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Connect, May 2012 - Christine Komola - EY - United States

Connect, May 2012

Christine Komola

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  Current position:
Chief Financial Officer, Staples, Inc.
  Last EY office:
Boston, Massachusetts
  Born in:
New Rochelle, New York
  Board/community involvement:
The Catholic School Foundation
  Career highlights:
Seeing the progression of the people I hired in the early days at Staples grow into our Staples leaders of today; visiting Staples finance associates all over the world and seeing how they have partnered with the business to drive change
  Most recent read:
11/22/63 by Stephen King

Christine Komola

Making it look easy at Staples

Christine Komola started her career at Ernst & Young LLP saying she was just trying to “work hard and learn as much as possible.” Today, she is Chief Financial Officer of Staples, the world’s largest office products company and second largest internet retailer on the planet.

Yes, you read that correctly. While it is not something the company typically shouts about, Staples is the number two global internet retailer, with more than US$10 billion in online sales annually. Only Amazon is bigger. When asked about the company’s remarkable but low-key web presence, Komola explains: “We’re in the process of shifting from a destination site (a place where people come to simply place orders) to a browse site (one that offers a broader user experience, including product reviews, how-to’s, discussion boards, etc.). Once that transformation is complete, Komola expects a bigger push behind “Our multichannel offering between the dot-com and retail stores continues to gain traction with our customers,” she notes.

Komola knows her way around a dot-com. After signing on with EY in Boston in 1989, she joined Staples in 1997 as a corporate accounting manager. Around that time, the company was looking to create as a separate spin-off. Komola was named CFO of that business. “We basically built the finance team, the IT team, the marketing team, the merchandising team — it was ‘all hands on deck’.” As a result, Komola says she picked up a lot of operational experience and “really got to see the dot-com experience from a customer perspective.”

Next stop: furniture

Just as Staples was preparing to launch its new dot-com business, the economy started to falter. Staples re-tooled and made the decision to fold back into Staples’ larger business. Komola says it was “the right thing to do for our customers.” But it resulted in her being driven even further off the typical accounting career path: she was appointed general merchandise manager in furniture for Staples’ retail business. Komola took the appointment with her typical “all in” attitude. “I didn’t know the furniture business, so my approach was to ask questions and learn from the people around me: I listened to the merchant team, the store field team and customers.” As a result, Komola says she was able to introduce new selling tactics, new marketing ideas and new furniture designs.

“Our biggest challenge is being able to stay nimble in the changing environment …”

After spending two years in the furniture division, in 2004 Komola went back into corporate accounting and this past February was promoted to CFO, succeeding John Mahoney, one of Komola’s mentors and fellow EY alum, who now serves as Staples’ Vice Chairman. Komola credits the ability to appreciate the value of and build strong teams that she learned at EY, and her diverse career path at Staples, for much of her success.

New challenges ahead

Like other industry-leading companies, Staples does face challenges despite its market dominance: “Our biggest challenge is being able to stay nimble in the changing environment,” says Komola. “We’ve got economic challenges, we’ve got environmental challenges, and keeping the or-ganization’s eye on growth, despite these distractions, is hard.” But by showing enough “little wins in tough times,” and by recognizing those wins, Komola believes you help people see that they can achieve their bigger aspirations.

In addition to enhancing its e-commerce business, Staples is focused on leveraging its loyal customer base to grow its facilities and break-room business (i.e., cleaning supplies and solutions), its technology and technology services business and its in-house copy and print services. Over time, Komola says, the plan is to replicate that business model in Europe and Australia, as well as in South America and Asia.

Christine Komola, alumna and Staples CFO, shares a lighter moment with EY Staples Coordinating Partner Ray Sullivan. In addition to its operations in 26 countries, Staples is the world’s second largest internet retailer.

A tale of two Mahoneys

It’s an unusual twist of fate that the two people with perhaps the most impact on Komola’s career are both named Mahoney. John Mahoney is a former EY audit partner, current Staples Vice Chairman, former Staples CFO and Komola’s boss for many years. Frank Mahoney is currently EY’s Boston Office Managing Partner and formerly served as Coordinating Partner for Staples. Komola notes that the two men have similar styles and that she’s learned — and continues to learn — much from both: “Neither will hesitate to push me out of my comfort zone,” she says, and then quickly adds, “but they will always be right there to back me up.”

Komola and her husband, John (also an EY alum), have an 11-year-old daughter who enjoys horseback riding. Komola is an avid runner and exerciser (“because I like to eat,” she laughs) and enjoys relaxing walks with Chica, the family dog.

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