Profits & Purpose – Playing the long game > CFO, Mark Fortugno

As the CFO of social impact company WithYouWithMe, Mark Fortugno is leveraging his commercial expertise to help solve the digital skills crisis in Australia, the UK and USA.

Mark Fortugno was a cross border tax manager with KPMG in Montreal when he and his wife decided to move to the other side of the world in 2008.

They didn’t know a soul in Australia and had never been there before – their impressions were largely formed from watching TV ads with Paul Hogan cooking shrimps on the barbie.

“Of all the places on Earth, we chose Australia because it was brilliantly positioned in the world,” says Fortugno. “We wanted to be closer to Asia because its importance as a market was growing. It also seemed like a great place to raise our children.”

Taking a leap with a startup

Fortugno initially remained with KPMG in Sydney before becoming deputy CFO at a startup called Cater Care. At KPMG, his client portfolio largely consisted of multinationals such as JPMorgan, SwissRe, Lafarge and Novartis. Cater Care was only just beginning to acquire new business, and Fortugno was conscious that an early-stage business faces a number of inherent risks.

“I was a bit nervous about going from a global organisation to a small startup. However, I wanted to broaden my wings – and it turned out to be one of the best career decisions I’ve made,” he says.

Today, Cater Care is a large contract catering, accommodation and facility management service provider. When Fortugno joined the company, it had just launched its first international operations after winning catering contracts for the Australian Federal Police in the Solomon Islands. Fortugno had the skillset Cater Care needed, as he had a proven track record in cross border operations and building corporate governance.

Over the next decade, Fortugno aided Cater Care as it expanded its operations from providing facility services for schools to mining sites, defence sites and health care sites.

“It was quite a journey to take a company from providing one service to complex multi-service projects across growing industries and emerging sectors,” he says.

“[Cater Care] was designed to empower the workforce to make decisions in the hospitality industry, which is traditionally autocratic and has very low margins. We were empowering people to make decisions with very little room for error. From a business perspective, we were jumping in the deep end. But the model proved extremely successful.”

Cater Care became the largest privately held company in its sector and was competing against multinationals such as Compass Group, Serco, and Sodexho which had the advantage of better economies of scale and lower pricing.

And yet even within such a tightly competitive market, Cater Care was growing consistently by around 30% every year.

From quarterly reports to a decades-long focus

Fortugno’s remit also included shaping the evolution of company culture as a means to achieving greater commercial success. He was profoundly influenced by one of the company’s founders, SK Tam, who was an executive from Macau in Hong Kong with a long-term vision.

“Cater Care had a very Confucian outlook as an organization,” he says. “I came from a world of Western business philosophy, where the corporate mindset encompasses results-based leadership. At Cater Care, I learned how to think in generations as opposed to quarterly results. I went from being a results-based leader at audit firms to a leader that sees the value in creating a safe environment where people share their ideas, collaborate, and empathise between themselves and ultimately with customers.”

After 10 years, Cater Care was sold to the private equity firm, CHAMP Ventures. Fortugno exited the business and moved into consulting.

“Selling a business is a very personal, profound thing,” he says.

“I don’t believe in having regrets and it was certainly the right decision. We worked hard to reach our goal, at which point we collected our chips, so to speak. But there is a conflict in me too. Should we have kept going? What mitigates any sense of regret I may have is the journey that it’s taken me on afterwards as an experienced CFO.”

“It’s fine to make a lot of profit,” he says. “But I was thinking in terms of decades, not only next quarter. The experience in financial services taught me that I need a long-term purpose to be motivated – pure and simple.”

Mark Fortugno | CFO, WithYouWithMe

In 2018, Fortugno became CFO at Epsilon Healthcare Limited (EPN) and spent the next few years preparing it for ASX-listing and the global expansion of its operations into Canada. The diversified global healthcare and pharmaceuticals company owns several medicinal cannabis assets, and it provided Fortugno with his first taste of a business with social impact.

He worked closely with then Minister of Health, Greg Hunt, in the highly regulated, emerging and lobby-driven field of medicinal cannabis.”

It was enriching and rewarding to be investing in something future-driven that was looking to provide treatment for health issues such as epilepsy and cancer. As a CFO, I felt very positive about providing long-term value to society while providing commercial value to investors.”

Business recovery in a pandemic

After EPN was listed, Fortugno moved back into hospitality when he took up a CFO role with Trippas White Group in 2019. He was tasked with leveraging his proprietary market knowledge to help the organization grow into defense and mining – but then the COVID-19 pandemic hit. The company’s business came to a standstill.

“It was my first exposure to business recovery in the most intense way possible,” he says.

Trippas White Group stood down its staff two weeks before the federal government announced the first set of lockdowns. At the time, there were no government support packages.

“If we had waited to do it when the government announced the packages, we would have been in a long queue with everyone else,” he says. “We had lots of leases that needed to be negotiated. It made a lot more sense for us to be early and therefore ahead of the queue.”

Fortugno had to attend to a multitude of pressing needs to keep the company afloat by enacting a sharp financial management plan which included stand-downs, negotiating payment plans for taxation, cash flow, leveraging strong relationships with banks, payroll and differing responses to the health crisis in each state and territory.

“Everything had to come into play to get the company into a position that would keep it ahead of the market and therefore able to survive and we acted a full two weeks before other players in the industry,” he says.

Fortugno never got the chance to pursue his original remit, which was to secure hospitality contracts in the mining and defence sectors. Due to the pressures of the pandemic, it lacked the capital needed. However, Fortugno is proud that the company came out from the other side of the pandemic. Today, it has 500 employees across some of Australia’s most iconic venues, including the Sydney Opera House, Centrepoint Tower and the War Memorial.”

The perfect fit

As the pandemic subsided, Fortugno took an interim role in the financial services industry, but he was struggling to find purpose.

“It’s fine to make a lot of profit,” he says. “But I was thinking in terms of decades, not only next quarter. The experience in financial services taught me that I need a long-term purpose to be motivated – pure and simple.”

In October 2021, Fortugno found such an opportunity when he became the CFO of WithYouWithMe (WYWM). Its mission is to provide individuals with an opportunity to flourish in the workforce by identifying and growing talent in places that are often overlooked, such as within underrepresented groups or within an existing workforce. Its software platform connects individuals with diverse backgrounds and skills with meaningful employment opportunities.

WYWM’s mission immediately resonated with Fortugno.

“The biggest trend I’ve seen in my lifetime has been underemployment, and it’s getting worse,” he says. “Often the hardest thing in business is getting the right people. Everyone’s chasing over the same talent.”

WYWM originally began by helping veterans secure employment opportunities, and it has ongoing contracts with defence departments in Australia, Canada and the UK. The company now also serves a variety of different industries, with multinational clients that include BAE Systems, Northrup Grumann, and Fujitsu.

For Fortugno, the role with WYWM provides him with an opportunity to draw on each of his different skillsets and professional experiences to date. He thrives on the challenge of commercializing the vision that underpins a company with a strong ESG purpose.

“My whole career came together when I joined WithYouWithMe,” he says.

“I had worked very closely with defense and in mining and logistics, and this is a great opportunity to leverage my experience in investor relations and building budgets. The value that I bring to the company is blending the two worlds of finance and ESG together.”