FreeBalance finds balance between commerce, charity
Few companies get to see the benefits of their philanthropic work, and fewer still work alongside it. Yet when FreeBalance Inc. had a position to fill, it saw an opportunity to do just that.
The Ottawa-based software company was able to hire a technician who came from one of the war-torn regions in which it operates.
“To be able to assist those kids so they can continue their studies and when one rises to a position where we can employee him, that was very rewarding for us,” says Manuel Pietra, FreeBalance’s president and CEO.
FreeBalance, which makes government-specific financial programs, is one of Canada’s top software companies. The 27-yearold firm, which changed its name from Linktek Corp. in 1997, has 500 employees and operates in 19 countries, many of them “post-conflict” nations.
While market demand has driven it to strife-ridden regions, it is a rare moral compass that has kept it there.
Part of FreeBalance’s standard procedure is to open and staff an office locally. The company now has offices in places such as Uganda, Kosovo and the West Bank.
“The moral side of things is a very big motivator for our company and for the people who work in the company because we are really in a unique position to be effecting change in some of the most challenging parts of the world,” says Matthew Olivier, director of global marketing and alliances.
While the product itself is key to helping a developing country, Pietra says it is the focus on social responsibility that sets FreeBalance apart.
“It is a core part of what we do,” he says. “It is part of our interview process, it is part of our job description. It’s not very often you can work for a company that has a product which does good, and you can do some good yourself.”
Pietra says employees are actively encouraged to take part in such activities as charities, fundraising, and construction for schools and homes.
FreeBalance workers are given equal time off work for taking part in these. Pietra says he is personally involved in several similar projects.
“We are doing a project now in Timor to build kitchens in schools and decent washrooms for the kids, and at the same time provide the basics in hygiene education.”
Employees spend an average 20 per cent of their time on charitable activities, the company says.
FreeBalance’s software manages budgets totalling more than a quarter-trillion dollars worldwide, and oversees a combined civil workforce of 1.5 million people. It hired Pietra in 2006, as part of restructuring to become what it calls a “global customer-centric” company.
Pietra, 52, who recently received the Ottawa Centre for Research and Innovation’s next-generation executive of the year award, brought with him an emphasis on global growth and social responsibility.
“Our model is being a global company operating locally, with the idea of transmitting knowledge, exporting Canadian products but at the same time investing in countries in which we have a presence,” explains Pietra, who has worked in Europe, South Africa and Central America as well as North America.
FreeBalance was tabbed in 1999 to provide software for Nunavut, at that time a newly established territory. The project would serve as a preview for the work that now defines FreeBalance and its employees.
“A lot of the challenges that people face up in Nunavut are similar to what we’re facing now internationally in terms of lack of infrastructure, shortage of people capacity and remote locations with limited access. That is how we started getting our feet wet,” says Olivier.
Next, it was asked by the United Nations to provide a financial system for Kosovo, which had just emerged from a major conflict, and its UN-monitored transitional government wanted a system that could be implemented quickly but would also allow it to monitor the millions of dollars that had flowed in from donors such as the World Bank.
“We were quite successful and were able to implement the system in a short period of time and that’s how the evolution towards being a global public financial management provider started,” Olivier says.
FreeBalance has since competed for and won several opportunities from the World Bank in developing nations. It currently operates in high-profile regions including Afghanistan, Iraq and southern Sudan.
Olivier says the developing countries in which FreeBalance works are in a position to reform how governments work.
“In the developing world and emerging economies, there is really an opportunity to leap frog the developed world,” he says.
East Timor has taken the revolutionary step of making its entire financial workings open to outside scrutiny through the use of a “transparency portal” made possible by FreeBalance software. Citizens of the country and other interested parties are able to find and track all budget information.
FreeBalance does not disclose revenue, but its executives say the company has been growing by about 20 per cent annually for the past four years, and will continue to expand. It counts Bombardier Trust, Technocap and HarbourVest Partners among its investors.
“We are pretty much going around the world at the moment with projects,” says Pietra. “It is a very active time.”