tasktop? 

Bodymore: Yes. Absolutely, we’ve had some people who I think have had a tougher time than others adapting, you know, if they are working from home, when they’re alone. Timing was terrible for some people. We recruited a number of people from out of town … in the earlier part of the year, and some of them were due to arrive in March and April. So these people, they’ve moved their entire lives across the world for us, and then they haven’t been able to meet any of their colleagues in person. Some of them have been stuck essentially, at home, in a condo on their own. So definitely some challenges there. And we’re in the process of opening up the office on a partial basis now to try and address some of that and get some interaction with colleagues and get some people a change of scenery. You know, I think the fall is going to be tough for a lot of people.

 

It’s not like remote work was some kind of innovation. Why is it working? 

Kothary: One of the key things is constant communication, whether it’s through an email or whether it’s through town hall. And we are thinking about what can we do, as we approach the holiday season as well, we’ve historically had a holiday get-together. And obviously now we’re going to be careful with how we do that. But we’re thinking through that. And we might have small pockets of teams of eight to 10 people that get together.

 

What has been your proudest moment during this time?

Matheson: Getting through this process, I think we’ve done a good job game through process with people; you’re looking after a staff from a safety perspective, implementing a rotational work pattern, which has been good, but I think I’m most proud of how we’ve adapted to our tenants, especially the retailers. We do have a couple of the big guys, and they didn’t need any assistance during this period, like the grocery stores, or the pharmacies or the banks. But we have a lot of smaller, you know, mom-pop type stores. And we want to see them survive. You know, it does nothing for the retail experience if you have a store, which goes dark. When the government came up with certain programs, we jumped on them right away. We have some of the smaller cafes on campus. And we’re actually going to look at some tents, because they’ve enjoyed the nice summer months of sitting outside on these cafés. But now, how can we roll that into the fall and have some tents with some heating systems so that they can still enjoy and still be open? We know this is not going to end soon; it’s going to last for a little bit longer. And it’s about sharing the pain amongst all of us.

 

Johnston: I think the proudest moment in this time is within my team, we determined that we needed to make a change and what some of the team members were doing, to adapt to the high level of growth that we have. And more expansion south of the border. So we were able to give thoughtful communication to people that were being disrupted. They were remaining with the company but in different roles and then be able to successfully onboard into new roles.

 

Lam: I have to say, you know, my proudest moment is how well and quickly my teams came together. And I have to say, kudos to my team, they really pitched in and did what was necessary, regardless of what their normal day-to-day role was.

 

Bodymore: In the middle of March, we launched a brand-new product. Up until that point, we were a one-product company. And we went to the enormous step of becoming a two-product company, which is way more complicated than it sounds. And we as a company have done a tremendous job, I think of launching that product, generating interest and selling it. You know, we set ourselves what we thought were some ambitious goals earlier on in the year, and we’ve exceeded them. But it hasn’t been easy. every aspect of our business has kind of been turned on its head in terms of how we go to customers, how we go to market, how we sell the product, how we support it on the back end.

 

Kothary: The way everybody within the organization, first of all, starting with our foundation has come together in this moment of crisis, to pivot, to be nimble, to be flexible, to be open to change. That’s been very, very impressive. And then if I go beyond the foundation for a minute, you know, even the greater community of adopters and the researchers that we work with daily, they’ve been amazing to work with, you know, that the reality is that the pandemic is not stopping childhood diseases from continuing … people are still getting cancer, kids are still getting blood disorders, or whatever it might be.… So just the ability to be flexible and adapt has been amazing.

 

Gutmanis: From our office, to our relative partner, how everyone really rallied very quickly, people didn’t just tune out and say, ‘I’m going home and this is too scary.’ Everyone really tried to see what they could do to make this thing work.

 

What did you learn about yourself? 

Bodymore: You’ve got to embrace change and not be afraid of it. You know, I think as finance people, we like consistency and we like predictability. And we don’t have that today, you know, every day is going to bring something new. And I think I personally learned to just roll with the changes, whatever they are, well, OK, we’ll adapt, we’ll figure it out. And let’s just see what tomorrow brings.

 

Matheson: I echo Simon’s comments. You’ve got to be agile and change when change is necessary.

