When Richard Olfert, FCPA, FCA graduated high school at Mennonite Brethren Collegiate Institute (MBCI) in Winnipeg and decided to pursue an accounting designation it was not a big surprise to those around him. “My wife, Bonnie, says it’s the family business,” says Olfert. “My father was the oldest of six children. In his teens, his family moved to Winnipeg with next to nothing after his mom died. Not long after that, he took an entry job at the Canadian Wheat Board. Eventually, he got his accounting designation and ultimately retired from there as the senior finance leader. The profession was very good to him and our family, providing immense opportunity.” The family connections don’t stop there. “My brother is also a CPA and now my daughter and nephew are part of the profession as well,” he explains.
Olfert obtained his accounting designation in 1988 and began his career at Dunwoody & Company. Through a series of mergers, he became part of Deloitte, where he remains a partner today. Shortly after he started, the firm moved to the 23rd floor of what is now 360 Main Street in Winnipeg (formerly the Commodity Exchange Tower and Trizec Building). “I’ve been there ever since. There have been a few different names on the door, but I’ve been coming to this same floor for over 30 years although I have to say it’s been renovated a few times,” Olfert said with a laugh.
On September 29, 2021 after two years serving as CPA Canada’s vice-chair, Olfert was appointed chair, becoming the first Manitoban to hold the position. He will serve a two-year term and summarizes the responsibilities this way: “Providing leadership to the board and working to oversee the affairs of CPA Canada is one aspect. We also know CPA Canada is not the only professional CPA body in the country—there are 14 across Canada’s provinces, territories and the island Bermuda. So, another important part of the role is understanding how all those organizations work together while building and maintaining rapport with each so that we can work together and achieve things of national significance.”
In order to accomplish his mandate, Olfert will not only draw upon his world-class financial insight involving organizations in the public, private and not-for-profit sectors but also his upbringing and experiences of living in Manitoba. “Our province is unique and it’s something that I only began to appreciate when I spent more time in other parts of the country. The thing that makes Manitoba special to me is it has many of the features and amenities of bigger communities. We've got a renowned ballet, symphony and arts community, professional sports teams, an amazing cultural scene and tremendous restaurants. The things we enjoy are in many respects equivalent or better to what larger centres have but because of our size and population we have managed to retain a deep sense of community that gets lost or is harder to build in bigger centres.”
It is through that lens that Olfert acknowledges the advantages of hailing from our prairie province. “Coming from Manitoba and spending my whole career here, I think I bring some unique dimensions in how I approach the role and what I bring to it,” he begins. “Our province is amazing in terms of the diversity of the people and the degree to which that’s celebrated. Immigration has been so important to our community and recognized so proudly and that mindset serves me well because on the national stage levels of diversity only multiply.”
In addition to having a front-row seat to the positive effects of immigration and diversity, Olfert also believes that many Manitobans have developed a powerful way of thinking without even realizing it. “Manitoba accounts for about three per cent of the national economy yet it’s amazing if you look at the roles that Manitobans have held nationally and internationally, I would say that Manitobans hold more than three per cent of them. One of the reasons I believe we punch above our weight is that when someone from our province gets to the national scene, they aren’t afforded a seat because they come from a big place that has influence. We learn that our contributions come from the credibility that we bring, the relevance of our contributions, and the degree to which we want to contribute,” he concludes.
Olfert’s term as board chair is also noteworthy because it comes at a critical time for the profession. Much has been said and written about the idea that the CPA designation (and accounting more generally) is at an inflection point due to shifting business landscapes, advancement of technologies and rapidly changing expectations for accountants.
“Everyone has a different way of describing it, but I tend to think of the opportunities in front of us in three ways. A generation ago the accountant's responsibility was to look at an organization that had thousands or millions of transactions and make order out of chaos. Of course, today many of those functions and the things we did in that space historically are automated, and my guess is that more of it will be done that way in the future. So, our first opportunity is that we need to reorient to be more forward-looking and think about how we can help organizations create value and guide them into the future as opposed to simply looking backwards.”
The second opportunity Olfert sees for the future of the profession is referred to as data, big data or technology, depending on who you ask. “The world we live in today is fundamentally different than the one just 10 years ago. It is a world where to be effective at looking forward there needs to be not just a literacy but a complete familiarity with data, technology and the digital world. In the future it’s going to have to be second nature for CPAs to have a mastery of technology and the ability to work with data, using technologies like artificial intelligence, block chain and others.”
The third major opportunity which Olfert notes arrived much more rapidly than the first two is the business importance of sustainability and social responsibility. “This one is really interesting not necessarily because accountants think it’s a huge deal, it’s a huge deal because the general public thinks it. Organizations now understand that they have to earn a license to operate instead of simply having a right to, because that’s what their customers, lenders and investors expect. These stakeholders want to know if the places they do business are having a positive impact on the environment and if they are proactive from a social perspective of advancing just causes like anti-Black racism and Indigenous reconciliation.” The opportunity for CPAs is knowing how to tell those stories, what the standards should be, and to help organizations put in place measurable systems to track and ensure tangible progress is being made.
To illustrate just how quickly the opportunities for CPAs are emerging in this area, Olfert pointed out a very recent announcement made by the IFRS Foundation regarding the establishment of a new International Sustainability Standards Board (ISSB). It will have a Canadian presence with Montreal being one named of the Board’s two key offices, the other being in Frankfurt, Germany. Additional offices will be located in San Francisco and London providing technical support, platforms for market engagement, and regional stakeholder cooperation.
The ISSB is tasked with developing a much-needed set of global standards for reporting on environmental, social and governance matters. Its work will create a common playing field, offering comprehensive sustainability standards that provide comparability and transparency.
CPA Canada is among a broad array of private and public institutions and organizations, including the Government of Canada, that came together to back this country’s offer to host the ISSB. Canada was first out of the gate this past summer with its offer and the extensive support set the bar high for other international jurisdictions to follow with their respective bids.
How to successfully pivot to take advantage of these opportunities is something that Olfert spends a lot of time thinking about. “Since we’re at this inflection point, we need to reshape CPA Canada to capitalize in the boldest way possible on the opportunities in front of us. That is paramount,” he says. “Another piece of the puzzle though is to work through a spirit of cooperation with all of our country’s provincial, territorial and Bermudian bodies so that we, as a collective profession, can work together in a way that’s entirely complementary and collectively move the profession forward in a big way.”
Although it may seem like a lot of change is on the horizon, Olfert was quick to point out that CPAs have a lot of resources to accomplish the tasks at hand. “One of the advantages we have is that there are so many talented people in our profession. There are 210,000 CPAs domestically [about 1% of the entire Canadian workforce] and more working in countries around the world and it’s a journey we are taking together.” For example, many leading thinkers have been part of the ongoing CPA competency map work designed to ensure new CPAs start their careers with as many tools as possible. “And work is also being done to ensure current CPAs have opportunities to advance their skills and knowledge in new areas so that the profession as a whole is relevant and making really positive contributions over the long term.”
At the heart of his work, Olfert is motivated to make certain the CPA profession remains strong and relevant well into the future. “The designation is such an amazing platform from which to launch a career. I want to help ensure that current and future CPAs have the same opportunities as my father did. Making sure the profession is robust so that those who come after me can have a similar experience is an important part of my vision,” he says.