If someone had asked me straight out of college if I ever expected to have my own practice, I would have said, “No way.” I wanted to work for a large, international corporation. Yet here I am, running my own consulting firm. How did that happen? It’s a long story.
I majored in business at the Wharton School; although I always loved the liberal arts, I felt that business was a more practical choice. Like many students, however, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do after college. I also studied Italian because my grandparents came from Italy, and I visited Italy one summer. As soon as I saw Rome, I knew I wanted to live there one day. So, I asked myself, what type of company has offices in every major city and wants people with excellent business credentials? Answer: the Big Four audit firms.
I took a position with KPMG because it had a robust international transfer program. At first, I enjoyed learning how companies in different industries operated, but after a few years, I became discouraged that I would never work overseas. When I told a mentor I was thinking of leaving, and why, she said that she had no idea I wanted to travel. She quickly arranged to transfer me to the firm’s Milan office. It was a fabulous experience, and a good life lesson, too—in order to achieve your goals, you have to tell people what you want.
After returning from Italy, I was ready for something new. I decided to try Wall Street, because exciting things were happening there. The banks were creating new types of financial instruments and new ways of managing risk, with products such as mortgage-backed securities, credit default swaps, and other complex derivatives. The accounting rules, however, had not kept up with the rapid pace of innovation, and technical accountants were needed to figure out how to account for these products.
I interviewed with J.P. Morgan, but since I hadn’t done this type of work before, I told them I wasn’t sure I had the right experience for the job. They were impressed by my candor, and replied that they were looking for someone with strong research and communication skills rather than technical knowledge. They hired me, and I ended up loving the job, which drew on all my strengths.
After several years, I had established myself as an expert in the field, and was recruited to build out the policy groups at Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch, and Morgan Stanley. I was responsible for assembling and leading teams of professionals to ensure the accounting for a transaction was thoroughly vetted before a new product was launched. I was also the chief accounting liaison for CFOs, audit committees, and standards setters and regulators. I asked why things were done the way they were done, figured out how could they be done better, and helped educate FASB, the IASB, and the SEC as they developed new accounting standards. I provided input on how to account for some of the most important and complex financial products of the day. It was an incredibly challenging and satisfying time.
I realized that many companies did not have a dedicated, in-house accounting policy group. This seemed like a great opportunity to fill a need in the marketplace.
After a few years, though, I began to feel I was spending too much time managing other people. I missed the hands-on, technical side of advising on transactions. I realized that many companies did not have a dedicated, in-house accounting policy group, even though they were entering into complex transactions. This seemed like a great opportunity to fill a need in the marketplace, so I took a deep breath and decided to venture out on my own.
The first thing I did was assemble my own personal “board of directors”: close friends and family members who could give candid feedback and advice on my business and marketing plans and other issues I faced in setting up my practice. Everyone was incredibly helpful, and I still reach out to them occasionally. I also make it a point to do the same for others whenever someone asks me for help; it’s important to pay it forward.
I created a website and started getting the word out that I was in business. I had always been active in several industry working groups; I had even chaired several committees. The hidden payoff of that involvement was a wide network of colleagues. I sent out an announcement to everyone in my network, and I got an instant hit. A CFO at a major international bank had just acquired a U.S. company and needed help converting it to international accounting standards. He hired me on the spot.
One service I wanted to offer was testifying as an expert witness in litigation. I had never done this type of work before, so I faced a classic Catch-22 situation: no one would hire me without experience, but I couldn’t get the experience until I was hired. I finally got my break after speaking at a conference; an audience member worked at a hedge fund that was in the midst of a lawsuit, and he asked if I could help.
Since I started my own practice, I’ve developed a steady roster of clients, many through word-of-mouth referrals. Sometimes I think that landing a new client is harder than solving the technical accounting issues. I’ve really grown to appreciate the importance of establishing and building relationships.
People always ask what I like best about working on my own. The answer is the work itself; I analyze complex transactions for my clients, and I help them decipher the accounting so they can make better business decisions. It’s like solving a complicated jigsaw puzzle. My work conducting training seminars and testifying as an expert witness requires me to break down arcane technical matters into simple concepts that anyone, including a juror, can understand.
I also work when and where I want, which is terrific for work-life balance. The trade-off, however, is that the workload can be very unpredictable. I’ve found I need to adopt a Zen approach and go with the flow. And while I don’t have to manage a team of professionals anymore, I also don’t have a staff to bounce ideas off of. So I stay connected with my former colleagues, and I call them from time to time to see if the way I’m thinking about a particular issue makes sense. It works both ways—they call me to help them out as well, and it’s great to catch up with old friends.
In addition to continuing to work with my clients and grow my practice, I would love to serve on a board of directors. I served for several years on the board of a nonprofit literacy organization, and I really enjoyed applying my business skills to helping it accomplish its mission. It would be great to leverage that experience for another organization.
Looking back, I would say I’ve had the best of both worlds. My more than 25 years of experience working for large corporations gave me the grounding and knowledge to launch my own practice. And now being on my own allows me to focus on the type of work I really love. I can’t imagine doing anything else.