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A world of opportunity: after exploring new territories, Rob Harding, CMA, sees the value of having international experience.

Most of us have an aspiration to travel in some capacity. Whether it's to popular destinations, across the country or internationally, the desire to explore is there.

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For some, that desire is innate--horn curious, wanting to discover parts of the world as often as possible. For others, including Rob Harding, CMA, MBA, travel finds you.

Harding is currently the vice-president of finance and CFO of Athabasca Oil Sands Corp., based in Calgary. His career journey starts and ends in the Stampede City, but certainly doesn't remain there for his life's journey. And like the trials and tribulations faced by a world traveler, Harding's career adventure would prove to be just as tumultuous.

"I originally came out of high school not totally sure what I wanted to do," he says. "I was good with numbers and sciences; my father was a banker, so I enrolled in business (at the University of Calgary). The large class environment didn't suit me so I withdrew after a year and a half," Harding recalls.

After joining the Royal Bank as a customer service representative (as a summer student after that first year of university and then continuing part-time), it opened his eyes that he didn't want to follow his father's footsteps. Harding's trainer/mentor at the bank, Connie, later became his wife and it was Connie's brother-in-law, Lyle that first introduced I hireling to the CMA designation.

"I had only known about the CA designation," Harding explains. "I explored (the CMA) further and found that I really liked it. It started with a numbers foundation, but went far beyond that into the strategy and visionary part of business. It was for me."

In 1989 Harding switched over to SATE--Southern Alberta Institute of Technology, and completed a two-year business administration diploma with an accounting major before joining Trimac Transportation in 1991.

He and two others at Trimac decided to enroll in the program--there was one problem with the plan. The other two passed the entrance exam. Harding didn't.

"We had a lot going on with family that year and I missed enrollment by two to three per cent," Harding says. "I think I got a 58 per cent, a passing grade is 60 per cent." I went home, and it was deflating. I started to question if it was truly something I should pursue. My son Nick was around 13 at the time and he said to me 'You can do it, I believe in you.' He had his own challenges in school, needing extra attention. It was truly motivating for me to hear that."

Harding adjusted his strategy, rewrote the CMA Entrance Examination the following year, passed, and obtained his designation in 1996.

The designation opened doors for Harding who then found himself at Fluor Daniel Canada in a management reporting role. While there, he saw the company grow from 400 to 1600 employees, and shrink back down to 300. After four years and a couple of roles, it was time for something new.

"While at Fluor, I became involved with international projects, which were quite interesting to me. But there aren't a lot of accounting positions overseas--and those positions that did exist went to employees from the American headquarters."

One day, while looking through the job postings of a newspaper, he found an accounting opportunity--in Qatar. He jumped at the chance.

"I ran it by Connie and she encouraged me to go for it. There were two jobs available. Of all candidates I ended up coming in third. A couple of weeks later, I received a call and was told that one guy had dropped out, and they asked me if I was still interested."

Harding accepted and in October 1999 he moved to Doha, Qatar to work with RasGas Company Limited as a revenue and cost analyst. Every day his commute was by bus up to project site from Doha, an hour drive through the desert each direction.

Harding and his wife stayed in Qatar for three years and finished life at RasGas as head of project accounting. "Coming back, because I was a direct hire, I wasn't eligible for employment insurance, recruiting firms wouldn't speak to me until I was physically living back in Canada, and I had to give a two-month notice in Qatar," he says. "Basically, I came back to Canada unemployed."

Having that international experience, however, proved to be valuable, as offers from all corners of the world started coming in.

"I had a couple of rotation opportunities in Nigeria and other parts of Africa. But one particular offer from Sherritt International really intrigued me."

Sherritt International is based in Toronto, with their oil and gas division hi Calgary, but has an office in Varadero, Cuba, which is where Harding ended up moving.

"This time, though, I asked for a trip to Cuba first so we could ask the right questions before we moved and feel more comfortable. First we dreamed of sand and warm weather and ended up with Qatar. We learned some lessons and refined our dreams to include greenery, fresh fruits and be closer to home, among other things."

Despite trying to do their due diligence, they still encountered some problems moving to Cuba.

