Running on instinct — and cool logic

Nobody was surprised when Gord Nelson, CPA, CA and CFO of Cineplex Inc., won the 2016 CFO of the Year Award — except Nelson himself.

As a self-confessed type-A personality and the CFO of Cineplex Inc. for more than a decade, Gord Nelson seldom gets to kick back and unwind. It was on one of those rare occasions that he got the news. “I was on vacation and just settling in by the pool when I got a call from Toronto,” he recalls. “I assumed there was a fire at work I needed to put out.”

Instead, FEI Canada informed Nelson that he had been named Canada’s CFO of the Year for 2016. “It felt like the ultimate reward for spending the first half of my career learning in distress situations,” he says.

Cineplex was indeed in distress when Nelson joined the company’s finance team in 1988. “I spent the next 10 years selling off noncore assets to survive,” he says. Having risen to the executive level by this time, Nelson ran the company through a restructuring process. When the dust settled, Cineplex had a new management team. Nelson took the financial helm as CFO and realized a dream he had nurtured since the day he began working. “We started a culture of innovation,” he says. “Everyone we hired had innovation in their DNA.”

Nelson’s brand of innovation combines gut instinct with a dispassionate assessment of business opportunities. “We make decisions in a disciplined manner,” he says, referring to the business development team that works under him. A case in point: Cineplex’s entry into the emerging eSports space. “The company we acquired was losing money, but all the indicators suggested it would be very successful.” The reason? “Today’s sports fans have a strong desire to congregate socially.”

Nelson has shepherded the company through other innovations, such as Front Row Centre, which allows customers to take in live events on a big screen. “Today’s moviegoers want a unique experience they can’t get at home, so that’s what we’ve given them,” he says.

Since changes in the entertainment world come fast and furious, Nelson says it’s more important than ever to plan ahead. For example, when it became clear that Netflix and similar digital channels were not going away, Nelson acted. “We created our own digital store where you can download films or rent content.”

While Nelson’s long stint at Cineplex may seem unusual in an era of quick-change career artists, he has no plans to change course. “Many people on our team have worked together for such a long time, it’s almost like family,” he says. “We complete each other’s sentences.”

And being CFO of a large organization feels just right to him. When Nelson was 12 years old, his parents stoked his natural aptitude for figures by giving him a budget and making him log purchases in a ledger book. The exercise had him combine the logic of math with the autonomy to make gut-inspired purchases. “You might say I was groomed for this job.”