A fine balance

Susanne Robertson, CPA, CA, is the winner of CPA Canada’s 2016 Financial Leadership (CFO) award. As CFO of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, she’s proving that idealism and money can happily coexist.

You won’t find Robertson sporting a TGIF button or wearing an “I’d Rather Be Sailing” T-shirt. Robertson would rather be working. At the pinnacle of her career, the Winnipeg resident counts herself among the lucky people who truly love their jobs.

“It’s great to feel you’re part of something larger than yourself,” she says, referring to the museum that’s putting Winnipeg on the international cultural map. In the two years since its 2014 opening, CMHR “has already brought people from all over the world to Winnipeg,” she says. Not a traditional museum, CMHR provides visitors with interactive digital technologies such as touch screens and installations that respond to visitors’ gestures and movements. “We deal in stories,” Robertson says. “The leading-edge technology is just a support for telling stories.”

It’s said that volunteering opens doors, and Robertson’s career path exemplifies the truth of this adage. Earlier in her career, an acquaintance invited her to join the Arthritis Society as a board member, an experience she describes as “highly rewarding.” The volunteering exposure, coupled with the construction knowledge she had acquired as CFO of a real-estate development company, helped her land the position of CFO and project manager at Friends of the CMHR, the planning organization that paved the way for the launch of the museum. “I got the job through a recruiter, who correctly pegged me as the nonprofit type,” she says with a chuckle.

In 2008, after the CMHR was established as a Crown corporation, Robertson became one of the museum’s first two employees. Tasked with “developing the organization from scratch,” she followed a team-building formula of “hiring passionate people and then giving them the authority to make real contributions.” Robertson and her crew accomplished what they set out to do: stay within their $351-million budget for the building’s design, construction and exhibits.

No two days at the office look quite the same for Robertson. On this particular day, after her interview for this article, she will attend a news conference on the museum’s Empowering Women exhibit. Next, she’ll work on a business case for long-term funding and then turn her attention to sources of revenue for the coming year. The tricky balancing act requires her to keep the museum’s progressive mandate in mind. Giving an example, she says: “We’re particular about buying fair trade products in the museum boutique, so our margins may not be as high.”

The museum’s efforts have been noticed. To date, CMHR has won 27 awards for its design and exhibits. Speaking of her recent award, which is one of CPA Canada’s Awards of Excellence in Public Sector Financial Management, Robertson says she “was honoured that my work with the museum would be considered worthy.” But she was not entirely surprised. “I always knew we were working on something unique,” she concedes. “That’s why the CPA designation is so great. It can take you on conventional or less conventional paths. You can chart your own course.”