One of the first business lessons Kate Jorgensen learnt is also the one that has stuck with her the longest.

The KiwiRail chief financial officer was on secondment to the police fraud squad during her university studies, where she sifted through seven years of bank statements while working a $1 million fraud case.

Elderly victims were being fleeced out of their life savings by a woman entrusted with their finances.

"What was interesting for me was that so often when we went and actually did the interviews, people said, 'I thought something was wrong and I asked a question'.


"This woman's strategy was she'd never reply and she got away with it for seven years because she never replied and people didn't persevere.

"My real lesson is that you get an answer and something in your gut tells you it's not right, always follow through, always ask, always keep going until you've got the right answer because you look at what happened there.

"It was a real experience actually."

It's been nearly two years since Jorgensen, 40, joined KiwiRail from Fletcher Building's infrastructure products division.

She says at her first job interview, she was struck by how similar the KiwiRail business ethos was to Fletcher's.

"It's got a very practical culture," she says. "People are out, they're doing stuff, they're getting stuff done so there is that that I really like.

"And being a New Zealand business was really appealing to me."

Rail has its challenges, she says, but she wanted to play a part in running a successful rail network.

Jorgensen, whose portfolio extends to include property, IT, financial strategy, legal, sustainability, procurement and government relations, tasked herself with reducing the company's strategy to an easy-to-understand, one page document.

The feedback she had was that, as it stood, the strategy was likely to be incomprehensible to the "guy on the line".

"For me it is all about: how do you make the story really simple for people because losing people in jargon, that's not the way to help people."

The strategy forms the backbone of a plan to transform KiwiRail into an organisation that is operating as commercially and effectively as it can.

Part of the transformation has been a "high performance, high engagement" programme to create better connections with the frontline workforce and associated unions in order to address organisational problems and develop more effective, company-wide solutions, says Jorgensen, who sits on the steering committee.

"People in our company love rail and are so proud of rail.

"That's quite a powerful thing so that's what we really need to harness."

Having a wider remit than just the books is now an expected part of the modern CFO's job description, she says. "Back a long time ago, you were very much the back office and the numbers.

"The CFO role is not like that any more so it is not uncommon for CFOs to have other things tagged into their role."

The modern CFO is a business partner, says Jorgensen, providing the support and expertise needed by operational staff.

"It's just about helping the business be successful and using my skills and abilities to help them."

At KiwiRail, Jorgensen is the lone woman around the nine-member executive table.

"All of the people in the exec are different and have really different skills and different upbringings.

"My advice to people is just get focused on the people, learn about the people, understand their backgrounds and what's making them tick," she says.

"In these jobs it's all about making your point clearly, being prepared, being persuasive and being open.

"If you do that you're always going to have a successful outcome."

Her 11 postgraduate years at accounting firm KPMG were formative not only for the diversity of experience and clients - it's where she connected with Fletcher Building as an audit manager - but the models of women in leadership she could look to.

"The thing that was quite neat at KPMG was when I started and throughout my career there were three quite senior women at KPMG.

"What was really cool was they were all progressing their careers in different ways." One had worked full-time while raising a family, whereas another had stepped back for a period while her children were little.

"What was really interesting is it showed me there was no one way to do it."

Women are thin on the ground in top accounting roles, despite making up 45 per cent of chartered accountants.

Jorgensen points to Auckland City Council's CFO Sue Tindal and Spark's former CFO, now head of Spark Digital, Jolie Hodson as high profile examples of a shift happening in the profession.

"Everybody has got to make choices that are right for them," she says.

"We've also got to make sure there are opportunities for women to grow where they want to grow."