Canada’s ‘CFO of the Year’ discusses the positives of going through bankruptcy, why organizations need to embrace disruption and how leading innovation can be a natural fit for the CFO.


Gord NelsonRW: You’ve been the CFO of Cineplex through bankruptcy, private equity ownership to the business having a record year last year. How have these experiences shaped your approach to leadership?

GN: You know what? I always tell people I was very fortunate to go through more turbulent times earlier on in my career. That experience has made me realize the importance of relationships, both internal and external, as well as trust within your team and outside the organization. When you’re in financial distress you don’t have the normal bargaining power or financial considerations that suppliers or employees are looking for, so you have to counter that with strong personal and interpersonal relationships.

RW: Innovation, particularly around moving into gaming and digital signage, was something you helped spearhead at Cineplex. Why did you decide to take this on and what would your advice be to other CFOs who are keen to lead a similar initiative?

GN: The first thing I spearheaded was our move into digital signage. When you have an organization like Cineplex that executes the core business really well, you have more freedom to think outside the box. I was always focused on where I thought the organization could be in 5 or 10 years.

All CFOs are probably working on five-year or multi-year plans for their organization, and when doing so I think it’s important to understand the strategic fit of an opportunity by asking if it makes sense. Is it an extension of existing capabilities? Is it an untapped market? I always use the term at Cineplex: “I want us to be proactive and not reactive” as we want to execute on the best as opposed to the first opportunities.

My advice to other CFOs who are looking to innovate is to map out where they think the future is and to work directly with the CEO in understanding his or her vision. Once the CEO is on board and you are on the same page, start to engage the Executive Team to expand the view throughout the broader business.

RW: That’s interesting. Was everybody supportive of you running with it (gaming and digital signage) or was there some internal resistance?

GN: I think you’re always going to face some internal resistance when you are trying to innovate. People are comfortable in what they know and what they do, and both of these new products were innovative, emerging businesses. More risk was involved, but I was able to provide compelling arguments to convince people. I believe I ultimately did a good job of getting the internal teams really excited about our prospects in these two spaces.

RW: You work for CEO, Ellis Jacob, who was the former CFO of the organization. Sometimes we hear it can be challenging reporting to a CEO who was the former CFO as they never seem to let go of their former position. How did you both manage the transition and why has the relationship been so successful?

GN: Ellis (Ellis Jacob) typically jokes that I have the hardest job in the company because being the former CFO it is the one job he knows best. He still maintains his detailed focus in certain areas of interest but I would definitely say that he has let go and he has allowed me to own the CFO role. Everything typically comes down to trust and ensuring that the CEO is not caught by surprise but I would also add that we typically have similar views when it comes down to risk and strategy. People often joke that we can complete each other’s sentences.

RW: What do you think about the pace of technological change and disruption that’s going on in the entertainment industry? How, as CFO, can you help keep the organization focused with so many potential rabbit holes to go down?

GN: I always give this word of warning to people out there about disruption. We may think that there’s been a lot of disruption over the past five years, but as you look forward I think the level and the frequency of disruption is going to be at a pace that we’ve never seen before. Everyone needs to be prepared for how that’s going to impact their business.

The way we look at disruption is as both an opportunity and a threat. When disruption occurs and new markets are created, one should ask “Is there an opportunity for your business to actually participate in this?”. I think that’s what we do here at Cineplex, and a good example of this is our digital store, where we sell online movie products for consumers to view in their home or on their mobile devices. So, as that market grew, we successfully entered it, instead of succumbing to its threat.

RW: How important has storytelling been in the way you communicated inside and outside the organization? Is there a particular formula you use to help sell your ideas?

GN: I think storytelling is really critical when we are looking at new business opportunities, as our team needs to be able to sell it on a page if it’s going to our Board. You have to obviously have a detailed analysis of the opportunity in order to answer to various stakeholders, but people need to understand the opportunity and that’s where I believe storytelling becomes very important.

When I go out externally, and in particular if it’s in a new space, I communicate two critical things to our investors. The first is why we can succeed in that space and the skills that we have developed that would allow us to be successful in it. The second is to give them a sense of what that new business opportunity is and have them envision it as something that they can relate to in a way that is not overly technical.

RW: Do you have any ‘tricks of the trade’ for achieving some balance in life given the demands of being the CFO of a large, public company?

GN: I’d say it comes down to scheduling. I try to get in a bit early in the morning and I limit the number of social evenings I’m doing that are work-related. I try to make sure that I keep my evenings and weekends for my family, but it can be difficult at times.

RW: What movie had the biggest impact on you growing up and why?

GN: This is an easy one, it’s Apocalypse Now. It’s the first film that I recall that had great music — which is such an important element of the film. Not only did I love the film, but I also read the book at school, and I wrote a comparison paper in English about the movie, the book and one of the songs from the movie, The End by The Doors.

Ross Woledge

Ross Woledge is a Partner and CFO Practice leader for Odgers Berndtson Canada and is a member of the Financial Services Practice. He leads CFO and senior financial officer searches for clients acro...

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