Among the 150 alumni contacted for this Crossroads, this note was struck often: the importance of the integrity of the individual financial expert and, by extension, the company represented by that person.
Most interviewees seemed to feel they had secured the right work situation for their skill set and ethical values. But they didn’t always arrive at this point immediately upon licensure as a CPA, completing an MBA, or earning a Certified Financial Planner designation. Perhaps a dozen interviewees parted from jobs at some point in their work journey as a result of feeling compromised or burned out, eventually finding something that fit them better.
Matthew Clemmer ’02, for example, was looking for a way to get a toehold in asset management when he landed a job in October 2005 with a Chicago-based private equity firm. There he joined an investment team managing a portfolio of over $200 million worth of real estate and commodity assets. Initially Clemmer thought this was his first big opportunity. Yet he left in July 2006 (10 months later) – so suddenly that he had lined up no other job – after realizing that his integrity was being compromised by dubious ethical practices.
In August 2008, at the start of the Great Financial Crisis – about the time his former employer was entering receivership – Clemmer was enrolled full-time in the MBA program at Boston College, while his wife, Sara Joy Bergey Clemmer ’03, was a campus recruiting manager for KPMG, one of the Big Four accounting firms.
“I went underground [i.e., to grad school] for two years, while the financial world unraveled,” Clemmer jokes.
Today Clemmer loves what he does and, more importantly, who he does it for. Employed by Trilogy Global Advisors, a boutique investment management firm that manages $14 billion of institutional equity assets, Clemmer is an investment analyst focused on industrial and material companies domiciled in emerging markets – such as those in China, Brazil, and Indonesia. He is part of an investment team in Orlando, Florida, which manages assets for large public and private institutions globally.
“We invest so that pension-holders can retire,” he says. “We look for high quality companies that have durability, that are not a flash in the pan.” And such companies, by definition in his mind, need to demonstrate high ethical and corporate governance practices to be sustainable over the long term.
Importance of “guiding values”
Allon Lefever, an adjunct business professor at EMU, urges his MBA students to start with “guiding values” – put in writing and reviewed regularly – in any enterprise they undertake.
He often offers his own example: He worked with his son, Rod, and another business partner in the late 1990s to build an Internet service provider, OneMain.com, that went public in March 1999 with an Initial Public Offering that raised $215 million. They more than doubled OneMain’s customer base in 18 months and then sold it to Earthlink for $308 million in September 2001.
Before they did any of this, however, the three business partners agreed upon these five “guiding values,” which were presented to all potential investors:
- People – we will treat people (our employees, customers and suppliers) with fairness and respect.
- Quality – we will consistently and continuously exceed the expectations of our customers.
- Integrity – we will deal honestly and fairly with people in all our business relationships.
- Mutuality – we will work for the mutual success of our employees, customers and shareholders.
- Innovation – we will develop innovative solutions to meet our customers’ needs.
At a critical stage in the growth of OneMain, Lefever and his partners discovered that a significant client specialized in Internet-transmitted pornography. They ceased carrying his business on their network, despite the financial loss.
Lefever said he was fortunate to spend his first 16 years after college with a food-processing company that demonstrated that it was possible to uphold one’s religious beliefs and be profitable. The company was Victor Weaver Inc. (sold in 1986 to Holly Farms). By age 33 Lefever was vice president of operations, responsible for 2,000 employees. “Victor Weaver and his son Dale were very clear on who we are and why we do what we do. There was no work on Sunday, for example. Even the trucks didn’t get on the road until 12:01 a.m. Monday.”
Next Lefever joined the management team of High Industries, then led by two Mennonite brothers, Dale and Calvin High, son of the founder, Sanford. “Sanford would walk around the [steel] bridges being built by his company and tell his workers, ‘Do a continuous weld and give it a good measure.’ He always encouraged his employees to deliver more than the required specifications.”
Today Lefever runs smaller businesses – mainly a successful Hampton Inn in the Shenandoah Valley, plus some real estate investments. “I’ll be the first to admit that it’s increasingly difficult to stand for one’s values and implement them in a big company,” he muses. “The bigger you get, the more you lose control.”
