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Taking opportunity: Elona Mortimer-Zhika

IRIS Software Group CEO Elona Mortimer-Zhika has taken on every opportunity that came her way, and has made a success of them all. She tells Peter Taylor-Whiffen what drives her.

My favourite phrase,” says Elona Mortimer-Zhika, “is part of a Roald Dahl quote: ‘Lukewarm is no good.’ If you’re enthusiastic about something, you should really go for it.” There’s a strong chance your business, or one you know, is benefiting from Mortimer-Zhika’s enthusiasm. As CEO at finance software giant IRIS Software Group, she oversees its services to 21,000 accountancy practices across the UK. She was a Deloitte senior manager by 26, and recently managed IRIS’s £1.3bn buyout that became the UK’s largest-ever software acquisition. Not bad for someone who left her native Albania in her mid-teens to study in the UK with barely any English. “I’ve always had a thirst for knowledge,” she says.

“I realised you don’t necessarily need experience, just skills you can apply.” Even so, it takes courage as a 16-year-old to leave your home and travel 2,000 miles to learn in a different culture. But refusing the opportunity never occurred to her. “I was lucky to get a scholarship for the International Baccalaureate at UWC Atlantic College in Glamorgan,” she says. “I was only the second Albanian child ever chosen. I was with 200 students from 130 different countries.” She then won a further scholarship for an accounting and economics degree at Reading University. “I was fortunate again – the cost for foreign students was £20,000, which I couldn’t afford.

“Accountancy always appealed. My dad was an economist and I was a numbers geek. But this degree was a revelation – Albania ran on centralised economics so I had little concept of privatisation or free trade.” The stars aligned still further when Mortimer-Zhika answered an advert for final-year students to role-play as interviewees for candidates on Arthur Andersen’s manager training programme. “When it finished, someone suggested I look at their graduate training scheme.” With Arthur Andersen she remembers going to the Netherlands in her first two weeks to join all other graduates from across the globe, countries like Lebanon, the US and Australia, who she still stays in touch with. Then “the Enron thing happened”, Deloitte took over in the UK and Mortimer-Zhika stayed to become a senior manager. She then took a job as group financial controller at US mobile data firm Acision.

“We were selling text messages, but tech moves so fast that the type of demand changed.” It meant an eventful few years. “I worked a lot with PE, we raised about £100m from investors – and the company was restructured three times,” she says. Within 2015 alone Acision was acquired by Comverse, became Xura and then, following further mergers, relaunched as Mavenir. Mortimer-Zhika stayed on for 15 months as Mavenir’s chief of staff to the CEO. But, she says: “I wanted to broaden out. So when I heard of an opportunity at IRIS, I met (CEO) Kevin Dady. It was scheduled for an hour, but we were still talking three hours later. He was so inspirational. I’d only ever seen struggling businesses turned around. Now I could help make a successful business even better.”

And IRIS is undoubtedly successful – aside from those 21,000 accountancy practices, over 650,000 SMEs use IRIS applications. Four million parents and guardians use its apps to connect with their child’s school, its payroll solutions pay 2.3 million UK employees and 620,000 are managed by IRIS HR solutions. Mortimer-Zhika joined as CFO in 2016 and was chief operating officer from 2018 until this month, when she takes over from Dady as CEO. “I oversee customer care and retention, revenue delivery, HR, IT, facilities, legal, M&A integration and systems transformation, talent management, agreeing capital investments and reviewing sales and purchasing agreements for new acquisitions. “IRIS gives so much opportunity for employees and customers to grow with us. The role of accountant is ever changing. Our focus is cloud and mobile first, helping the accountant of today and tomorrow be flexible, scalable, engaging and successful. We’re dedicated to providing the best service to our customers. I get great satisfaction when I can turn a difficult customer situation into a positive one.”

Mortimer-Zhika says her effectiveness stems from her ability to draw clear lines between work and home life. “I love my work,” she says, “but my family – my great husband and two boys (aged seven and three) – is the most important thing to me. And I encourage my team to prioritise in the same way. No meeting is as important as those with your family.” Unsurprising then, that when quizzed about hobbies, she cites “quality time standing by football pitches and tennis courts watching my children”, but is keen to keep developing herself, too. “I have a personal trainer – sometimes you need someone to push you. And I promised myself I’d finally learn to ride a bike, so at nearly 40, I’m doing that, too. “Life is constantly about learning, seizing every opportunity. I’ll always consider myself a work in progress.”

The account

I like being an ACA because… It’s recognised worldwide and mixes technical skills with work experience.

I’m happiest when… I’m with my loved ones or have achieved something new at work.

The hardest lesson to learn has been…That you can’t please everyone. You must ensure you stay true to yourself.

I’d like to be remembered as… Someone who lived life to the fullest.

Originally published in Economia on 6 September 2019.