"We didn't ask if we could pay per visit at the hotel gyms--we couldn't as most hotels are all inclusive so unless you are staying there you cannot use the facilities or restaurants," he says. "It took nine months to find a house to rent, despite numerous empty examples throughout the town; we lived in a hotel until then. We had a sea container hill of belongings that never left Calgary because Cuban customs wouldn't allow it in. We got to see first hand how their unique political system worked. It was a great working experience with numerous challenges and learning opportunities. And we also had a lot of fun with the people."

Through all of his experiences, Harding learned a lot about international business culture, especially while in Cuba.

"I learned about the art of negotiation, and the hierarchy of business culture there. Above you, you are permitted to talk to one or two levels higher than you, nobody higher. Your superior would have to talk to those too high for you to communicate with. It was quite different from what I was used to in both Canada and Qatar."

In June 2004, Harding returned to Canada and joined Total E&P Canada shortly after as controller. He was the third Canadian hired for the French outfit's expanding Canadian office. He stayed with them until August 2007, seeing the company grow to over 200 employees.

Finally, Harding joined Athabasca in September 2007 as controller. In June 2008 he was promoted to vice-president of finance and CFO, and was involved with the company's most interesting projects.

"I was directly involved with trying to close a large joint venture deal with Petro-China and almost simultaneously working on what became Canada's largest energy IPO to date," Harding explains. "It was quite an interesting time. Our chairman wanted the IPO ready as soon after closing the joint venture as possible. It was a lot of work and we experienced rapid growth both before and during that time. We went from two to 12 people within the finance and administration group alone. At the corporate level we went from 10 employees to 70."

Harding's experiences at Total and Athabasca are somewhat similar in that he was tasked with growing the finance, HR and administration functions of rapidly growing organizations in an efficient and practical manner. "Applying the knowledge gained from the CMA program, I first evaluated the culture I was operating within. Where was I likely to gain quick wins and where would I face the most resistance? From there I was able to formulate a high level multi-year plan with milestones along the way."

His first step was to present the plan to senior management, but also was strategic to ensure that those milestones he felt would be quick wins were presented as the first on his milestone chart. "Once you get a few quick wins you have momentum and the ability to demonstrate results. From there you try different ways of achieving your end results. Be flexible. Strategy involves creativity and persistence. Each person you deal with has a different personality and values things in different ways. It doesn't mean you won't achieve the majority of your plans, it just may mean you have to try a few different approaches to reach success."

Another thing Harding focuses on is the appropriate strategy for the various stages of company growth.

"When you are a start-up type company, you are going at 120 per cent doing everything from A to Z. As the company transforms to more moderate growth and longer term views, you are able to modify your strategy to the new needs."

Not only was his professional life across the world, but his continued education spanned the globe as well--the CMA designation was a foundation for Harding to build upon his desire to further his education. Harding took some project management courses and completed his CAPPA (Canadian production accounting certification) while overseas. In fact, he completed his MBA through Manchester University; originally starting it in Qatar, continuing in Cuba, and wrapped it up in Calgary.

Throughout all of his experiences, he credits the CMA designation for many of his fortunes.

"I look at it as being, from a career perspective, my first major milestone that created the foundation to go onto many other opportunities," he says. "One of the things that was actually enlightening while doing my MBA was going through some of those sessions because it allowed me to reflect on the CMA and how high quality the program is. This is something CMA Canada can be very proud of. Having the CMA is just the beginning, but it gives you the foundation of accounting and business, and opens your eyes to strategy and where you can create your opportunities."

Despite his busy schedule, Harding takes time to pass his knowledge onto others.

"I mentor different individuals, both pre- and post-designation, in the CMA, CA and CGA programs. I teach them not to underestimate what you're able to accomplish in any given role. 'Do you have to be at executive level before making an impact? No. You can apply CMA to your role anywhere.' It's about how you view your challenge and how you can add value. But you have to evaluate each situation like a case study and variables change regardless of how similar things may seem at first."

What's the one thing he misses from travelling now that he's back in Calgary where he grew up?

"I pretty much have the same hobbies, but I lived close to the water in Cuba and Qatar. Unfortunately, Calgary's oil industry isn't close to the water."

Arda Ocal is a Mississauga, Ont.-based writer and on-air personality with Rogers TV.
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Author:Ocal, Arda
Publication:CMA Management
Date:Jun 1, 2010
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