‘I can do that too’: Vanessa Kanu’s rise to CFO role at Ottawa’s Mitel

Kanu
Vanessa Kanu is Mitel's chief financial officer. Photo by Mark Holleron

Vanessa Kanu distinctly recalls feeling “nervous” about leaving her job as a manager at accounting giant PriceWaterhouseCoopers to work in Mitel’s finance department in the early 2000s.

Then in her mid-20s, Kanu was a rising star at PwC. But instead of sticking to a path that likely would have seen her eventually make partner at the prestigious “Big Four” accounting firm, she chose to take an entirely different kind of role at a different kind of company: an Ottawa-based telecom outfit that was struggling to break even.

She wasn’t gripped by a fear of failure or losing her job. Instead, she was worried she might lose interest in her work. 

“I remember specifically when I joined Mitel, I said to my husband, ‘You know, I’ll probably be here for two years. After two years, I’ll get bored and I’ll go somewhere else,’” says Kanu, 41, who was recently named Mitel’s chief financial officer.

“It’s the joke in our family. They say, ‘How did those two years work out?’” 

She laughs. Two years has turned into 15, and Kanu is now of one of Ottawa’s most powerful tech executives. She has climbed the corporate ladder with aplomb, charting a trajectory that has mirrored the rise of the Kanata firm itself during her tenure. 

Starting as a financial reporting manager in 2004, Kanu quickly rose through Mitel’s ranks, eventually becoming vice-president of business finance and later senior vice-president of finance under Steve Spooner, who retired earlier this year after more than 15 years in the CFO’s chair.

Kanu has nothing but praise for her former boss and mentor. What really struck her about Spooner ​– the recipient of OBJ’s first CFO of the Year award in 2018 and one of Ottawa’s most respected and well-liked C-suite execs ​– wasn’t his grasp of numbers, she says, but his understanding of people.

“As you get to increasingly senior leadership roles, relationships become critical – particularly in the finance leadership role where you’re the CFO, the ability to reach across the aisle and work with the other executives around the table is critical,” Kanu explains. 

“Your partnership with the CEO is really, really critical. Essentially, the two of you are kind of driving the ship. The finance skills obviously are required, but that ability to think strategically and to reach across the aisle at various groups – be it sales, be it service, be it R&D – is really what’s required to get your success to the next level.

“I’ve had kind of a front-row seat, if you will, to that.”

As part of Mitel’s senior leadership team, Kanu has also been on the front lines of the company’s transformation from a producer of traditional analog telecommunications equipment focused on the North American market to a maker of cutting-edge, cloud-based digital technology that sells its products around the world. 

There have been plenty of other changes along the way. A privately held company when Kanu came on board in 2004, Mitel went public six years later in one of the city’s biggest-ever IPOs. After a spate of high-profile acquisitions, the company grew into the No. 1 firm in the unified cloud communications space before being acquired itself by a California-based private equity firm in a blockbuster $2-billion deal that reverted Mitel to a private company last summer.

Now a multibillion-dollar enterprise with more than 4,000 employees, Mitel is in the midst of a sometimes bumpy shift from a licensing-based revenue model – in which it earns its money upfront from one-time sales – to a subscription-based software-as-a-service approach that holds the promise of steady incoming revenue each month.

“That transformation has an impact,” Kanu concedes. “The lifetime value of a customer is much, much higher when you’ve got a recurring model with that customer and it’s a multi-year contract. Economically, it’s a much better model, but while you’re transitioning … it does have a short-term impact as you’re going through that transition. We’ve managed it well so far.”

Needless to say, her fears of being bored at Mitel have been put to rest.

Tough decision

“The company has gone through such an evolution,” she says. “It has been such a fantastic learning opportunity. Every time you do one thing and you think, ‘Yep, I’ve got that under my belt,’ something else new comes along. Every time I think I’m gonna get bored, something happens to change the landscape a little bit.”

A need for a change in scenery of a different kind is what compelled Kanu, who grew up in Edmonton, to leave Canada at 18 and head across the pond to London, where she studied international economics at the University of Hull. She graduated third in her class and, more importantly, met her husband.

“It turned out pretty well for me,” she says with a grin.

After earning her degree, Kanu faced a tough decision. Her mother Yatta, a professor of education at the University of Manitoba, wanted her to pursue her master’s degree in economics at Cambridge, where she had a spot waiting for her. Meanwhile, her late father Vincent, who was then the CEO of an oil company in his native Sierra Leone, was pushing her to pursue her entrepreneurial instincts.

“He said, ‘Cambridge is great, but if you do your master’s in economics, you may not be as fulfilled as you think you will be because you like business, you like practicality.’

“I kind of had the angel and the devil on my shoulders. Like, which one do I do? In the end, my dad’s wisdom won over. I really haven’t looked back. It really was the right choice for me.”

Kanu decided to move back to Edmonton to work at PwC while her husband completed his master’s degree in engineering at Hamilton’s McMaster University. When he took a job at Nortel, which was then in its heyday, Kanu transferred to PwC’s Ottawa office.

Nearly two decades later, she’s become a fixture of the capital’s business community. 

As a woman of colour in an industry in which few females of any race occupy senior leadership roles, she says she has a responsibility to be a role model. It’s a job she takes as seriously as being a mother to two young girls and the No. 2 executive at one of Ottawa’s largest tech companies.

“When you see something often enough, it becomes normal to you and it’s not unusual any more.”

“I want to make sure that all women, when they see a minority woman in any position of leadership, be it myself or others, I want them to think, ‘I can do that too,’” says Kanu. “You don’t want to put people in positions just so they’re there. You want to make sure you’re getting the best candidate for the role regardless of gender or ethnicity or sexual orientation. But when you do have those candidates, it speaks volumes to the rest of the population, because it really shows them what’s possible.

“When you see something often enough, it becomes normal to you and it’s not unusual any more.”