Since moving to Melbourne 14 years ago, James Longden has lived through some interesting times. As an assistant director at Deloitte and latterly as director of Modano – a company specialising in financial-modelling software – he has experienced both the Australian mining boom and the global financial crisis. And in the midst of it all, he accidentally managed to become the owner of a bar.
“It was one of those random conversations with a friend,” he says. “Someone he knew was selling a bar, and he showed me the figures. I was doing work for Fosters at the time, so I knew the metrics a successful bar business should have. Three glasses of wine later, we’d agreed to buy it.
“It’s not an experience I’d recommend, but it teaches you that cash is king. You may think you know about business, but when you’ve got suppliers to pay and Melbourne has just suffered a bad summer, you quickly learn the importance of having money in the bank.”
Making sense of a balance sheet was a skill he acquired at an early age, thanks to a chartered accountant father. “He’d bring reams and reams of printouts home,” he says. “I’d earn my pocket money by going through them, adding figures up on a calculator and writing in the ticks.”
Longden went on to earn a first in psychology at the University of Nottingham, and stayed in the city to join Arthur Andersen as a trainee accountant. Clients included Sara Lee, Levi Strauss and Raleigh – a company that his father had audited two decades earlier. Three years at the firm ended with ACA certification and a desire never to do another day of auditing.
“I’d got my badge, and I left to go travelling to New Zealand,” he says. “While I was there, September 11 happened. The job market was put on hold, but fortunately it was just starting to free up by the time I came back.
“I spoke to Iain Williams, head of Deloitte’s business-modelling group, and got on really well with him. I believe I was the hire that broke their freeze on recruitment. It was one of those watershed moments: I realised this was what my brain was designed to do.”
Longden found himself working on high-profile Private Finance Initiative projects. Scarcely a year later, he was offered an associate director’s role in the Melbourne office, with a brief to build up an Australian modelling team. “Perhaps that was as much to do with the exchange rate as my ability to bluff it as a director,” he says. “Because of the weakness of the Aussie dollar, they could only afford someone at manager level.”
The next eureka moment came three years later. A drink with Michael Hutchens, founder of the financial-modelling start-up BPM, led to an invitation to join the company. He says: “It was a bullish period for the economy, with money and consulting work flying around. And a benefit of going to a small tech-based consultancy is that you get to wear Converse to work and have a bit more fun. There are more golf clubs in the office, and even the odd cricket bat!”
Their flagship product was bpmModules, the world’s only financial modelling content-management system for Microsoft Excel. In 2010, the software (and the tech side of the business) was rebranded as Modano; and one of Longden’s greatest challenges has been to find a core market for a package with such disruptive potential.
He says: “We showed Modano to the modellers, and we were saying, ‘This is great fun – it turns Excel into Space Invaders. You feel like you’re playing at work all day.’ We expected them to be really excited, but they were horrified. You’d done half their day’s work in about 25 seconds.”
Instead, interest from accountants has driven the company’s growth. He says: “It was a strange experience for someone to tap us on the shoulder and say: ‘That stuff you’re not selling us – could you come and sell it to us?’ That was a lesson. You may think you know where your product should be placed, but the world has a different idea.”
The Modano community now spans more than 20 countries, with a user list that includes such global brands as Fujitsu, Lloyds Bank, Hyundai and the World Health Organisation. However, the company remains lean and compact with a head count of just 10.
So what are his immediate ambitions for Modano? “Getting into one of the Big Four,” he says. “But exciting things are happening daily. Last week, a Texan pension fund rang up to buy the software. I looked them up, and they had about the same GDP as New Zealand.”
As to his own plans, Longden is in no hurry to move back from Australia. “It’s not such an ‘I want’ society as London,” he says. “When I was working out of London, a lot of people were driven by wanting a better place to live and a nicer car. Here, if it’s a sunny day and you’re hanging out with your mates at a barbecue, you don’t want for anything. When I came to Australia, I was supposed to stay for a year. That was 14 years ago. I’m still here, with the same 23kg of luggage that I brought with me.”
I love being an ACA because it’s like having a Swiss Army knife: you have the skills to solve any problem.
I’m happiest when it’s the morning of the Melbourne Cup – the city has a great atmosphere. Or when I meet my parents at Heathrow.
My favourite book is Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand.
The hardest lesson to learn has been how difficult it is to disrupt an industry.
I’d like to be remembered as always being happy. Life’s too short to get annoyed or have an argument.
My most annoying habit is grammatical pedantry. I can’t stand mistakes and often have to bite my tongue.
The love of my life is... well, the other love of my life has allowed me to say Microsoft Excel!