A retrospect of my 39-years-and-counting career in accounting

I am fortunate to have grown up in lower-middle class, urban Sioux City, Iowa during the relatively simple Happy Days of the 1950’s, where my only worries were how a couple of girls at Emerson Elementary might react to my May Day and Valentine Day cards, sitting at the table until I finished my mashed potatoes, the neighborhood bully Eddie, and the dreaded “triple black dog dare” under the huge oak tree in the playground. Virtually unlimited opportunities, on the other hand, seemed to be so close at hand that I could not help but feel, taste and smell them at every moment of every day. Parental authority and the existence of God were never questioned, skin color was no more relevant than the shape of your nose, and wisdom and foolishness were inseparable. Hope truly sprang eternal, and the greatest thing of all is that I knew it!

I graduated from high school in the summer of ’69, lived in the best country in the world, and had a close bunch of life-long friends with our integrity and honor still intact. What a magnificent time it was to become an adult in those conditions. Mom was a writer who never let me settle for mediocrity, while Dad was a people person that just loved other people and convinced me that I could be absolutely anything I wanted to be. I gravitated to the small church just down the alley, dated the girl next door and Scouting and lifetime learning became a way of life. Riding with my dad in his job as a truck driver and, later, working at Niven’s DX gas station while attending the local church liberal arts college, I had much quality time with him that I treasure to this day. Four of us gas station guys married Dairy Queen gals from just down the street. One of those gals, my wife Becky, grew up only four blocks from my house and shared my core values and beliefs. Life was perfect, and the greatest thing of all is that I knew it!

Morningside College was selected so I could stay at home and help Dad in his business. To follow Mom, I wanted to write for a living; to follow my sister, I wanted to be a teacher; and to follow Dad I wanted to work with lots and lots of people. One very influential and visionary girlfriend asked me to reconsider teaching in favor of a career in accounting. Not one to challenge authority, I checked into it, took accounting in the summer between my sophomore and junior years and fell in love with accounting. The beauty of accounting was its simple but glorious logic, so I graduated from college, got a job in public accounting, got married (different girl) and moved to Arizona all in a nine-day period in 1973. Remember when tax law made logical sense? Fourteen years of Big Eight accounting, chasing that partnership that I would attain and immediately wonder why I wanted it, always working with emerging and rapid-growth businesses in Arizona, Texas and Nebraska, led me to financial management of a 103 year old public company in Illinois that was committed to acquiring and growing medium-sized businesses. The transition from public accounting to private management seemed to be a natural progression in my career that was challenging, demanding, predictable and secure. I flew all over North America in the company’s Learjet 35A seeking out strategic acquisitions, often visiting and making offers to purchase two companies a week.  Life seemed great, and the greatest thing of all is that I knew it!

Then, something changed my life, certainly my career. No, it wasn’t a heart attack or losing my job, but rather something of an awakening. I call it my “treadmill realization,” although “mid-life crisis” would be equally descriptive. Nearly twenty years ago, I realized that I wasn’t realizing my potential, wasn’t being honest with myself or living up to my parents’ high expectations. I was no longer having fun at work. I was working my butt off for stockholders (and analysts) that cared only about the closing stock price; we were 10 times more profitable than our nearest competitor and the 19th most profitable corporation in the 20th Century, and it was never enough. Stress was undermining my health. I wasn’t spending time with my family and wasn’t there when my son needed his dad. Wasn’t being a W-2 CFO of a public company the pinnacle of my career? It no longer seemed to be so. What do I do in this situation? Accept high pay in return for poor health? Stick it out and die young?

I decided to go out on my own as Niven Consulting when the CEO, experiencing the same pain from answering to short-sided analysts, announced he was leaving the company. I missed out on a half million dollars of stock options by announcing my decision too early, but thanks to other stock options and cash reserves, I managed to stay in consulting twelve years on my own. It was lower pay but higher health, and I was having fun again. I pursued advanced degrees unrelated to accounting, never missed a sporting event of my son’s throughout high school, and could see stress-related affects diminish every day. Except for a thing called “selling,” nothing stood in my way of being really successful in my consulting practice. I would try to market myself, although apologetically, work on a couple of client projects (marketing stopped), then a project or two would end and I would try to market myself again. I put my son through college and law school, but with a very small network in Illinois (before I heard of Matt Bud) and a negative attitude towards selling, I didn’t have the real success that I desired. This was my dream job, but my wife wanted me to get a “real job” and the security of a paycheck. I knew that the “gold watch job” no longer existed, so I plodded along. Nice, but still not perfect.

