Early in her career, one pivotal moment shaped Theresa Salvatori's perspective on leadership: A performance review, initially perceived as a sting, turned out to be a profound lesson for the former CFO of Kone East Africa.
Even as a child, Theresa Salvatori (née Adundo), took a keen interest in making sure that the shopkeeper had calculated her change correctly. In her young mind, she envisioned she would one day become a cashier. However, it was during an accounting course at Alliance Girls High School that her path became crystal clear — finance was her calling.
"I excelled in my studies and my parents hoped I would pursue a career in medicine, but I always knew that I wanted to work with numbers. I systematically worked to achieve my dream," she says. "My plan was to study abroad. I applied and was admitted to multiple universities in the USA, but my family was unable to raise sufficient funds to send me there."
Not one to dwell on setbacks, she enrolled for CPA(K) studies at Strathmore University having received a full scholarship. From that point onwards, Theresa focused on pursuing her undergraduate education and gaining work experience.
"I applied to several banks for a job, and they all sent back letters rejecting me despite my good secondary school examination results," she explains.
Citibank, however, wrote Theresa a second letter inviting her to take up a temporary role working in the mailroom putting bank statements in envelopes. She worked her way to a full-time accountant role in the finance and administration department.
Simultaneously, Theresa completed her CPA (K) and obtained a BSc in Business Administration from United States International University – Africa. Her unconventional journey paid off; she graduated at the same time as her former classmates but with two years of work experience under her belt.
"While working at the bank, I found myself pondering the fundamental question: How does the bank generate the money it lends and manages? This led me to re-evaluate my professional direction and consider a shift to corporate finance. I desired a deeper understanding of how businesses operate and generate revenue," she says. "I embarked on the process of applying for master’s programs. This time around, the journey proved more favourable, I joined Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business MBA programme in the USA. Having worked through my undergraduate degree, I opted for a full-time graduate course."
After graduation, Theresa joined the MBA Leadership Development programme at Johnson & Johnson in New Jersey, USA. During her 11 years with the company, she underwent a transformative experience that has informed her leadership style to date. She worked in various finance roles in pharmaceuticals, research, medical devices and treasury.
"At Johnson & Johnson, that's where I truly cut my teeth in terms of learning what my opportunities were and what I wanted to do in the long term," Theresa notes.
Early in her career, one pivotal moment shaped Theresa's perspective on leadership: A performance review, initially perceived as a sting, turned out to be a profound lesson.
"I realised that being a finance professional wasn't just about crunching numbers, you have to be a good negotiator, influencer and a leader," she says. "My manager posed these questions which I share today with the young accountants I mentor. What needs to change to improve? What's the bigger picture? What's the challenge the company faces, not just in your department but as an entire entity?"
Theresa and her husband made a conscious decision to return to Kenya. The motivation behind this move was to provide their three children with a well-rounded and balanced upbringing. It has been a cultural shift; she vividly remembers their son’s initial surprise when a neighbourhood child invited him to play without the customary parental coordination of a scheduled play date.
"It is OK to dream of the life you want, and with meticulous resource planning and a healthy dose of networking you can achieve your dream," she advises. "We came to Nairobi in 2016 without jobs but with a determination to make a new life in Kenya. I embarked on a quest to rekindle my local connections and to put my CV out there in a bid to land a CFO job."
Theresa was appointed regional CFO of Kone East Africa, a Finnish based elevator company in August 2017. She headed the finance teams of the company in Kenya and Uganda.
"I knew little about the elevator industry in the beginning, but in my view the critical skill a CFO needs is adaptability. Whether you are working in pharmaceuticals, FMCG or construction, you need to understand the business truly and quickly. What makes a Kone elevator different from any other elevator? What challenges are my salespeople facing? How are elevators maintained to add value to the equation?" she asks, rhetorically.
"It has been an interesting six years at Kone where like most companies we have recently faced different challenges from currency issues to the COVID-19 pandemic to the effects of the Russia-Ukraine war. We may not have been able to foresee all these challenges but in my view a CFO should not be about reacting to what is happening but rather anticipating what could happen and managing the risk."
Compliance and taxes
Among Theresa’s headaches as CFO has been compliance. The tax environment in Kenya and Uganda is very dynamic with constantly evolving regulations. ‘It is really a lot of work because a particular tax rate can change and you only have a short time to adapt. Having automated systems and an ERP system that is adaptable is advantageous because small mistakes can be very costly. The aspect of compliance extends beyond finance because you need to ensure your sales team is compliant and the terms and conditions of contracts are aligned to legislation," she explains.
Outside of work, Theresa loves working with children and currently she teaches Sunday school and catechism at her local church. She credits her faith for keeping her balanced, focused, and rational even in the face of personal or professional challenges. Her three children also keep her very busy with their varied interests and school activities.
She often reminds herself that life is somewhat different in Kenya.
"In the USA, you can log into a website to organise a kid’s party and get exactly what you have ordered within the hour. Everything works at the touch of a button. In Kenya, it is somewhat different; it takes longer and often you may not get what you requested, but what we lack in terms of service delivery is more than made up for in wonderful weather and the presence of friends and family," she concludes.