Interview - Sean Kennedy

Consulting
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Today’s guest is Sean Kennedy. Sean is currently a manager in RSM’s Litigation and Investigation Consulting practice. Enjoy the read!

Thanks for joining us! Tell us about your background.

Absolutely. I went to school at the University of Kansas. I enjoyed my introductory accounting classes and began asking professors and business professionals about a future in the profession. The feedback I received was accounting jobs were in high demand and the degree offered professional versatility. I liked what I heard and declared my major to accounting shortly thereafter. I went to graduate school and took the CPA exam. I actually found a way to take two sections of the CPA exam in graduate school, and finished the final two sections the summer after graduation. This allowed me to have the exam done before I started working at PwC.

So you joined PwC right out of school?

Right out of school. I attended graduate school in 2008 which was a difficult time to find a job. PwC was one of the few accounting firms actively hiring at the time, which impressed me. And I connected with their recruiters and employees on a personal level. This was important to me: these are the people that you will spend the majority of your time with over the next several years. It’s imperative to connect with them on a personal level.
I started with PwC in September 2009. My clients included companies within the manufacturing, consumer retail, healthcare, and private equity industries. I traveled extensively and worked with other offices on engagements. I had awesome managers at PwC. They were big on collaboration and development. The group of us traveling 30-40 weeks per year became our own little family. Very tight knit. Overall, my experience at PwC was really good, probably a better experience than most. Which is probably why I’m still in public accounting.

You left PwC to join EY, can you tell me about that?

My first year at PwC was pretty typical in terms of hours and responsibility. I didn’t find it overly taxing. But my second year…I just got killed. I was burned out. This coincided with a few major life events that impacted my focus and performance. And I unfairly blamed PwC for much of my unhappiness.
I connected with EY in late November 2011. I wasn’t sure if I needed to leave audit entirely, or if a change of scenery would make me happier. EY made me a nice offer and the opportunity to work on local clients. I accepted it almost immediately. Something I learned from this experience is how different office culture can be, even for companies that work in the same industry. Not that EY’s culture is better or worse than PwC’s culture. It’s just different, and the working environment wasn’t one I was accustomed to. I learned a valuable lesson about how important “fit” is in the professional world, and how it impacts both performance and perception within an organization.
In hindsight, I should’ve been more candid with PwC about the personal matters going on in my life. I’ve learned in my professional career that sometimes life happens. To all of us. But for many starting a first job, and trying to perform at a high level…communicating a personal issue is perceived as a detriment to an engagement, or even a sign of weakness. And it’s unfortunate. I’ve seen good people leave firms because they felt their employer “didn’t care about them.” And subsequently, these firms found out about these matters after the fact, and lamented over the missed opportunity to help.

Then you went into some industry roles, right?

I took some time off to serve as a caretaker for a family member, and in general, to regroup. In spring of 2013 I went to work for Holland 1916, a Kansas City-based manufacturing company. The owners of the company had purchased a patent with the intent to design and manufacture commercial grade wastewater evaporators out of newly formed subsidiary, Osprey Evaporation Technology. They needed someone to oversee the development of the new entity, from proof of concept, to a full functioning business unit, and I jumped on the offer.  
It was a great experience. I had a lot of autonomy. I conducted all of the financial due diligence and research as part of our go-to-market strategy. I had a role in the development of our business plan, structured deals, and identified key partners to help grow the business. We had a great plan in place, and quickly identified the opportunity to sell several evaporators upon proof of concept. But we couldn’t get the technology to work. The owners decided to shut down the entity,
By this time it was the end of 2013. I had been bouncing around like a pogo stick. I was sitting in my apartment one day there one day, looking at my resume, and thinking, “I spent all this time going to school. Taking the CPA exam. Grinding out long nights and weekends. Red eye flights and all that time traveling. Not using these credentials and experience would be a waste.” As fate would have it, RSM’s Kansas City office had an opening within in their litigation and dispute practice. I applied and interviewed. It was a good fit, and I accepted the job offer.

Tell us a little more about your current role.

