Embracing Change

Kristian Wells, VP of finance and administration for DirectWest, on the evolution and future of the search industry

The information business got a lot more complicated in the Information Age. But DirectWest isn’t a company that shies away from change. A wholly owned subsidiary of SaskTel, DirectWest has branched out from phone books to connect with consumers nearly anywhere at any time. As vice president of finance and administration, Kristian Wells is focused on transforming internal processes to keep up with and capitalize on changes in the marketplace. Here, he shares his thoughts on leadership and where his industry is headed.

Kristian Wells’s
Career Milestones

2002
Graduates from the University of Regina and begins career at SaskTel in corporate accounting

2006
Completes his CMA designation and is promoted to his first management position at SaskTel

2009
Moves to Holdco Financial Planning group

2012
Takes on his current position as VP of finance and administration with DirectWest

Advantage: What changes have you made in your departments?
Kristian Wells: I took over right when DirectWest had just had its best year ever for earnings, based on executing a very successful long-term and well-established strategy. That said, it was clear that the local search industry was changing quite quickly and that the finance department would need to play a bigger role in helping determine how best to move the company forward. The fact that our business was getting far more complex with the continued move to online and mobile products and services meant that our financial reporting would have to evolve as well.

How did you bring the finance department up to speed?
I’d say the biggest change we have made in that regard is with our budget process. Prior to this year, we had always done our financial modelling in spreadsheets, and although there had been no serious issues to date, it was very cumbersome, time-intensive, and at risk for error. We are currently in the midst of our first cycle using a cloud-based planning, budgeting, and forecasting tool called Adaptive Insights. Aside from being cost-effective and easy to use, the functionality has allowed us to spend more time analyzing the financial information and less time compiling the work. Feedback from the management team that uses the tool to input their budget has also been very positive, and we will be looking at options to use the software in other ways for our ongoing reforecasting and reporting purposes.

How are you helping to foster company-wide growth?
In addition to the work the finance department is doing to help analyze what areas of profitable and sustainable growth to get into, the HR department has a large focus on developing strategies to evolve our workforce from one that had previously been print-based and fairly constant to one that is digital-focused and embraces change. I do believe in the adage that culture trumps strategy, and continuing to evolve our workforce is an important part of moving the company forward.

How Are You Growing?

“Although we continue to invest in our mysask411 brand and change the perception of DirectWest, messaging is just one part of the strategy to move the company along to a state we are calling ‘DirectWest 2.0.’ Part of my responsibility is to lay out for employees and our stakeholders how we will successfully execute on that strategy by transforming our systems, processes, customer experience, and workforce.” -Kristian Wells, VP of Finance & Administration

What qualities do you think make an effective leader?
Accountability, transparency, and a willingness to empower employees. If leaders aren’t accountable to themselves and others, honest and open with employees about the changes ahead, and don’t involve others in determining how to accomplish the company’s goals, employees are not likely to follow. I have been extremely lucky so far in my career, as everyone I have worked for has exhibited those traits and allowed me to grow in each position and take on added responsibility once I had proven myself.

How have DirectWest’s offerings changed over the past 10–20 years?
The most obvious is the move from being strictly a directory-based business that focused entirely on the print phone book to a company that now focuses on digital search and bringing content across all our platforms—print, online, and mobile. We have also placed a greater emphasis on our ability to report hard data on the results and leads we can generate for businesses. This ability to show ROI and direct consumer activity associated with our products and services is probably our biggest competitive advantage, along with our existing customer relationships.

Where do you see the industry headed?
I think it is safe to say the industry will continue to experience pressure from new and existing technologies, shifting consumer behaviours, and the continued migration from print to digital search. The companies that are most willing to embrace change and can reposition themselves while still relevant with consumers and accept the additional investment required in the new digital world are the ones that are going to find success.