So far, I have told stories about two of my mentors and both have been employers. However, the people who have had a profound influence on my life are not just limited to people I have worked for. Teachers, clients and other people have all, collectively had a significant impact on me. This story is about one of my clients who has, over the years, become one of my mentors. His name is John Willis, and he used to run one of the largest trucking companies in Southern Ontario. He is retired now, but when I met him, he was still very much in charge.
In May 2009, I left the accounting firm that I had worked for nearly 5 years since moving to Toronto, EvansMartin. It doesn’t even exist anymore, having been bought up by one of the expanding regional firms in this country. However, at the time I left, I was on the quest to make it to Partner: “the Brass Ring” as it were. I joined a firm called Sloan Partners, who were looking for someone to come in and manage their team. The prospects for upward mobility were excellent, and one of the first clients that I was given responsibility for was John’s group of companies.
The first time I met John was at the meeting to deliver the financial statements. I was with my partner, who at the time was one of my bosses, and we were waiting in the company’s meeting room, discussing what we were going to review and who was going to talk about what, when the door opens and in comes John. He was deeply tanned, with dark brown hair that was brushed neatly back into a perfect coif. He wore one of those patterned, 1960’s knitted polyester shirts – the kind with the buttons down the front, and the short sleeves. It was a very distinct look, one I had not actually ever seen in living memory, and had only seen in old TV shows and movies. He shook my hand and said “where did you go to school?”. Then, before I could answer, he looked at my partner Jerry and I and said “I just need to establish that Mr. McFetridge has the right credentials to be discussing such complicated financial matters”. He then winked and flashed a smile that let Jerry and I know that he was just kidding. The meeting went well, and I didn’t think much of it, but not long after that, I had to deal with a difficult accounting issue and had to call him with some rather bad news. I was terrified, as he was an important client, and I was so new in my role. After much thought, I decided that being completely honest and upfront with him about what the problem was and how it came about was the best policy. He took it very well, but asked some tough questions, which I answered without wavering.
A day or two later, the managing partner Allen, called me into his office. I was pleasantly surprised when he told me that John had called him and told him that he wanted me assigned to all his accounts, as he admired my honesty. My relief was palpable, and I remember mentioning it to a headhunter friend of mine that I meet for drinks every few months or so.
John and I had a very good working relationship over the ensuing years and although I didn’t see him often, he would always take a personal interest in how things were going for me when I did. For the next three years, I managed the financial reviews of his corporate trucking group and his personal income tax affairs. But then in my fourth year of managing the financial review, I got into a major argument with his CFO. For some reason, she decided that she did not like my approach to the work and took me to task on it when we had the year end review meeting. I mean, I got my ass handed to me in front of John and his main operations guy, Walt.
The next year, I was anxious to avoid a repeat of what had happened a year before. So, I contacted his CFO well in advance and told her that I wanted to do the work more efficiently this year and could I please send her many of our review questions in advance so we would be as well prepared as possible when the time came to commence the review. She agreed, but then when I sent her the questions, she only answered half of them. I should digress briefly and explain that this a common problem when you perform year end reviews or audits as an accountant. The main problem is that the client has usually known you for years and expects you to bring your intimate knowledge of their business and its history to bear on your approach to audits and reviews. What they often do not appreciate, or adequately understand is that your requirement to remain objective and skeptical means that you must purposely disregard your past knowledge and ask the same questions every year. It’s like the insurance salesman that asks you “so you held a policy with us last year?” when they clearly know you did. Clients can become quite annoyed by this and many of them respond by simply ignoring the questions they feel you already know the answers to. This effectively becomes a cat and mouse game that often ends with a higher than necessary bill, though most often, as the accountants we are forced to “eat” the extra time we have incurred on a job because of having to approach the client multiple times for answers to the questions we should only have to ask once.
So, this year, things went even worse than they did the year before, with the CFO telling me that we were fired in the middle of the job. I went to her office to try and talk her down, but the whole thing degenerated into a shouting match. John heard the whole thing from his office, which was next door. He called me into speak with him. He explained that although he liked me very much, he trusted his CFO, and was not going to intervene. He urged me not to take what was happening personally, and suggested that with time, I might see things from his CFO’s perspective. In my mind, I was so completely 100% right, and she was 100% wrong that I pounded his desk with my fist and said something to the effect that I would never see it her way. I was that comfortable with John that I did that, as I would never have expressed myself that way otherwise. But 30 seconds later, I regretted it and was waiting for John to tell me to leave. He didn’t. He just calmly said that he was sorry that I felt that way, and hoped I would reconsider and said he had to go outside for a cigarette and invited me to join him.
As we stood outside he asked me how things were at home and what my plans were for the summer. I talked about the renovations on the house I owned with Kay. It was a nice conversation amidst a very unpleasant situation. At the end of it, we shook hands and he told me that he was going to continue to have me work on his personal work. This had a huge impact on me. The situation must have been awful for him as he liked us both. But his integrity and sense of loyalty to his CFO was such that he could not override her decision to replace us. He managed to maintain his frame and sense of integrity, while doing as much as he could to soften the blow on me. This was the first time I had seen anyone handle a situation like this.
We continued to enjoy a very warm and cordial working relationship for the next three years. John was the first to console me when was going through my divorce with Kay, and he was genuinely excited for me when I told him that I would be leaving to start my stamp business. He completely surprised me by offering to lend me money if I needed additional capital. So now, along with Mr. Willoughby, and my former Partner, Allen, he is one of my major investors.
We have since developed a closer relationship, with me meeting his wife Linda and both of them meeting Steph and coming for dinner. I sometimes can’t help but think it would have been nicer to have developed this relationship earlier, now that we are having to leave for New Brunswick. However, I try to simply appreciate the fact that we have this relationship with them now, and hope very much to maintain it, even though we are far away.