CFO of the Year: Vanessa Kanu

Video of Steve Spooner, former CFO of Mitel, paying tribute to his former colleague, Vanessa Kanu. She is now CFO of Telus International and the fourth recipient of the Ottawa Business Journal / Ottawa Board of Trade CFO of the Year award.

The Ottawa-based finance executive who orchestrated the largest tech IPO in TSX history has been awarded the CFO of the Year by Ottawa Business Journal and the Ottawa Board of Trade.

Vanessa Kanu, the chief financial officer of Telus International, is the fourth recipient of the annual award, which recognizes CFOs who maximize their company’s financial position and growth during a recent period.

The former Mitel executive joined Telus International, an offshoot of Telus Communications that offers IT, call-centre and other services, in September 2020. Less than six months later, on Feb. 3, the Vancouver-based firm began trading on the Toronto and New York stock exchanges in offerings that raised more than $1 billion, a TSX record.

Even for someone who’s never been afraid to step out of her comfort zone, it was an impressive feat.

“I knew that it was going to be a heavy lift in terms of the level of the preparation that was required to get the IPO over the finish line,” says Kanu. “It was actually very interesting and very exciting. It was not only learning the company, but learning an industry and working with a brand-new team that I had never known.”

To compound the challenge, Kanu was forced to spearhead the biggest transaction in the 15-year-old company’s history remotely due to the pandemic. 

That meant “road show” visits where Telus International executives attempted to woo investors were done via video rather than in fancy hotel rooms. While Kanu says missing out on face-to-face meetings was a bit of a drawback, she says the process was actually more efficient than hopping on planes and shuttling from city to city to sell would-be investors on the company.

“As all-encompassing as that experience was, it helped me learn the business at a pace that I think normally would have taken two to three times longer,” she says.

In some ways, Kanu had been preparing for the task for nearly two decades. 

In her 16-year career at Mitel that saw her rise to become chief financial officer in 2019, the multibillion-dollar telecommunications firm went through an IPO of its own and made a series of high-profile acquisitions. 

That experience paid off as Kanu was handed the assignment of a lifetime as her first order of business at her new employer.

“A lot of the questions, the things that the investors were looking for, frankly were not surprising to me,” she says. “It was really more of a question of ‘Okay. I know what they’re going to ask. How do we now tell the Telus International story in the best possible way … to create investor confidence in the organization?’

“I could not have been comfortable doing any of that had it not been for the years spent at Mitel in a public company setting. For me, the muscle memory just came back.” 

The public offering now behind her, Kanu is still getting a crash course in the inner workings of the business, which has nearly 60,000 employees worldwide and boasts a customer list that includes Google, Uber and TikTok.

It’s heady stuff for the 44-year-old Edmonton native, who concedes she “wasn’t quite sure” she was ready to make the jump when a headhunter came calling on behalf of Telus International in early 2020. 

But after getting to know its Vancouver-based CEO Jeff Puritt and his team over the ensuing months, Kanu decided it was time to leave what had become a comfortable nest at Mitel.

“It was really important for me that my next step felt like it was the right next step – like it was going to be a home,” she says. “For me, I was really thinking (about the) bigger picture and the organizational fit. I haven’t had any regrets since.” 

Ever humble, she calls the CFO of the Year honour a “shared award,” heaping praise on her new colleagues while singling out the influence of one of her most cherished mentors, former Mitel CFO Steve Spooner.

“He took a chance on me early on and constantly threw me into uncomfortable situations,” she says. “Sometimes I wasn’t even sure if I was ready to be in those situations, but Steve certainly thought I could handle it even when I wasn’t quite sure. From a career perspective, I can’t say enough about my years at Mitel.”

Ottawa business leaders are more than happy to tout Kanu’s accomplishments on her behalf.

“She’s leading the way forward and making an impact that matters,” says Dan Dore, managing partner of Deloitte and member of the selection committee, noting that Kanu is an active volunteer with organizations such as the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario and the Ottawa Hospital Foundation.

OBJ publisher Michael Curran calls Kanu “a pillar” of the city’s tech sector who’d already carved out a distinguished career at Mitel before taking on her new role.

“Then to see her move to Telus International and help orchestrate the largest tech IPO in TSX history is truly an amazing accomplishment,” Curran says.

Kanu will be feted along with CEO of the Year, the Lifetime Achievement Award recipient and Newsmaker of the Year at the Best Ottawa Business Awards. The awards program will have a small invite-only reception on Nov. 19 followed by a television and YouTube Live broadcast produced in partnership with Rogers on Nov. 25 at 8 p.m. For information, visit www.bestottawabusiness.ca.