With an innovative mindset, CPAs can be pioneers in any kind of industry (Getty Images/vgajic)
As CPAs know, innovation can take many forms, and in almost any kind of industry. Here, we have brought together three members of the profession who are plying their skills in entirely different sectors—from renewable energies to online commerce to supporting Indigenous communities. While their working methods may be different, these professionals are all pioneers in their fields, and they all illustrate in their own way just how far the CPA designation can take you if you adopt an innovative mindset.
President and CEO, EVLO Energy Storage
In her position as chief executive officer of EVLO, a Hydro-Québec subsidiary that designs, delivers and operates energy storage systems, Sonia St-Arnaud stands on the leading edge of a major transition in the global energy sector.
“As we move toward more sustainable sources of energy such as wind and solar power, providing safe and sustainable energy storage solutions becomes a major focal point for producers and utilities because of the intermittent nature of these energy sources,” says St-Arnaud. “And EVLO’s systems really move the dial forward in that respect. We have designed our solution with safety as a primary consideration, using lithium iron phosphate (LFP) batteries and including several protection features in the metal enclosure that holds battery racks and other equipment that are part of the battery energy storage system. Our systems are used to facilitate the integration of energy from solar panels and wind turbines. Moreover, they also help smooth out peaks in power demand or create microgrids to be used in the event of an outage, thereby supporting the resilience of the electrical grid.”
Before joining EVLO, St-Arnaud spent 20 years with Hydro-Québec, where her financial, accounting and strategic planning expertise earned her a role as the controller of the production division, and later as director of projects development and strategy. There, she worked on infrastructure development for hydroelectric, solar or transmission projects, and frequently had to negotiate energy contracts.
In 2018, thanks to her multilayered experience in business, engineering and innovation, St-Arnaud was asked to become EVLO’s COO. “When I started, my mission was to develop a business model for an innovation that could be marketed,” she says. “Having good teamwork between the engineering and commercial teams was key in order to market the innovation, because if you don’t understand an invention, it’s hard to value it.’ ”
St-Arnaud’s broad-based thinking about value creation ultimately led her to become CFO, then CEO. Now, her role is to drive the growth of a company that has already seen a spectacular increase in staff (from just two dozen a couple of years ago to more than 100 today). The energy storage sector is booming and demand is growing at 30 per cent per year, so EVLO must constantly improve its products from a mechanical, electrical and software perspective to remain competitive.
“I’ve always been very curious and enjoyed working as part of a team, especially developing projects in less structured environments,” explains St-Arnaud. My ability to interpret the numbers while also connecting with clients has also made a difference in my career. Going forward, my goal is for all the expertise and innovation at EVLO to be recognized and used to power a brighter future for our world.”
Artist and founder, Custom Car Posters
The idea of starting a business to spend more time with family might seem counterintuitive to some. But for Jonathan Wong, co-founder (with his wife Lily) of Custom Car Posters, a successful Vancouver company, it’s one that has proven to be spot on from every point of view.
“For us, family life has always been No. 1. So when our son Emerson was a year old, we decided to turn my hobby of designing car posters into a business. That way, we would have the freedom to spend as much time as we could with him. We could be present parents—something we couldn’t do with 9-to-5 jobs.”
Creating Custom Car Posters also allowed Wong to blend his artistic, technical and mechanical skills into an unusual niche. “I’ve always been a bit of a car geek—I can take apart an engine and have illustrated dozens of vehicles over the years. So the idea of creating posters of vehicles for car lovers and selling them through Etsy just came naturally to me.”
Naturally, Wong’s CPA training, plus the experience he had previously gained at KPMG and Big Brothers, made it easy for him to deal with the administrative side of founding a business. But in his opinion, his success has even more to do with his ability to combine his skills in a unique way. “To innovate, you can’t confine yourself to financial statement analysis or auditing, even though I have done a lot of both. You need to consider other talents you might have that few others in our field possess and that can take you into places where others have yet to tread.”
Thanks to Wong’s outside-the-box thinking, the couple has been able s not only to build a thriving company, but also to find the flexibility they were seeking. “We adjusted our work to what was going on in our personal lives. This allowed us to spend a lot of family time together—for example, we were able to go swimming and skating on weekdays instead of weekends, as most people do.”
Emerson now spends less time at home since he started school last fall, but Wong keeps a clear head. “We are the largest seller of automotive artwork in the world. We generate half of our income in the weeks leading up to the holidays, when we have five full-time employees. But in the other 11 months of the year, we take advantage of life.”
At the moment, the couple want to retire six years from now, when they are 40. This at 40, which means they will likely exit the business once it reaches a certain plateau. “I’ll most likely go into one or more other business ventures, but just for fun,” Wong says. “But no matter where we are or what we are doing, spending time together will always come first.”
Co-founder and president, Ind.Genuity
As a Winnipeg-based CPA and member of the Sandy Bay First Nation, Daniel Richard operates what is arguably one of Canada’s most unique types of business entities: an Indigenous-owned and operated accounting firm that is also a social enterprise.
“The idea for such a firm really came out of discussions with AFOA Canada, an Ottawa-based organization that helps Indigenous communities improve their management, finance, and governance practices,” says Richard. “Many of the organization’s chapters are dependent on government support, so we wanted to find an alternative revenue stream for the organization. We thought, ‘Why don’t we start a CPA firm to help Indigenous businesses?’ The firm would provide a portion of its profits to AFOA Canada, which is where the social enterprise aspect would come in. It would also be mainly a virtual business so we could expand easily across Canada at the same time.”
True to its mission, Ind.genuity now offers reasonably priced accounting, bookkeeping and tax consulting services to Indigenous entrepreneurs and organizations to allow them to focus on growing their business.
“From my experience, I know most Indigenous businesses don’t have the means to hire a CFO, but that they want to connect with someone who has the skills. Ind.Genuity fills that need, and it does so at a reasonable cost. And it’s also the first Indigenous accounting firm to serve as a social enterprise at the same time.”
Currently, Ind.Genuity serves communities in various Canadian provinces, and Richard also sits on various First Nations economic development committees and works with several Indigenous financial institutions. However, he says he still faces hurdles when dealing with Indigenous communities—especially since many of them are located in remote areas where the internet service is very poor.
“The services I provide would be valuable to these communities, but they are literally out of reach. From time to time, I’ve been known to get the classic shoebox full of unsorted receipts from clients, but even if I were able to sort through them, it’s far from being an ideal way to work.”
Hurdles aside, Richard says he is still 100 per cent committed to his own personal goal: to help AOFA remove as many barriers to success as it can for Indigenous communities, organizations and entrepreneurs. “Beyond the firm, we’re also looking at providing additional opportunities for scholarships and advancement for post-secondary Indigenous students across the country. We hope this and other initiatives, both large and small, can eventually turn into a win-win-win for everyone involved.”
DRIVING INNOVATION IN CANADA
Check out our Q+A with MaRS CFO Nicole Barry to learn where Canada stands in terms of innovation. Find out how systems innovation models can make organizational innovation more viable and less risky, how the Innovation Delta Model can help you more accurately evaluate and value innovation. Plus, learn more about measuring the value of intangible assets.
Images for Sonia St-Arnaud and Daniel Richard provided. Photograph for Jonathan Wong courtesy of Bobo Zhao Photography