Need roadside assistance? Chances are you’re calling the Canadian Automobile Association (CAA). For more than a century, CAA has provided Canadians with support, auto and travel insurance, and leisure-travel services, making it the most trusted and recognizable not-for-profit automobile association in the country. The past three years have been full of invention and innovation at the organization, and according to Ajay Tellis, CFO and chief risk officer of CAA South Central Ontario, the largest of the three affiliate clubs in the province, it’s just the beginning. Tellis recently spoke to Advantage about moving to Canada, the challenges of being a CFO, and the importance of having an innovation-focused executive team.
You began your accounting career in India. How did you become interested in the field, and what propelled you to come to Canada?
It was almost without question that I would enter this field. Almost everyone in my family is in accounting or banking. At university, when I was 20, I pretty much knew this was the path for me.
Moving to Canada also wasn’t a decision I made; it just kind of happened. I was on holiday and had the opportunity to come to Toronto. I was 26, and of course I had an idea of what it was like in Canada, but it turned out that I knew very little about Toronto. A couple of weeks later, I got a job offer in an accounting firm. I loved Toronto, but I moved in July, so it was a little misleading; I had no way of knowing how harsh the winters would be. There were moments where I thought, “Oh my gosh, what have I gotten myself into?” I love it, though. It’s a diverse, beautiful city.
“If you don’t change at all in 100 years, while the world changes around you, that doesn’t bode well for your organization.”
You became CFO while still quite young. What prepared you for that kind of leadership role?
Of course, everything you do leading up to the role teaches you something, but if I’m being honest, I think being with CAA for six years prior to becoming CFO was the most helpful. I was able to gain inside knowledge of how the club operates and to develop relationships with the executive team. Understanding the culture is very important. When you can pair that with the technical skills needed to succeed in the role, it’s kind of the perfect preparation.
Obtains his first professional designation as a CA in India
Becomes a CPA and CA in Canada
Obtains his CPA title in the US
Joins CAA South Central Ontario as controller of planning and reporting
Becomes director of finance at CAA South Central Ontario
Becomes CFO and chief risk officer at CAA South Central Ontario
Awarded the Gerald E. Hackett Memorial Prize by the Insurance Institute of Canada and the Douglas N. Hurlbut Award by the Insurance Institute of Ontario
What are the biggest challenges of your role?
We have a diverse business portfolio, with lines of business having very different expectations on growth, service, and success. It’s okay that all of the facets function differently—that’s what they’re supposed to do—but there also has to be synergy between all of the moving parts. I have to understand everyone’s perspective and function, and work with my peers to understand our business needs and continue moving the business forward.
Tell me about some of the changes that have taken place in the last three years and how they’re pushing the club in the right direction.
I would say that the wheels, for what’s happening now, began turning in 2009. Right now, technology is the club’s biggest driver. Again, we’re more than 100 years old, and we have a very strong brand, so any innovations require a delicate balance. We need to keep up with the times while delivering on everything our members have come to expect of us.
We are offering members new services, travel insurance, and user-based auto insurance, but what’s really pushing us forward is our president, who is young, innovative, and comes from an IT background. One of our most successful innovations to date is the Service Tracker, which is an app that can be used when you need roadside assistance. How many of us have sat around waiting for a tow-truck driver, with no idea where they are or how much longer they’ll be? The Service Tracker app uses GPS to show you where the driver is and how long until they get to you. It’s going over very well.
Why is it important to have an executive team who is willing to push CAA?
Not only does it energize me, but it breathes new life into the whole club. Accounting is my bread and butter, obviously. That is at the centre of my responsibility; it helps sustain us long term, but it’s not what moves the organization forward. If you don’t change at all in 100 years, while the world changes around you, that doesn’t bode well for your organization. We’re hanging on to core values that have always worked for us while innovating in crucial ways. I love what’s going on at CAA.