Upon our son’s graduation from law school in Michigan, we moved Chad back to Arizona to do his internship. Spring Training always seems to hook ‘em!  On our drive back to Illinois, Becky and I were quite emotional and finally admitted that our home was actually behind us. We prayed for guidance and agreed that we would not force the issue, but look for guidance that might appear. When we got back to Illinois, Becky put the house up for sale and I flew back to Arizona to look for a job. I somehow picked up a Scottsdale Airpark News and took it back home to show Becky more about Scottsdale. Back in Illinois one day, it occurred to me that I’d better get busy finding a job, so I picked up the magazine copy and opened it to a page where the only thing I remember seeing is “B2BCFO.COM” in white letters in a little blue rectangle about the size of a 1/16th page ad. I knew what B2B meant, and I knew what CFO meant, so I put down the magazine and looked at the website. Making contact with the firm B2B CFO(R), I wasn’t all that interested because, at Becky’s urging, I was thinking about “getting a job.”

Later, while back in Scottsdale to job hunt, Jerry L. Mills, Founder & CEO of B2B CFO(R) called me and asked if I would like to meet him for dinner at a nice restaurant. Honestly, my thoughts were more about the dinner than it was about the opportunity of joining the firm. At dinner, Jerry walked me through his partner’s training manual and told me about the firm and its values. I remember thinking that Jerry had figured out all the marketing things that I hadn’t been able to master. After dinner, as I drove around lost in thought, Becky called. She was driving around in snow in Illinois with the dogs while the house was being shown. I said, “I think I have come to a conclusion,” and she said, “So have I!” She had never before nor since said anything quite like that, so I said, “You first.” She said that it suddenly had become clear to her that I would only be happy if I stayed in consulting and that I shouldn’t take “a job.” I told her, “That is funny; because I have decided that I want to join a consulting firm, B2B CFO(R).”

That was over seven years ago. I joined the firm, was personally trained by Jerry Mills, got my first client one week later, moved to Arizona and began nine weeks of Integrity Selling(R) sales training that the firm provides for all partners. Things clicked and, in spite of not knowing anyone here after being out of the state for 28 years, with the instant credibility and marketing tools that the firm provided me, I pocketed over $90,000 that first 7½ months, and about $250,000 a year every year since then, with more and more time being free for my family each year. I don’t “sell,” I just network in my community, offer to “help” CEOs of small to mid-sized companies succeed, and the clients appear. I prepare The GamePlan™ for each client, and now have the distinct honor of watching some of them accept prestigious awards, such as the Smart 25 Awards™­ as I prepare them for sale. I have over 220 great partners that share my core values, my distributions of the firm’s earnings have increased every year, and I own a share of the firm that has grown to be quite valuable.

My point to you is that, now with my view of selling, view of abilities, core values, belief in product and commitment to activities all in congruence, I have finally realized the potential that my parents, siblings and spouse hoped I would someday realize, not only in my career, but more importantly in my life. My debts are paid, I pursue my lifetime learning activities, we enjoy travel without asking any boss for time off, coach some of my new partners and I am finally free to write (see my blog at www.dennisnivencfo.com). I turned 60 this year while in class at DePaul University attaining my CM&AA(R) credential (we all shared a big birthday cookie). Being active every day in my two granddaughters’ lives (their playroom is right in front of my desk here at home) brings tears of joy to my eyes every day. My life is nearly perfect, and the greatest thing of all is that I know it!

Oh, one last thing: I still have that copy of the Scottsdale Airpark News, and nowhere therein is any mention of “B2BCFO.COM.” That vision was simply part of the guidance that Becky and I prayed for and received in abundance. Perhaps it was Mom writing to me or Dad telling his stories, but to me it simply feels like love and a natural progression in a wonderful life in the universe.

Copyright 2012 – Dennis V. Niven

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