Role of the CFO

A Ukrainian CFO reflects on the country’s year at war

Iryna Levkivska manages her team and her budget from Kyiv.
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· 5 min read

Iryna Levkivska is group CFO for Kovalska, an Ukrainian construction materials manufacturer, builder, and property developer. The company is based in Kyiv, where Levkivska lives with her husband and 6-year-old son. She and her family fled to western Ukraine as the war started, but returned to Kyiv three months later and have remained in the Ukrainian capital since.

Levkivska became CFO of Kovalska in 2020; the company had embarked on a strategic transformation just as the war started.

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How prepared was your company for the war and what were those first days like?

When everything started that night, we already had a small plan in case of war. First of all, three people could control all our accounts and two people could make payments. So we had our treasury department ready.

But all other departments were not at all ready for the war. All operations stopped. People started running from here [Kyiv] to other regions, and for a while, we lost control of everyone.

We made an emergency team in Kyiv and other regions to close operational processes…because everything was unpredictable. Some people decided to stay here in Kyiv and some decided to leave Ukraine or go to the western part of Ukraine.

The company was not ready, to be honest. It wasn’t ready for the war at all, the only process that was ready was treasury. We have some connections in the government and even there, people were not ready for the bad period.

I think one of the biggest problems for our company is that we did not work to eliminate risk in the beginning. That work started only two or three weeks after the beginning of the war.

However, what that did teach us in September/October, when the massive attacks [on Ukrainian infrastructure] started, we had the risk of electricity being knocked out. In this situation, we already start making plans for different situations.

For example, we also have residential buildings. It was very risky that all of our residential buildings, and the people who live there, will not have electricity and water. But it means for us that, after not being ready at the beginning of the war, we understood that if we see any minimum risk during the war, we start making plans about what we should do in case of A, B, C, D.

How did the war affect your team?

We really started losing highly-qualified people. For example, the tax manager from my team went to [fight in the] war. He didn’t have any military background, but was just an ordinary, strong young man.

The accounting [team] was a problem. For example, 50% of our accounting team are women and all of them left Ukraine.

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We had one month to find our people, another two months to understand how we operate the business and another two months just to give people support. After that half of the year, we understood that we must make some decisions because EBITDA was negative, cash flow was negative.

The biggest problem is people who have left Ukraine. When you live somewhere for three months, four months, you start looking for new opportunities, because you understand the [war] situation will be for a long time.

On a practical level, how are you paying people?

It’s a big problem. There was a moment when we realized that we should do something to increase the number of people and to reduce the wages they get. We cut everyone’s [wages] 25%, for C-levels 33%.

We increased [wages] in some specific cases. For example, at the moment, we have a lack of accountants in Ukraine. And since we have a deficit, the level of wages [for accountants] was increased by another 15%. But it’s still not reached the pre-war period.

How do the tools of management accounting help you deal with this?

Management accounting is one of the very important parts in this situation because you should understand how you will grow. Previously, we looked at the perspective of 10 years or five years. Now you’re looking very precisely, at each month, at each week. The working capital is controlled very strictly.

Our budgeting process is actually as it was before. The top line and budget list is in September. From September to December, we had a budgeting process. Each quarter, we [update] our plans, so there is a rolling forecast for the year.

How are you dealing with the stress of balancing your workday, your team, and all the things that are happening in your personal life?

Well, I’m playing tennis. I have a 6-year-old son. And I think it’s the only moment that makes me think about whether I’m right in staying here. We always have sirens, and the children [have to go] downstairs to shelters. He always complains, “I don’t want to spend five hours in the shelter. I want to go outside.”

I could easily change jobs and go somewhere in Europe to live a normal life. He could go to kindergarten, not downstairs all the time.

[But] it’s something about responsibility for the team…and believing that Ukraine will win. When you leave, it doesn’t mean that you don’t believe in Ukraine, but it makes your team think something might happen.

And it’s not just about the stress you have inside. It is also about managing the stress of your team and the company.—DA

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