 

Gutmanis: It’s important to pause and make sure that, your family is OK, and that your children are not too stressed about a very challenging situation, and trying to really pause and accept where reality is and really focusing on things that are important. And, you know, for me, that would personally be family.… Balance swings one year to the next. But for sure, I have definitely really appreciated a lot more of the time with my family, with my kids. And you know, it can be on top of each other in a house when everyone’s home from school all the time. But really, you know, trying to reflect on that and see how important it is. And try not to lose sight of that as the world progresses on and returns back to whatever it returns back to, and new challenges and opportunities and stuff arise to not forget that and to keep focusing on that.

 

Kothary: Yeah, so you know, when this first hit the first few weeks of working remotely, I was pretty happy and sort of satisfied with how easy it was to adapt. But then as time has unfolded, and now we’re seven months into this thing, I did realize a subtle stress that was creeping in. I think I’m a pretty grounded individual, as a whole. And yet, I saw myself reacting sometimes to things that I wouldn’t normally react to, and made me realize that there is an impact of this pandemic, that that is playing on a lot of people. It is bringing out, unfortunately, some of the mental cracks that we’ve seen in society. So it was a reminder to me that, you know, what I’m dealing with, for example, my staff at the foundation to ask, you know, [to ask] how are they doing. I perhaps wouldn’t normally ask as often as I do these days.

 

Lam: I learned that, as a leader, we really need to be adaptable and agile. As a leader, I’ve really learned that you really need to … almost need to take a pulse check, like a month-to-month, to see where things are at and if things are still on track. And then the other thing I learned is, you know, and to be open and base decisions on data.

 

Johnston: I’m a pretty busy person with lots of direct and indirect reports and internal and external stakeholders. And when you’re trying to get a lot done, it’s pretty easy to rely on the keyboard. And with even more technology, it’s easier than that stroll down the hall to sit down with somebody and really understand what they meant by their latest. Obviously, we couldn’t do that. It emphasized for me the importance of getting face time, even if it’s over technology, to understand what somebody else means and then make sure that I’m communicating most effectively. I’ve got employees who have young children who weren’t in daycare, soccer camp or anything all summer. And so I watched them and I watched myself on, how do you manage your workday, when you’re sitting in as I am in my dining room, they may be sitting in a small apartment with two kids that they’re trying to contain in another bedroom? So really, how do we adapt our workdays to be more flexible, so that we can get work done, but also maintain balance? When I get an email late at night, I can sit down at my desk and get that to work. But maybe that’s not the most effective thing to do.

 

What do you think is possible now to predict and what isn’t possible to predict about the year ahead done? 

Johnston: When is there going to be a vaccine? When are we going to be back in the office? Are people going back to the office? And will they go back full time? What is the future of the workplace and how we work together? So I think a lot of those questions people have started to say, relax, we don’t know those, it’s very hard to predict. So … control what you can control.

 

Lam: I think unpredictable would be when will we get a vaccine and all of that. But I think, you know, what is predictable is that the pandemic has profoundly changed how we view a work day, how we evaluate the performance of our staff and how we work. So we are already looking ahead and preparing [for what] you can call it the new normal, the next normal, whatever the phrase people are using. We will have some portion of our staff who want to work from home some portion of the week on a more permanent basis. Compared to pre-pandemic, I would say 90% of our staff worked in the office. So I’m going to say that it’s a safe bet that there will be people who would want to work permanently some portion of the week from home. And so how do we prepare for that? How do we take learnings that we have gained from the current experience so that we can take that forward with us? How do we take learnings that we have gained during this time forward, so that, you know, that we can still be effective – when let’s say, 25% of our workforce on any given day is not in the office?

 

Matheson: [The University of British Columbia’s] decision to go to online learning is a big deal for us. I don’t think they’re going to go back in the springtime. So the next six months is going to be kind of a steady state for us. And again, I’m worried a little bit about the winter months and the weather and how our retailers are going to fare during that period. I think our residents are going to be OK, we’ve got sufficient occupancy levels there to carry us through, and we got great support from our lenders. And we got a strong balance sheet. So I think financially, we’ll be OK. But we’re just kind of a piece of the larger ecosystem at UBC. And so I think we want everybody to survive and thrive. So we want to support our retailers as best we can.

