Confessions of a Finance Leader in the Tech Space

Can a CPA, CA make the leap to the world of financial analysis?  Can someone who has worked for a Big 4 transition successfully to a fast-paced, savvy tech company?  Are accountants meant to be entrepreneurs?  These types of questions are ones we’re asked everyday as finance and accounting recruiters.

Steven Horniak, CPA, CA has answers to some of these questions.  An entrepreneur at a young age, Horniak realized quite quickly that he needed to walk an unconventional path to find professional fulfillment.  A series of strategic career moves, coupled with some bold decision making have allowed him to achieve success.  He’s worked for one of the Big 4, owned, or been part-owner of two businesses and been a VP Finance.  His story offers valuable lessons on the importance of making purposeful choices.

Question #1:  You started your career with PwC (PW then).  Why did you transition to Unilever?
I realized quite quickly that working for a Big 4 firm was not for me.  I had a desire to learn about different areas of the business.  Even though firms like PwC offer you a chance to grow your skill set, I really wanted to be in FP&A.  Of course, how do you convince someone to take a chance on you?  Unilever gave me an opportunity to be a financial analyst.  Unilever was a great introduction to the business world, to controls and procedures.  It was the first role where I worked with sales and marketing.  It was also a good introduction to M&A and integrations.

Question #2: Do you think the fact that you have owned, or been part-owner of, two businesses has influenced your decision making?
When I was still at the University of Toronto I started a sports card store that was open on weeknights and weekends only.  It taught me the importance of customer service and seeing the big picture.  It gave me my first taste of business and I think it made me realize that I’m an entrepreneur at heart.  It definitely laid the foundation for a number of choices later in my life.

Question #3: What kind of choices?
Well, owning a sports card store introduced me to the consumer packaged goods industry, which helped develop skills and knowledge that benefited me at both Unilever and with my next role at Nestlé.  Once you’ve owned one business and loved it, it’s in your blood (laughs) and so with 4 partners I opened a café at the end of my tenure with PwC.  I was the silent partner – the finance person.

I love the idea phase of any business – the spotting of opportunity – but I also love building a business.  It’s unconventional for most risk adverse finance and accounting professionals to want to be entrepreneurs, but that period of my life owning a sports card store and then café really shaped me as a person.

Question #4: You made a tough choice to leave the consumer packaged goods industry for the tech space. What drove that decision-making?
I had left Unilever for Nestlé in order to advance my career.  At Unilever I’d been a financial analyst and at Nestlé I was the Manager of FP&A.  Even though I learned a lot about consolidations at Nestlé, I wanted more – more of a chance to shape company direction, to build something and watch it succeed – typical entrepreneur.  I considered different industries like entertainment and tech.  I accepted a role as an analyst with GEAC, the largest software company in Canada at the time built on acquisitions.  I was 1 of 3 people reporting into the VP of FP&A.

Question #5: Did you know right away that you made the right choice?
No, in fact it was the opposite (laughs).  I thought I’d made the worst decision of my life.  When I started there in 2000, the company was very successful.  The tech industry, however, has a cycle of boom and bust and this happened with GEAC.  To put it in perspective, the company went from being valued at $27 a share to $2 a share.  A lot of people left at that point, but I stayed and that calculated risk was the difference maker in my career.  I became a manager, then the Director of Accounting.  I progressed to the Director of FP&A and was promoted to the Director of Corporate Planning and Control when a private equity bought GEAC, took it private, and merged it into INFOR.  Eventually I was the VP Finance for INFOR.  So that decision to transition into the tech space and ride out a challenging wave opened up the opportunities that led to a successful career.  In the end, I stayed for 12 years, from 2000 to 2012.

Question #6: Have you made other purposeful choices that have gotten you to where you are today?
After GEAC/INFOR I chose to transition into a consulting role.  I wanted more time for my family and myself.  The timing was right and I spent the next two years working with organizations that inspired me.  Now I work as the CFO of Nexonia.  To me, the size of the company isn’t important.  It’s the challenge that’s important.  Working with a small organization enables me to be more hands-on, to roll up my sleeves and pitch in.  It’s very satisfying.

Question #7: Why should a finance person consider entering the tech space?
A) Opportunity for growth – the tech space is always growing by acquisition and this gives you a chance to work in different functional areas within a company.

B) Opportunity to shape an organization – smaller companies and start-ups offer access to key decision-makers.

C) Opens the door to many aspects of operations – I’ve seen finance people step out of finance and go into customer support.

D) Finance is the touch point to every functional area – tech is small enough to allow a change in focus every 2 to 6 years.  As a side note, if you’re a person who requires stability and predictability, don’t go into tech.  You have to be ready for both growth and decline and the fact that roles can change every 3 years.

E) It gives you more exposure to capital markets, private equity and venture capitalists.

Key Takeaways
Making purposeful choices and calculated risks seems to be a formula for career success.  For a finance leader considering a shift in industries, the tech space can offer a number of opportunities for the right person.  The chance to work with different functional areas of the business and to interact with senior leadership can pave the way for advancement.  As Steven Horniak revealed, it’s not so much about the size of the organization, as the challenge that comes with it.  That ability to see opportunity and take action can lead to the kind of career that every person hopes for.

Your Next Step
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