My First - and Most Influential - Job

by Alan Reese

The other day, a long-time friend sent me a picture of my first post-college apartment in Minneapolis.  It looked just as I remembered it: a beautiful post-war stucco building on Lagoon Avenue in the heart of “Uptown.”  He and his wife (another college friend) had recently moved back to that neighborhood, and it reminded me of my early career and how those days set the stage for my professional journey.

I graduated from the University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire with a BBA in Accounting in 1976.  I had been on the “five-year plan” due in part to a 3-month tour of U.S. Army bases in Europe with the USO.  I was broke and bored with academics, so allowed myself all of one week after graduation to move to town, set-up my apartment, buy a few suits, and begin my new job.  I had been hired by Coopers & Lybrand (formerly one of the “Big 8” and now part of PriceWaterhouseCoopers) as a staff accountant.  My starting salary: $13,000/year.  I remember thinking at the time that I couldn’t possibly spend all that money - a dilemma I quickly remedied! 

Life as a new staff accountant was a whirlwind.  Despite a myriad of college business and accounting classes, I had absolutely no idea what I was doing when I started.  After 2 weeks of offsite “B school” (C&L had somehow landed on the deprecatory term “Staff B” to describe new hires back then), I returned to the office and was assigned to my first client engagements.  My initial day-to-day job responsibilities entailed preparing process flowcharts, examining invoices, preparing schedules to support financial statements, and adding numbers on a 10-key to check client math.  This was obviously decades before personal computers were introduced! 

As a fresh-faced 23 year-old, I was “auditing” the work of corporate Controllers and Chief Financial Officers who had been in the business world for decades. It took me years to get to the point where I was confident enough to ask a question and know that I wouldn’t have to come back 2 or 3 times to get the real answer.  So, as most new staff accountants do, I worked my butt off to compensate for my innate weaknesses.  Sixty-hour weeks were the norm, which often extended to 70 or more during the height of the busy season.

Thankfully, I had some excellent mentors in those days: the irascible Jim O’Donnell, the funny and supportive Tony Hanson, the enigmatic Jim Sippl.  Each of them, in their own unique and sometimes peculiar fashion, preached the same basic gospel: work hard, pay attention to detail, and don’t jump to conclusions.  They instilled an ethos in me that remains to this day: nearly every business problem can be solved with diligence, focus and strong analytical skills.  Although I’m now working with individual rather than corporate clients (a switch I should have made long ago), those tenets continue to be the foundation of my professional efforts.

I may have been overwhelmed when I first started my career, but I loved it then and appreciate it even more now.  Not only did I learn how to work but, sitting side-by-side into the wee hours with other “new-B’s,” I also made lasting friendships that continue to this day.  All-in-all, a pretty great first gig!