Litigation and investigation consulting is forensic accounting at its core. We’re hesitant to call ourselves a “forensic accounting” practice large in part because of the perceived limitations to our service offering. Yes, we do conduct fraud investigations. But we’re also retained by counsel as an expert witness in litigation matters. We conduct due diligence into non-fraudulent corporate matters. We work on anti-bribery, corruption, and compliance matters. There’s a lot of variety in our engagements.
The question I get most from college students about forensic accounting is on the background of professionals in the field. From my experience, the individuals with an audit background have the most success. The fundamentals of our engagements are audit in nature. There’s a familiarity with how the work is conducted. The main differences between audit and forensic accounting are typically the scope of an engagement, and the intended use of your work product. But fundamentally, it’s a practice very similar to audit.

Can you talk about your experience in public versus industry?

Public accounting has brand equity and an abundance of resources. These firms are comprised of really smart, motivated people with high standards. Not that industry lacks people with these characteristics. But public has professional quality and depth within every department. There’s a reason industry places a premium on individuals with a public accounting background when sourcing candidates for job openings.
Industry often has less bureaucracy. Not as much of an administrative burden. Hopefully a better work/life balance. My advice to those looking for opportunities within industry: focus on the parts of your job you like about public accounting just as much as the parts you dislike. I’ve seen people, including myself, focus only on the “bad,” and wind up taking a job “just to leave” that, in hindsight, wasn’t a good decision. No job is perfect: they pay you to show up for a reason!

What are a few of the most valuable things you learned while in public?

I learned how to get my ass kicked! I learned how to work long hours, weekends. How to grind. How to take constructive criticism. And I learned how to organize, compile, and document information in the form of a deliverable. This is really important. Companies can’t make good decisions without information in a format that’s deciphered quickly and efficiently. And working in audit teaches you how to do that.

How can those working in public accounting get the most out of the opportunity?

Take the first year of public accounting to become acclimated with the lifestyle and being a professional. Specifically those that are coming straight from college. Be on time, be positive, and be willing to work on whatever is needed. It's overwhelming, both personally and professionally. So embrace it. And for everyone in public accounting: so much of your career is hinged upon having advocates within the firm. Promotions and layoffs are heavily influenced by working relationships. So find that collection of higher-ups willing to be in our corner, and give them a reason to stay there.

What are some of the most important things that you've learned about careers?

When evaluating job opportunities focus on a company’s leadership, culture, and the opportunity itself, as opposed to an industry. I know several people working for manufacturing companies, construction companies, and companies in other “non-sexy” industries that make more money than people I know working in tech, real estate, private equity, or other “sexy” industries. And at companies with better culture, better leadership, and a better work environment.

What advice would you give to accounting students?

I would double major in accounting and finance. I’ve studied finance after college and it’s made me a more rounded professional. Finance typically focuses on evaluating financial information into the future, whereas accounting is more of a historical/current focus. Having knowledge of both disciplines allows an individual to tell a complete and comprehensive story with their financial analyses. Had I studied it in college I would’ve been exposed to a wider variety of engagements earlier in my career.    
But accounting departments are becoming more strategic and more important. It’s the only department within a company directly connected to all operations, and in addition, serves as a centralized repository of financial information. Smart companies successfully use their accounting data not just for preparation of traditional financial statements, but for detailed analyses designed to enhance operations through better decision-making. Accounting departments have become a profit center for a lot of companies.
In addition, the number of CPAs hired into executive-level, non-CFO roles has seemingly increased, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence. Good accountants typically have a comprehensive, holistic view of a company’s operations, specifically how the pieces connect and work together. Companies have realized that accountants are not the stereotypical back office bean counters, but rather, are the employees most knowledgeable about their respective employer. So for the accountants out there aspiring for a leadership role within a company, be mindful that companies understand the importance of a leader with a clear understanding of a business, and can effectively communicate financial performance to stakeholders.

What are your long term career goals?

I enjoy consulting. It’s a good fit for my personality and preferred working environment. I like strategy and concepts. Brainstorming ideas and developing strategic plans. I enjoy the pace and the variety of engagements. I get to be around really smart, driven people. But there are geographical challenges with my professional field in the Midwest. The legal spending and private equity activity is smaller compared to larger markets. And this was before COVID-19. But there is opportunity and untapped potential within the Midwest for financial consulting. I’m hoping to say within this industry as long I can.

How can people connect with you?

Happy to connect on LinkedIn.