From Vladivostok to making finance rock
Elena Kazemi is our butt-kicking, number-crunching superstar Chief Financial Officer (CFO). She is a smart, driven, strategic leader and an inspiration to her team and the rest of the Modica organisation.
Elena was born in Soviet-era Vladivostok, a large port city, near Russia’s borders with China and North Korea. Keen to live in an English-speaking ‘Western’ country, at only 16 Elena was accepted into a hospitality program in Napier, New Zealand. She recalls it as, “a massive culture shock. For some reason, I had imagined Napier to be a bustling metropolis, ringed by orange trees”.
As part of her studies, Elena was drawn to the numerical and financial aspects, “During any practical work components, I always put my hand up to be the financial controller and found myself falling in love with accounting”. After graduating with a degree in Applied Hospitality and Tourism Management, she was offered an internship at Accor in Wellington. “After a week in the Accounts Receivable department, I realised this was the place for me”. Displaying the tenacity and focus she is now famous for, Elena worked in the Accor finance team during the day, and studied for her second qualification (Business and Accounting) at night.
After graduating from her accounting studies, Elena was offered an internship at PwC, progressing to a senior role in their Private Companies group - which is where she met Modica founders Stuart Wilson and Simon Stokes. Impressed by the Modica founders’ passion and intelligence, they soon became her favourite client. The feeling was mutual as Stuart and Simon followed Elena when she moved to a boutique firm.
Elena recalls Modica’s rise, “When I first took on the Modica file, it had a $5 million turnover and 15 staff. As the business prospered, I had to advise them they had outgrown the services a boutique firm could provide, and that it was time to hire someone in-house to lead the finance efforts”. One year later, Stuart asked Elena if she could be that ‘someone’. Elena was thrilled, “I said why not, I’ll be your CFO. It wasn’t a hard decision, they were already my favourite client, and I had grown to love Modica”.
It was a great decision all-round as Modica has grown its revenue eight-fold since those early days and the headcount is now north of 100.
So what advice does Elena give to aspiring CFOs?
1.Knowing your numbers is not enough
Knowing your numbers will get you to a Controller or Analyst level. Being a CFO, you have to rely on people with technical skills to bring you those numbers. You can’t be across every calculation in detail. Your role is more about strategic direction setting, thinking about 5 years from now.
2.Fight your natural risk aversion
People who come to finance tend to come from a conservative background and view things with a risk mitigation lens, which is important. To take it to the next level, where you can have those strategic conversations, you have to learn to tap into your inner entrepreneur and be able to balance between the two. In a fast-growing private business, particularly in the technology space, this is crucial.
3.Understand your purpose
We bring accurate and timely information so that the wider business can make decisions. We put digestible information in the hands of users. We’re there to provide clarity and re-assurance. We bear lots of responsibility, but ultimately we have the facts, we connect the dots and can provide clear, helpful information.
The biggest thing I’ve done right in my team is to encourage open and honest discussion. I need my team to be honest, to challenge me, to hold me to account. Having robust conversations and feeling safe to do that, leads to better decision-making and better outcomes. I’m grateful that I have a smart, honest team that is confident to challenge me and each other in an open and frank environment.
5.Value and protect great culture
Huge credit to our founders and the other members of our Executive team for building, monitoring and maintaining our incredible culture. Senior leaders can have very different views, but we always hold the line. We value our people and we want to be a good home for strong, driven, smart, honest, kind-hearted people, and we want to look after them.
6. Break stereotypes
Finance is sometimes viewed as a blocker, but in reality our role is to ensure the business has enough fuel to run in perpetuity. Finance can be a grower, the one (along with the C-suite), to back investing in R&D, to ensure the business still has the leading products in the next 5 years or 10 years.
7. Win and maintain respect
Modicans know timeliness and accuracy is vital for my team. We can’t afford to be late on anything. We have to pay people on time, we have to file our taxes on time, we can't afford to miss any critical deadlines - and we have a lot of them. We rely on the rest of the business to provide those inputs in a timely manner so that we can do our part. It’s not glamorous, but respect for deadlines goes a long way. And, of course, we always strive to make our processes as easy and streamlined as possible, which our colleagues appreciate.