Regaining control on the home front
After a succession of high-level jobs with the two largest privately held companies in the United States – Cargill and Koch Industries – Denise Yoder Miller ’85 and her husband, Luke Miller ’87 (accounting major, followed by an MBA) decided, “One of us is going to have to get off the corporate race track.”
They agreed Luke would keep running the race. He is based at the corporate headquarters of Cargill in Minnetonka, Minnesota, where he is a strategist, working to rationalize the ways 70 business units of Cargill interact with customers in 65 countries. 1
Denise, a CPA, had been feeling ambivalent about her long work hours in the high-pressure Koch environment after she gave birth to their first child, Nicole, in 1999. Yet she also identified strongly with her highly responsible job. She was information technology controller, responsible for a $370-million shared service group for which she did financial reporting, budgeting, and forecasts.
When Nicole was 3, Denise had an epiphany: “I was at the point in my career where when I looked around, those above me had their secretaries purchase birthday gifts for their children. It occurred to me, why did I have a child if I wouldn’t be able to spend time with her? We had this beautiful daughter, and I decided I wanted to spend two years with her before she started school.” (In 2005 their second daughter, Samantha, was born.)
Previous to Koch, Denise had been financial analysis manager for Thorn Americas Inc., with annual revenues of $1 billion, and before that, financial analyst for Cargill’s division in Wichita, Kansas, with revenues of $300 million.
From Very Important Person in the corporate financial world, Denise rapidly moved to being Somebody Quietly Cherished in her family, children’s elementary school, and church. Denise runs a database of 400 classroom volunteers who serve an elementary school with 700-800 students within a district of 10,400 students. She is the volunteer treasurer for Emmanuel Mennonite Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Previously, she was the volunteer treasurer for the non-profit Ten Thousand Villages store in nearby St. Paul.
“As a unit, Luke and I are balanced – I am able to give back where needed while he does the corporate job. It’s the season of my life. I would not have been satisfied at 23 to do what I am doing now. But now I really want to be able to have a purpose.”
She says she’ll likely resume full-time accounting by the time the children leave the nest, but she hopes it will be for a charitable foundation or the like.
Better business, community
Fred Brubaker ’66 can look back on his 34 years as lead accountant for a succession of two companies that produced products for maintaining lawns and gardens, the Steiner Corporation and Ventrac. He helped these companies provide desirable jobs for more than 100 folks in Orville, Ohio (pop. 8,380) – thereby fueling the local economy – while providing good-quality equipment to consumers.
Brubaker’s career in Orville began when two acquaintances from EMU, brothers Glenn ’66 and Roy ’68 Steiner, sought someone they felt they could trust to do the finances for Steiner Corp., their family-owned company.
Brubaker had been a history major at EMU. He then taught in Honduras with the Eastern Mennonite Board of Missions for three years, before returning to college for an associate degree in accounting. This was in Wooster, Ohio, which led to working for the seven Steiner brothers.
“For 20 years, we in the management team would talk every day,” says Brubaker. “I would tell them what the numbers meant, though I can’t say I gave them the best advice at the beginning. I was on a learning curve, along with company.”
Today, Ventrac remains in the hands of the Steiner family and does about $15-$20 million in sales annually. Its top-selling product is an all-wheel-drive compact tractor, with over 30 possible attachments. Brubaker is mostly retired, though he works about a half day a week for Ventrac. He also does the books for SpringHaven, a local counseling center, and runs a small tax-return business.
In today’s fast-paced world of multi-national deals and mergers, Brubaker may be one of a vanishing breed who can look around at the community where he has lived for more than 40 years – where he and his wife raised their daughter, Jacinda (Zook) ’97, where the Steiner brothers lived – and see the impact of his life’s work in his immediate environs, not to mention the usefulness of nearly 8,000 Ventrac tractors spread across the nation. — Bonnie Price Lofton, MA’ 04, editor
1. Cargill has 142,000 employees worldwide and gross annual revenues of $133.9 billion.