How Six Mentors Made a Difference

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September 4, 2008
by Rick Telberg/On Finance

At age 20, the world was a blank canvas with vast opportunities for Sal Inserra. He thought he knew exactly what he wanted in life.

“Until,” he says ruefully today, “I was set straight.”

Like many CPAs, Sal owes much of his career and success to a few key mentors who guided him early on.

Today — as the kids head back to school and college, and as the rest of us wind up our summers and look ahead to the fall — it may be a good time to salute the mentors who help steward a great profession to the next generation.

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Sal’s Story

Sal was working his way through college in New York as an economics major. He was employed part-time at JP Morgan, shuttling from department to department until he landed in the accounting and analysis group and met the two people who would change his life forever — Lou and Diane.

“Lou and Diane were officers with the bank, who had come out of the Big Eight,” Inserra recalls of the mentors he now fondly calls his “meddlers.” “Sharp, witty, successful. Great role models. I would have sought their input, but they did not wait for me to ask. They provided me guidance on everything — how to dress more professionally, how to show your ‘smarts’ in a tasteful manner, how to be successful in a team environment. And they changed my career goals completely. After about two months with the group, Lou and Diane decided to take me to lunch and double-team me. They were going to convince me to change my major to accounting … and they were not going to take no for an answer. It changed my life.”

Lou and Diane tutored him for two years as a part-timer. And they helped him find his first job at a Big Eight firm, when none of the Big Eight was interested in recruiting from a local, publicly-funded college. “They called schedulers, peers, HR managers and partners,” he says. “They put their reputation on the line for me and insisted that I be given a chance to interview.”

Now, 23 years later, Sal is a partner at Porter Keadle Moore CPAs in Atlanta. “I try hard every day to honor what they did for me by looking to pass on what I learned to others. Hopefully, there will be a person in the future who will think I had made a difference in their career.”

Joe’s Story

Or, listen to Joe Eckelkamp’s story. Joe, now a CPA with his own firm in St. Louis, Mo., remembers several mentors, each important in his own way — Jerry, who was from Ernst & Whinney; Keith, who helped him become a CFO; and Richard, who helped him launch his own firm.

From them, he learned more than just how to be a good CPA. He learned how to manage people, run a business and negotiate deals.

“In each case,” Joe says, “the single thing that stands out is they genuinely wanted to see me succeed for my own benefit — not just because they needed me to look good so they would look good. And they were willing to just talk about stuff. That built very high levels of two-way trust and added to the relationship. All three remain close friends to this day, even though I haven’t worked directly with them in at least a dozen years. I wouldn’t call any of them ‘drinkin’ buddies,’ but the friendships are strong and enduring.”

Of course, young CPAs may find mentors anywhere.

James’ Story

“My mentor in life was a social worker named Anita,” says James E. Kinsey, president and CEO of his own firm in Fairburn, Ga. “She was special to me because she took a genuine interest in my well-being. She made sure that I got into the classes that would assure me entrance into college and provided me with the help that I needed due to my visual impairment.

“Even after I enrolled in college, she continued to follow my progress and assisted me with obtaining financial support,” he continues. “She believed in me, which gave me the confidence to seek a career change from business management to accounting, which led to my obtaining the CPA licensure.”

Over the years, I have provided internships to aspiring accountants whenever the opportunity presented,” Kinsey says. “I provided this assistance because someone showed an interest in me beyond what was required.

On hearing Joe’s story, Chad Bordeaux, a CPA in Charlotte, N.C., commented, “These are the types of people who see true success in life. I have had the honor of working under a few people like this, and their teams have always been the strongest in the companies we worked for. People will work a lot harder for people who ‘work’ for them.”

So today, we salute Anita; and Keith, Jerry and Richard; and Lou and Diane — six mentors who made a difference — and who helped give us the Sal, Joe and James we know today. And the CPA profession is better because of them all.

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About Rick Telberg

Rick Telberg is editor at large/director of online content.

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