Building Success from Scratch: Greg Twinney, CGA (Pt. I)

Greg Twinney, CFO and COO of Kobo, Inc. — the Toronto-based makers of the award-winning Kobo e-book reader — explains how he’s made a career of turning small start-ups into big successes.

One of the more pleasantly surprising success stories of Canadian business in recent years has been the rise of Kobo Inc., the company best-known for its popular line of e-readers and online e-bookstore. Despite having to compete with tech-industry goliaths like Apple and Amazon, the Toronto-based firm has established itself as a leader in the e-book digital content and hardware space. In its first year, as a pilot project developed under the auspices of Canadian bookseller Indigo, Kobo generated more than $115 million of revenue. Today, Kobo e-readers and e-books have found their way into the hands of more than 10 million users, in over 170 different countries. Recently acquired by Japan’s largest e-commerce operator, Rakuten (“the Amazon of Asia,” as it’s been dubbed), Kobo looks poised to maintain and strengthen its presence in the international digital media and mobile device marketplace.

Looming large among the braintrust at Kobo is Greg Twinney, CGA, who juggles the dual responsibilities of CFO and COO. Greg has had a long history of turning little-known tech start-ups into legitimate players in the industry. Most recently, in his previous stint as CFO of Opalis Software, he helped to grow the latter from a small, venture capital-financed upstart into one of the premier developers of data center management software (Microsoft bought out the company in 2009). Greg discovered that he had the Midas touch for entrepreneurship at an early age, founding his first successful business as a teenager in order to pay his own way through college; nearly everything he’s worked on since has likewise turned to gold.

I’ve known Greg Twinney for a good part of my career as a finance recruiter in Toronto, so I sat down with him recently for an extensive interview to share his unique perspective, as someone who has been starting and growing successful businesses for nearly all of his life. In reflecting upon his career as an entrepreneur and accountant, Greg stressed the importance of hard work. As Greg explains, he didn’t have the luxury of having success simply handed to him; rather, he had to build it himself from scratch, much like the many start-ups he’s worked with over the years. That commitment to hard work, more than anything else, has made him into the businessperson he is today.

Why did you choose Accounting and Finance as a career?
I don’t know if I chose accounting and finance, so much as it chose me. To be honest, I kind of fell into accounting. If you’d known me when I was younger, you would never have guessed that I would end up as an accountant

 

But you did have some pretty early success at business?

Yes. I started my own window cleaning business in high school in order to pay my way through college. I was the first person in my family to pursue any sort of post-secondary education, which was a big deal for us. I knew that I would have to foot most of the bill myself, so I started preparing for that as early as possible.

It’s funny how the business came into being, though. I was supposed to work for another window cleaning company, and had started attending training sessions. But it didn’t take me very long to realize that this was a business I could easily run myself. Next thing you know, I’m starting up my own operation.

“If you’d known me when I was younger, you would never have guessed that I would end up as an accountant.”

What was it like, running your own business at such an early age?
It was exciting. The business grew quickly; it wasn’t long before we’d pushed out all of the incumbents and had the market all for ourselves. I have some very fond memories of that time. I was still a teenager, but every evening, I had my nose to the grindstone — banging on people’s doors, cold calling them for hours on end, and so on. It was hard, tiring work, but in many ways, those years prepared me for everything that came later in my career. They shaped me into the kind of businessperson I am today, and instilled in me a willingness to work hard for success.

The years I spent running the window cleaning business also taught me some valuable early lessons on what businesses need in order to survive and thrive. I learned that the sales engine of a company is incredibly important, and that everyone in the organization needs to contribute in order for that team to deliver.

What did you decide to do after you’d sold the business?
I enrolled in the business administration program at Seneca College. I really enjoyed my studies — I loved the courses that I took [at Seneca]. I think that was because, having run my own business, I could relate to the material in a way that perhaps many other students couldn’t. For me, it was fascinating to learn some of the theory behind what I had been doing, in practice, all those years of selling window cleaning services door-to-door.

What did you do after college?
I did what every college kid does once they’ve graduated: I fired off a hundred resumes and applied to every opening that I could find. Marketing, sales, and yes, accounting, along with pretty much every other job under the sun — you name it, I applied to it.

“I was still a teenager, but every evening, I had my nose to the grindstone — banging on people’s doors, cold calling them for hours on end, and so on. It was hard, tiring work, but in many ways, those years prepared me for everything that came later in my career.”

So how did your first job end up being in accounting?
I got my first interview with Canar Coach, a company that rented out buses. I was called in by the controller, who hired me on the spot for a position in accounts receivable. Pretty painless, right? Wrong.

I was driving home, basking in the glow of my first successful job interview and thinking about how easily it had gone. I guess that must have jinxed it. Because when I got home, there was a message waiting for me on the answering machine. It was the controller who I’d just interviewed with. He sounded a little panicked, and said that he needed me to call him “urgently.” 

So I called him back. The controller told me he was concerned by the fact that, in the cover letter I submitted with my application, I’d indicated my interest in a sales position, which Canar Coach also had an opening for at the time. He said that accounts receivable was very different from sales, and that he didn’t think that someone who had applied for the one position would be well-suited for the other.

How did you respond?
I told him that accounts receivable would need my skills, since I would be “selling” people who owed us money on the idea of paying us first — before they paid another vendor. Thankfully, he was convinced by that explanation, and said that I could come in to work on Monday.

“I was driving home, basking in the glow of my first successful job interview and thinking about how easily it had gone. I guess that must have jinxed it. Because when I got home, there was a message waiting for me on the answering machine.”

What was that first accounting job like?
Practically speaking, I spent a good part of the next two years collecting money from truckers who didn’t want to pay their bills — I would literally hold their keys until they paid. I was still learning my craft as an accountant. There were about twelve other people I was working with in our department, and I was clearly the most junior member of the team.

But then the controller told me that if I wanted to continue in my position, I would need to get my accounting designation. I did some research and ultimately decided to enrol in courses for the CGA and concurrently get a university degree, all while working full-time. I felt that the CGA had a broad base in business — that appealed to the entrepreneur in me.

Shortly thereafter, both the vice-president of Canar Coach and the controller approached me about the company’s new export business in Cuba. To sell buses there, they needed to set up a completely new entity, and they offered me the opportunity to lead this operation. Of course, that meant giving up my position in accounts receivable. So it was a bit of a gamble on my part. Actually, to this day, I still don’t know why they offered me the opportunity; there were other people who were probably a lot more qualified than I was at the time. So they were taking a risk, too.

I moved to Cuba part-time and worked closely with the vice-president to build the business. It grew quickly — pretty soon we were overseeing a $100 million operation. I did that for about two-and-a-half years, at which point the company asked me to move to Cuba permanently. I was tempted, as the job was definitely interesting and fulfilling. But I had personal commitments in Canada. And I still wanted to finish my designation.

Stay tuned for Part II of Greg’s story. In the meantime, let us know what you think! At Clarity Recruitment, we’re always interested in hearing from accounting and finance professionals like yourselves, who are ready for new, exciting opportunities that can take their careers to the next level. And be sure to follow us on Twitter (@clarityrecruits) for more great tips and advice!