 

Bodymore: We have a product that’s great in the market, and that is selling. And we believe that we can sell even more of it. And we’re actively hiring people, we’re actively staffing up and trying to expand, we’re doing this again, it’s an environment where you know, that we’re in a pandemic, the rates of infection are going up in certain markets but not in others. We don’t know that that’s going to look like a winner when a vaccine will come. But more importantly, if you look at our biggest market, which is the U.S., it’s an election year, and it’s a particularly interesting election year. And we just don’t know what the impact is going to be there. You know, there’s lots of talk of recession, there’s lots of turmoil….So you know, we’re kind of on a knife’s edge right now that we’re building up for the demand that we think is there. And yet we don’t know what the economy is going to do. And if it takes a turn one way or the other, we could be really impacted.

 

Gutmanis: Over the last six, seven months, there’s been a million different predictions of when things happen. And I think that’s the impossible piece to predict is when things return or get back, or vaccines, or all that kind of stuff.

 

Kothary: We’re in an environment here where I have a chance to speak with the head of research from time to time, who is probably one of the more knowledgeable people in terms of the potential for a vaccine being developed and the timeline for that. So in speaking with him recently, you know, it wasn’t all that different than what you’ve probably heard in the media in terms of Phase 3 trials, you know, being completed sometime towards the end of this calendar year, one or two of them will likely be successful, and then be rolled out to the public sometime in sort of spring-summer of next year, with the hope that, you know, with some level of efficacy of the vaccine, we might have a new normal by the fall of next year. And for us as a foundation, I guess what that really says that it’s still a long ways away. So that’s a definite unknown. But at the same time, you know, I do believe there will be a new normal eventually, and you have to think long term; you can’t be tactical, you’ve got to be strategic in these times.

 

Do you like your job more than you did before the pandemic? 

Gutmanis: Yes, I think the tough times show. But … I’m happy with the people I interact with on a daily basis. I’m happy with the organization that we’ve set up and grown from scratch to this. And so, yes, it’s been a challenge for sure … but also exciting.

 

Lam: I have to say yes and no, I think, certainly, I have not felt as impactful as I currently do … because things are changing so quickly, and I really feel the responsibility and the impact that I’m having on the organization. But you know, it is challenging. I do miss going to the office. I do miss seeing people. It is not the same on Zoom. And there’s no doubt there are more stresses now than before, right?

 

Johnston: I have friends that asked me, ‘Gee, haven’t you been doing this a lot of years? Aren’t you kind of bored by it? Are you ready for something else?’ And I always say one of the things I love about my job at this stage is you’re helping develop and coach and mentor a lot of other people. And I really enjoy that about my job and help identifying people with potential. And it’s definitely much easier to do that when you’re working in the same space and able to get together. What I do like though, is working from home. Sometimes when you’re in the office, you’ve got a deadline, but you’re waiting for other people to get things done. And now I can head out and go for a walk in the middle of the day, knowing that I can look at my phone [or text and] come in, head back to the desk and get things done.

 

Matheson: We were thrown a curveball, a big curveball in March and April, and it was actually a little bit exciting. You know, there’s a lot of uncertainty, of course … but the fact that we were continuing on was a good thing. But it was a daily grind as to how we’re going to adapt and change and meet these challenges. So I did find it exciting.

 

Bodymore: I’m adapting. I’m a lot happier now than I was earlier on. I think the biggest thing missing for me is this interaction with people. You know, I’m a social person. I like to walk around and you know, one of my colleagues jokes that I manage by walking, because I’ll walk around the office and just stop and talk to people. I can’t do that now. So you know, it’s definitely something that I myself am having to work on. But I’m a lot happier than I was six months ago.

 

Kothary: I would say one of the most important roles of a CFO is to manage during a crisis, right? I mean, to really help manage the business during a crisis … to be that calming influence, if you can be … I mean, it’s easy to manage something in good times. So I think it has been more gratifying in some ways to manage through this crisis, but I don’t want it to last for very long. I’d be happy to be back to our normal world.