Interview: John Crawford CA, CFO of Pacific Blue Cross

By Robert Outram, Editor of The CA magazine

22 February 2016

John Crawford talks to Robert Outram about life in Canada and working as CFO at one of the country's largest healthcare companies.

Just 13 days after qualifying as a CA in Glasgow, John Crawford set out to see some more of the world. His journey has taken him to his present role as chief financial officer and senior vice-president at Pacific Blue Cross, one of Canada's largest healthcare organisations.

Pacific Blue Cross (PBC), based in the Vancouver suburb of Burnaby, has around 1.5 million members in British Columbia and annual revenue of around CAN$1.2bn. It provides both individual and group healthcare plans; for example, British Columbia's health workers and teachers are covered by group schemes run by PBC.

As John explains: "We play in the space that government doesn't make provision for. For example, in Canada, most prescription medicine has to be paid for by the individual so we can cover the cost of that. Also, there is no national dental plan here."

'Growth through competitive pricing'

PBC can trace its origins to a mutual organisation set up by doctors in British Columbia 75 years ago. It has grown by adding members, unions and employers as customers, and by extending the range of services it offers. For example, as well as healthcare cover, PBC provides travel insurance, and when the provincial government withdrew free eye tests, the organisation came up with an offering in that field, too.

He says of his job: "In some ways it's a typical CFO role, but I also have an actuarial group and an underwriting group reporting to me. It's important to ensure that our rates are sustainable, but competitive in the marketplace. We look to achieve growth through competitive pricing.

"I also deal with the usual financial issues and the regulatory challenges our industry gets involved in."

John and his chief executive, Jan K Grude, report to a board that represents PBC's customers: individual members, group scheme members and employers. The ownership structure means that PBC is run as a not-for-profit organisation, but it aims to make enough of a surplus to cover necessary investment. For example, the organisation was able to fund a CAN$100m investment, over five years, "without borrowing a penny", John says.

Increasing layers of regulation

The biggest challenge, John says, is dealing with ever- increasing layers of regulation. He explains: "Regulations are fairly onerous and it's putting extra work on companies, with minimal added value. For example, we now have to calculate our "own risk and solvency assessment" [under the Solvency II regulations, which apply to insurers] and you have to educate the board before you present that to them.

"The cost of governance has added significantly to the strain on CFOs' offices, post-crisis. The question is how we deal with potential 'black swans' [unexpected, significant events]. We have always done simulations and stress tests, but now we are doing that a lot more."

Work/life balance is not an unusual term in Vancouver and we believe in it at our company. For example, through PBC I do yoga, meditation and fitness. I never thought I'd do meditation.

Vancouver work/life balance

John trained as a CA with Hardie, Caldwell, Ker & Hardie, qualifying in 1979. Despite the attractions of auditing the White Horse distillery – one of the firm's clients – he was keen to travel. With an uncle working in Seattle with Boeing, the opportunity to work for KPMG in Canada was appealing, and he accepted a posting to Prince George, a remote part of British Columbia with a thriving forestry industry. Canada – where there are reportedly more people of "Scots heritage" than there are in Scotland itself – was an environment he soon felt at home in.

What was meant to be a two-year posting became something more permanent, especially after John married a Canadian girl and they started a family. His career took him into industry, with a financial controller role in a rentals business, and then back into practice with Deloitte in Vancouver. He joined PBC as controller in 1989 and, in 2003, was appointed to his current role.

Why Vancouver? "Put it this way," John says, "You can ski in the morning and play golf in the afternoon. It's great for outdoor sports – you name it, you can do it there. Unlike most of the rest of Canada we only get one or two weeks of snow, because we're sheltered by Vancouver Island. And Vancouver is a pretty relaxed city, socially."

He adds: "Work/life balance is not an unusual term in Vancouver and we believe in it at our company. For example, through PBC I do yoga, meditation and fitness. I never thought I'd end up doing meditation."

It's good to learn from the experience of other CAs – what works in Brisbane should probably work in Vancouver too.

It's not unusual, John says, to take a walk out from the suburbs into the countryside and see a brown bear. Burnaby isn't a sleepy town, however; for example, one of PBC's neighbours is the computer games giant Electronic Arts and Microsoft's HQ is only two hours down the road in Seattle, across the US border.

John plays an active part in the community of his adopted home. He is president of Burnaby Family Life (BFL), a volunteer programme helping with a range of social issues from teenage pregnancy to helping out someone in an abusive relationship. BFL runs childcare facilities, for example, helping teenage mothers to complete their schooling.

He says: "As president, one of my many roles is to work with politicians to secure our funding. Ensuring that children get a good start in life will save a lot of money later on, just as enabling mothers to work or helping immigrants to assimilate into Canada saves public funds in the long run."

John has also been "master tally" for the British Columbia Children's Hospital Miracle Weekend Telethon for more than 25 years. In a professional context, he is vice-chair of the ICABC (Institute of Chartered Accountants of British Columbia) Discipline Tribunal, treasurer of the Vancouver Chapter of Certified Fraud Examiners, and director of Canadian Drug Pooling Corporation. This year, he was made a fellow (FCA) of ICABC.

As a member of ICAS based overseas, John welcomes moves to strengthen the Institute's relationship with CAs around the world. He says: "ICAS has taken the right steps in creating international communities of CAs. It's good to see the ICAS president, for example, although for other events it's quite difficult getting numbers to attend.

"It's good to learn from the experience of other CAs – what works in Brisbane should probably work in Vancouver too."

His advice to other CAs looking to sample life across the ocean is: "Get a two to three year transfer with one of the big firms and you'll get a ground-floor view of the business scene in Canada."

That view might well include a brown bear or two...

This is an updated version of the article that originally appeared in CA magazine.


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