The ability to lead meaningful change helps Toronto-based finance leader Helen Berhane, FCMA, CGMA, make a difference in her working environment and the community beyond.
Berhane is the senior accountant running the accounting team at Bridgemarq Real Estate Services Manager Limited, a wholly owned subsidiary of Brookfield Business Partners LP, which provides services to a network of more than 19,000 real estate professionals across Canada.
She has been a leader across a range of businesses — and on two continents. Her career started in the UK with pharmaceutical giant Glaxo Wellcome before its merger with SmithKline Beecham in 2000. In London, she then moved to Deloitte before transferring within the firm to Canada.
As a finance manager at Deloitte Canada, she specialised in financial analysis and business support, working closely with the national managing partners for consulting and tax divisions over her career with the firm.
She has led businesses and firms through significant technology changes and important diversity and inclusion initiatives and has served the accounting profession through numerous volunteer positions, including as the chair of CIMA Canada's board and as a member of the AICPA National Commission on Diversity & Inclusion.
At Bridgemarq, she provides financial analysis and business support to company leadership to help them determine how to achieve their short-term and long-term plans and how their strategy might need to be adjusted.
"I have definitely been enabling business leaders by making sure they have the right information to make strategic decisions," she said.
Leading on technology
She recently led an enterprise resource planning system upgrade at Bridgemarq and believes that business leaders "cannot take the chance not to invest in technology".
"New companies are starting up all the time and disrupting the status quo. They can just take over what your business was doing ... by having better technology and better systems," Berhane said.
Automation, she said, enables staff to perform much broader business analysis — to have a better understanding of performance and cost drivers, and improve processes.
Finance transformation requires finance and IT to work closely together — to make sure that customised reports, for example, fit the company's needs, she said.
But for Berhane, it's not only about having the most up-to-date technology. Businesses also need to understand what they want to achieve and which systems would work best for their type of organisation, she explained.
In addition, training staff on new systems is critical to embedding them successfully in the business, she said. "You have to make sure that your employees have the capacity or training to use the system correctly and efficiently."
Leaders, she said, also need to look outside the business — to measure their company's performance against that of competitors or their industry more widely.
"You have to know what the market looks like or ... have a benchmark that you can compare yourself to."
She uses this approach when producing month-end reports. She said: "I put together the highlights for the overall real estate market [for] the biggest markets that we have in Toronto [and] in Vancouver. I give a high-level summary of what the market is saying."
Berhane has a passion for diversity and inclusion that has been elevated by having a child who is on the autism spectrum. "It has opened up my understanding of what diversity could look like. ... We have to be more accepting and more welcoming [of the] different types of needs people have."
Berhane believes business leaders need to understand fully their team's makeup, assess how inclusive their company is, and ensure its people take steps to have an inclusive culture. To drive successful businesses, leaders require diverse teams, she said. "By having a diverse team or group of people working in your company, you bring in diverse ideas, creativity, and knowledge that can definitely improve your company's outcome in a positive way." A diverse team can help build business with diverse clients or customers as well, she added.
Research has established that diversity correlates with improved business results. A 2017 McKinsey study of 1,000 companies in 12 countries found that companies in the top quartile for gender diversity on their executive teams were 21% more likely to have above-average profitability than companies in the bottom quartile for diversity. Companies in the top quartile for ethnic diversity on their executive teams were 33% more likely to outperform their bottom-quartile peers on earnings before interest and taxes.
An inclusive culture is perhaps the more important aspect of corporate diversity and inclusion, Berhane suggested. "It doesn't matter what level you're at or what your role is in the company. ... It's definitely very crucial to make people [feel] like they are included, their opinions [count], or their feedback or ideas are recognised."
She said that companies that have "favourite go-to" recruiters or universities from which they usually recruit can consider reaching out to broader audiences to hire a more diverse team.
Retaining a diverse workforce is also important, Berhane said. People who feel valued or included in the company's structure and in an environment that encourages growth are likely to stay longer and succeed, resulting in better retention rates for companies.
Beyond her management accounting role, Berhane believes passionately in giving back to the profession. She became CIMA Canada board chair after serving as a board member and branch volunteer. For her almost two years in that public-facing role she was the first woman chair and the first from an African background.
As chair, she worked closely with the Institute's corporate partners and sponsors, who support CIMA Canada's business conferences and CIMA's youth cricket programme among Toronto's diverse communities, in partnership with the City of Toronto Parks, Forestry, and Recreation, and the Office of the Mayor of Toronto.
What started off as a casual friendly game for cricket lovers has become an activity that's integrated into the schools in Toronto and surrounding cities, with a popular annual tournament. It's possible because of the support of numerous sponsors, coupled with the organisation and coordination you would expect from an event backed by an accounting organisation.
"The volunteerism is really a wonderful way to give back," she said, "especially in a profession that has given us the foundation for our careers."
Oliver Rowe is an FM magazine senior editor. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact him at Oliver.Rowe@aicpa-cima.com.