Laurie Schultz: Class struggle

ACL Services' new CEO wants her company to help establish a new technology “middle class” to ensure that Vancouver develops into more than a good ...

Minerva Foundation award winner Laurie Schultz, CEO of ACL Services: “I think what I bring to the table, as a leader, is an intense desire to spot the unnoticed, spot the underdog”

It's a lament often expressed by BC Technology Industry Association directors: Vancouver is a great place to hatch a tech startup, but it lacks a middle class. Too many successful Vancouver startups, they say, get acquired by companies and are then headquartered elsewhere.

Laurie Schultz, the new president and CEO of ACL Services, is one of those directors.

She's determined that her audit software company won't be among those that have been absorbed by a company headquartered in California.

"I'm hell-bent on building this company – let's say doubling this company – but staying," said Schultz, who last week received the Minerva Foundation for BC Women leadership excellence award.

"ACL is the first software company that I've worked for that is still headquartered in Vancouver. We've been around for 25 years, but even after 25 years, we know only 20% of our market is actually using [audit and risk management] technology, so that means we've got 80% to go.

"We should be at least four times bigger than we are, but we're not going to get there by doing the same thing. We have to figure out how to eat the other 80%."

In the 15 months that she has been with ACL, Schultz has already demonstrated a talent for reinvention and expanding the business. Since she was hired as chief operating officer in August 2011, ACL has posted double-digit growth. It has also gone through a major upper management shakeup. One of her first tasks as COO was to hold a series of town hall meetings, and the result was a housecleaning.

"What I learned in my first three minutes, frankly, is that we needed to make some changes in our leadership team and that we needed to reinvest in our product," she said.

"We're No. 1, and we have a lot to be proud of, but we probably are getting a bit stagnant."

Many of the company's new leaders were brought up from lower ranks.

"I think what I bring to the table, as a leader, is an intense desire to spot the unnoticed, spot the underdog, and maybe it's why I'm in 'reinvent,'" she said. "The point is to mobilize the voice of the front line."

ACL also increased its investment in research and development by 20% and bought Workpapers.com – an acquisition that represents a fundamental shift in the way the company does business.

ACL's revenue has historically come from hard sales of compliance, audit and risk management software. The acquisition of Workpapers.com means a move to the SaaS (software as a service) model.

"She did a tremendous job of getting her hands around the business very quickly," said ACL executive chairman Harald Will, who hired Schultz with the express purpose of grooming her to take over from him as CEO.

"One of her leadership tenets is hire people smarter than you and get out of the way, and that's pretty much what I did in terms of bringing her in."

In September, Will handed over the CEO job to Schultz.

Born and raised in Calgary, Schultz knows what it's like to have to struggle to get ahead. Her parents divorced when she was young. She was brought up by a single mother who worked two jobs and lived in a trailer park.

That may explain why she volunteers for Dress for Success, an organization that helps women – many of them single mothers and immigrants – get a job by providing them with a business suit and mentoring.

Schultz's upbringing might also explain why she doesn't mind roughing it when travelling – in fact, she prefers it. She has camped in the desert in Egypt, trekked among the hill tribes of northern Thailand and travelled solo to Peru to hike up to Machu Picchu. She and her family recently returned from a safari in Africa.

"When I go on vacation, I need extreme vacation, which for me is feeling starved, feeling afraid, wanting water – going to the bottom of Maslow's hierarchy of needs," Schultz said.

Schultz earned a bachelor's degree in commerce and an MBA from the University of Alberta. Her first job was with Alberta Government Telephones (AGT), which was bought by Telus (TSX:T), and it put her in charge of launching the first caller ID service in Canada.

"It was a great first job because I was able to immerse myself in technology [and] had the privilege of launching something that was an overnight success."

After seven years with Telus, she spent three years doing consulting work with KPMG.

She then went to work with Intuit Canada in Edmonton, where she was the product manager for Quicken, Intuit's finance software.

In 2004, Schultz moved her family to B.C. to work with a competitor, Simply Accounting, in Richmond, which was acquired by Sage Software, where Schultz became senior vice-president and general manager for Sage North America's enterprise resource planning portfolio.

Schultz acknowledges that some women executives still face career limitations if they have children. Schultz has two children –a 15-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter – but has not experienced any such career limitations. She credits that in part to the fact that her husband, Mark, decided to be a stay-at-home dad and assume many of the parenting duties.

"When we moved out here, my husband quit his job, so we have an atypical household scenario," she said.

"He's a stay-at-home dad. He's awesome at it. I've been lucky to have that. Not everybody has that choice."

More than a year ago, ACL began searching for a new CEO, and Schultz was selected out of about 100 candidates. The company has 15,000 customers and sells its compliance, audit and risk management software in 150 countries. Most Fortune 500 companies use it, including the big four accounting firms (Deloitte, Ernst & Young, KPMG and PwC), and yet ACL is not well known in its own hometown.

"I didn't even know ACL, and I lived here for seven years," Schultz said. "This is a remarkable Vancouver success story."

Part of that success is built on major accounting scandals at Enron and Worldcom, which forced the tightening of compliance reporting. ACL's software allows accountants to "interrogate" massive volumes of data to discover anomalies that may be the result of fraud.

ACL's software has been used to discover everything from a $60 million leak at a Nigerian telecom to a municipality that had 80 employees who didn't actually exist on its payroll.

"We had one example of someone who had bought a cow on a corporate credit card," Schultz said.

ACL currently employs close to 200 people locally and has 80 resellers worldwide. Schultz said her ultimate ambition is to grow the company and take it public. She also hopes, through her work with BCTIA, to encourage other Vancouver technology companies to do likewise.

"I'd like to see a lot more of us grow up and stay here," she said. •

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