Alumni profiles: Charles Henaire and Helen Kasdorf

On March 31, 2015, Charles assumed his new role as Deputy CFO and Chief Accounting and Control Officer for Great-West’s global parent company, Great-West Lifeco (Lifeco), while Helen became the Canadian CFO of Great-West Life the same day.

When Charles Henaire and Helen Kasdorf talk about their highly successful careers, it’s striking how often they mention how fortunate they feel. Fortunate to be enjoying successful, 20-plus year careers in their hometown of Winnipeg at Canadian financial services icon Great-West (where they started nine-months apart); fortunate to have started their careers at Deloitte within a year of each other, working as audit managers on Great-West and Investors Group; and fortunate to have sparked a lifelong friendship when they studied together in the commerce faculty at the University of Manitoba.

Their career paths have crisscrossed and overlapped while bringing them to the point they’re at today. On March 31, 2015, Charles assumed his new role as Deputy CFO and Chief Accounting and Control Officer for Great-West’s global parent company, Great-West Lifeco (Lifeco), while Helen became the Canadian CFO of Great-West Life the same day.

After being hired in the mid-1990’s as the fourth and fifth chartered accountants (CAs) to join Great-West, Charles and Helen witnessed the organization’s dramatic growth firsthand. Lifeco’s earnings have grown from $500 million a year when they started to $2.5 billion today, with assets under management now ringing in at $1 trillion. Both Charles and Helen have worked on every one of Great-West’s Canadian and international acquisitions and the integrations that followed.

Charles began his career at Deloitte, moving through increasingly senior roles for six years before moving to Great-West in 1994. He initially joined the insurer when they were considering buying Confederation Life. Charles then worked on the 1997 acquisition of London Life. He says that deal “really transformed the organization, really brought a little Winnipeg-based insurance company to really be a national player.”

The London Life transaction also brought closer working relations with Investors Group, a related company in the Power Financial Corporation group of companies. Charles was involved with Investors Group’s subsequent acquisition of Mackenzie Financial Corporation in 2001, as well as Great-West’s purchase of Canada Life in 2003. Charles translated his unique skills and experience with acquisitions into further opportunities. He believes the timing of the transactions served his career well.

“As you continue to excel on initiatives, you continually have more exposure,” he says, noting he was able to parlay his experience into the roles of Controller and then CFO at Great-West, the latter being the position now held by Helen.

She, like Charles, spent the first six years of her career at Deloitte in Winnipeg. “One of my senior managers from Great-West moved to be the Chief Internal Auditor here and convinced me that internal audit wasn’t the ‘dark side,’” Helen jokes of her transition to Great-West’s internal audit team. She was also very involved in the London Life integration, logging considerable time in London, Ontario.

Helen briefly left Great-West for a stint at the Assante Group, an opportunity that saw her join a small organization just as it went public while consolidating and integrating its Canadian subsidiaries. When Helen returned to Great-West two years later, she took on progressively senior positions, including four-and-a-half years as Senior Vice-President and Chief Internal Auditor. Before her most recent promotion, she held the role of Senior Vice-President, Corporate Resources. Helen’s work at Great-West has taken her throughout Canada, the United States and Europe.

Both Charles and Helen are excited about what’s on the horizon as they step into their new positions. As the CFO role becomes increasingly complex due to regulatory changes and increased globalization, Charles and Helen are ready to meet these challenges head on.

Charles is looking forward to working directly with the President and CEO of Lifeco and learning from his strategic insight, while growing the company in new ways. He is also excited that his new position will help him reconnect with Lifeco colleagues around the globe.

Helen, who thrives on challenge and opportunity, is excited about the diversity of her new role. “Charles and I talk about this so often,” she says. “We both love living in Winnipeg and working with Great-West and with Lifeco. It’s a huge, multi-national, multi-billion dollar organization…It doesn’t get better than to have these opportunities – CFO Canada, Deputy CFO, Lifeco – and live 15 minutes from my house in a city that has lots of great things to offer, from sports, entertainment, culture, nearby lakes, raising a family and having community and relationships around you.”

The type of work they’re engaged in is especially attractive according to Charles. “We deal with as complicated issues as you’ll ever see in Toronto, New York, anywhere, and we can do it from here,” he says. “If you find the right opportunity and the right role that you’re passionate about, everything works. The community is spectacular. I love Winnipeg and its diversity.”

Both Charles and Helen funnel their enthusiasm and energy back to their communities and share long histories of volunteerism. Charles was active in both the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Manitoba and the Canadian Institute of Chartered Accountants (CICA), serving on the national board.  Helen is also active in the industry and volunteers at her children’s schools and with her church. In 2009, the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Manitoba recognized Helen with its Community Service Award.

Charles and Helen agree that the attitude of giving back is synonymous with both Deloitte and Great-West. “I’d say that grew out of Deloitte where we were encouraged to find something that we’re passionate about or had interest in,” is Helen’s way of putting it. “They wanted to see everyone give back to their community and give back their time. And I think that really became ingrained in us.”

Charles’ comments follow a similar thread. “It’s amazing to me the more you give, it really does come back tenfold,” he says. “We all have tremendous talents and it’s our responsibility to help the communities that we live in. The model we have at Great-West is helping our communities and we make an unbelievable difference.”

Advancing Great-West’s commitment to improving the financial, physical and mental well-being of Canadians has been critically important to the organization as it continues to grow and prosper. Charles and Helen feel strongly that Great-West is in the business of helping people. Their roles are paramount to Great-West continuing as a strong, financially stable organization to enable that broader goal.

Much of how Charles and Helen approach work today is drawn from good habits they learned from early career mentors during their initial experiences at Deloitte. “They helped to actually show us how to be good professionals,” says Charles. “That’s something we’ve tried to adopt…We actually train CA’s. The buddy system, the mentoring system…we’re trying to emulate as much of that as possible at Great-West. It’s been very good.”

Helen’s main takeaway from her days at Deloitte is a team mentality that she pushes forward to this day. “You’re a team and whatever is good for the client is good for everyone who works with the client,” she says. “I think we’ve both taken that approach all the way through…And that’s very much what we learned from Day One at Deloitte.”

What’s a favourite motto you live by?
Helen: You start every day with the opportunity to say if your glass is half-full or half- empty and I choose to say it’s half-full every day.
Charles: Be thankful for the challenges you have, because if you didn’t have those you’d probably make half as much money.

How do you relax when you have a moment?
Helen: My kids are very sports-oriented, so it’s watching them play sports. When they’re not playing sports, it’s still watching sports – I have Jets and Bombers tickets – or spending time with friends.
Charles: Playing hockey and I golf in the summer. And we go to the cottage year-round.

If you weren’t doing the job you are in now, what would you be doing?
Helen: Working with a children’s hospital or volunteering full-time.
Charles: I would hope that I would have been a partner at Deloitte!

Did you find this useful?