- Parag won a silver medal representing New Zealand at the 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester.
- Elite sport has proven to be good training for team-building, leadership and other business skills
- As businesses evolve, people need to evolve also. Learning new skillsets is key.
By Helen Ozolins.
Not many chartered accountants have silver medals in international sport – but Flux Federation CFO Umesh Parag has one from the 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester when he was part of the New Zealand men’s hockey team.
That was the undoubted highlight of Parag’s sporting career, during which he played a then-record 214 games for the men’s national team, the Black Sticks. He represented New Zealand at two Olympic Games (Barcelona in 1992 and Athens in 2004), two Commonwealth Games (Kuala Lumpur in 1998 and Manchester) and two Hockey World Cups (Utrecht, in the Netherlands, in 1998 and Kuala Lumpur in 2002).
Parag describes the semi-final in Manchester as one of the most memorable. “In securing that silver medal, we played Pakistan in the semi-final and we had never beaten them in the history of New Zealand hockey. We beat them 7-1.”
This year, the Commonwealth Games are being held on the Gold Coast in Australia. “I always look forward to watching the Commonwealth Games,” he says. “I still enjoy watching most events, but particularly watching the hockey, athletics, and swimming. I still know a few members of the current Black Sticks team and coaching and management team.”
Sporting success came early to Parag, who swapped from soccer to hockey at the age of 11 and was soon included in the Wellington age group reps. He was named in the squad for the Barcelona Olympics part way through studying to be an accountant. “I knew I would always have a career outside of hockey,” he says. Those studies were put on hold for a year to accommodate training, but in 1993 Parag graduated with a degree in accounting from Victoria University in his home town of Wellington.
A job with KPMG followed in 1994 as part of their graduate recruitment program. Parag had two stints at KPMG, in audit and then in the corporate finance team, before joining Meridian Energy in 2007.
“When you start from university into a CA firm, I think they give you a good solid training support structure to get started and establish yourself,” Parag says. Audit was very good for that. Corporate finance was new again and was almost like retraining, but added a different skill set. “I had an accounting and a more analytical and finance bow, so that was good.”
An appointment as CFO of Powershop, a subsidiary of Meridian, in 2012 meant more independence and an opportunity to create his own team. “I was joining a new, fast-growing company at that time and it was a completely different environment. I think just having that element of independence at a much smaller business was a positive move for me.” A decision to formally split the two elements of Powershop – electricity retail and software development – last year saw Parag take on the role of CFO of the new software development company, Flux Federation.
My experiences in hockey became more and more like running a professional team and I do draw heavily on that
“It’s a little bit like a start-up but not quite like a year-one start-up,” he says. “We’re still establishing and building the team. We’re looking to grow the business, so if we’re successful in doing that, the support required from a commercial and finance perspective will grow as well.”
Flux Federation creates the software that powers Powershop in New Zealand, Australia and the UK. Its team of more than 100 developers, designers, product owners and testers build for utility companies and their customers worldwide from a base in Wellington.
Lessons from sport
Hockey didn’t just bring Parag a silver medal, it provided good training for his chosen profession. “My experiences in hockey became more and more like running a professional team and I do draw heavily on that. So it’s about being part of a team, having shared goals, having the leadership qualities that you look to after experiencing it within hockey itself.”
Although Parag always watched and took a little bit from players and coaches he admired, his main influences were in the coaching sphere. Peter Miskimmin, currently CEO of Sport New Zealand and Parag’s teammate and coach at Wellington, is one person he singles out. Kevin Towns, his coach when he first made the national team and also just before he retired from it, is another.
“There are lots of different elements that I pull into my work life,” Parag says. One thing when I played hockey was to enjoy what I was doing, so “I would say that I would pull that across to any career as well.” Being part of a team also builds tolerance. “You do get lots of different personalities and you’re living with each other, so you have to be able to deal with different cultures, different people, different personalities because you’re part of a team and should be heading towards the same overall goal.”
Being open to broadening your skills and capability in your professional development is another key area Parag highlights. “Businesses evolve, so you need to evolve. There’s a high software influence in a lot of businesses now and that is very different to 10 or 20 years ago. I think people need to change as times evolve and businesses evolve.”
Outside work, Parag is hoping to get back into hockey once he recovers from a serious knee injury sustained while playing in the World Masters Games last year with other former Black Sticks. “One of my strengths was I had speed when I was playing…I’ve had surgery, so I’m down to a walk at the moment.” With two young children, both of whom play hockey, a coaching role is looking like a possibility for the future.
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Helen Ozolins is the deputy editor of Acuity magazine.
Photograph: Getty Images