Sunday, July 29, 2007

Michelle Cain

Michelle J. Cain:

Get Into Something You Enjoy and Grow With It

By: Joseph W. Norman

Michelle Cain is a partner at Mengel, Metzger, Barr, & Co. (MMB), a regional accounting firm headquartered in Rochester, New York. Growing up in Webster, New York, Michelle has been an upstate girl her entire life. She attended the State University of New York at Geneseo and received a Bachelors of Science Degree in Accounting. Since her graduation in 1994, Michelle has been making a meaningful impact at MMB, working her way up to the Partner distinction in a relatively short period of time. Her technical skill and leadership abilities in large part attribute to her success.

VIP: Give us the short story…

MJC: I live in Webster and have lived there my entire life. I went to Bishop-Kearney High School, a private Catholic school in Irondequoit. When I was young I took an accounting class as an elective and liked it. Little did I know that it really isn’t like the intro course at all - you don’t really do that stuff when you get into auditing. Although, I stuck with accounting at Geneseo for the four years and then went into public accounting not really knowing what it was. At the time when I went to school, internships were pretty rare. I didn’t have any experience in the accounting industry at all, so I didn’t know what I was getting into. Fortunately I liked it.

I started here (MMB) right out of college, and I’ve been here for 13 years.

VIP: Tell us a little bit about Mengel, Metzger, Barr, & Co.

MJC: We have 16 partners in the firm. We have a Rochester office, our main office, an office in Elmira, and two satellite offices in Ithaca and Hornell. We have about 85 professionals total. There are ten partners in this office. In accounting you start as a staff accountant, primarily in the audit department. At a regional firm like ours you get the opportunity to do both audit and tax. So, I really learned both sides, but I’m now more on the audit side - that is where I specialize. You go from staff to senior to manager to senior manager, to principal, and then partner.

If I had to pick a specialty, I would probably say it is non-profits.

In our firm, our partners are very much hands on. During a typical audit, we would have a senior and a staff out there everyday, the manager would go out periodically, maybe every other day, and the partner will go out there a few times. Then, the partner will present the work done. The companies are well aware who did all the work though (after we joked about the partners taking all the credit). Our client base is the middle market. They like the personal service so that is what we give them.

VIP: What is your average day like?

MJC: First, I come in and go through all of my messages. There are many meetings and administrative things to do in the office. We have to keep our business running as well as make sure our clients are being served. I am on the marketing committee. We also have the assurance committee which is a group of partners that make sure we are on top of all the new laws and best practices in the industry. We have a recruiting committee as well. It is a mix of administering this firm, mentoring our staff, and serving our clients. They all come into play everyday.

I just presented a draft financial statement to an audit committee of a non-profit. We went out there for about a week and did the audit. The process consists of doing the audit, pulling the statements together, and presenting them. When the company approves them then we finalize.

VIP: Tell us a little bit about your family.

MJC: I have a husband, Tom, and two children. My daughter Miranda is nine and is going into fourth grade. My son Jay is five, going into first grade. They are both into softball and tee-ball right now. Summer is a lot better for me because they are out of school. It is a nice relief not to have to stress about homework everyday. They don’t tend to feel the stress like I do. I like the summer because it is more laid back – I don’t stress about getting them to bed right on time.

Jay and Miranda

My husband is a manager in the corporate office of Wegmans. He manages the people who buy everything but the food – supplies, equipment, furniture, etcetera. We make it work.

We have a camp that we have parked on a permanent site in Baldwinsville right on the lake. We try to get to it as often as we can on the weekends. We don’t really have vacation plans, we do more day trips.

VIP: How many hours do you usually work a week?

MJC: During the summer, probably 45 to 50 but, I try to keep it closer to 45. During the winter it is about 60 hours a week. You know, it really isn’t that bad at our firm, some weeks more than others - we try to balance it out. The firm tries to keep family in mind. There are many young people here with families, so people will leave early for a basketball game or something, and that’s fine. The bottom line is the work needs to get done, and as long as it gets done, then we are very flexible.

VIP: What are some of your goals?

MJC: As far as career goals, I don’t have any in particular – I’ve kind of reached the highest level I can get to here. We do want to continue to grow the business, whether that is merging with another firm or acquiring more clients.

In respect to family, I’m certainly not planning on having anymore children. They are great kids though. They both are fairly well behaved and a lot of fun. It is difficult balancing family and career. So I think two is good.

VIP: What is your favorite time of day?

MJC: I would have to say the mornings, and I’m not a morning person, so I don’t mean right when I wake up because I’m not a fan of that. But, from a work perspective, I like to whip through a bunch of things right when I get in here so I feel like I’ve at least accomplished something. After that, I like right before my kids go to bed, when we are settling in.

During the summer we try to do some fun things in the evening – go out for ice cream, or ride bikes. My son Jay just learned how to ride a two wheel bike, so now that is fun. If you’ve ever ridden around the block with a son on training wheels, it is like torture. So, now that he can ride a real bike, it is great.

VIP: What are some of your hobbies?

We enjoy camping. I do exercise, but I don’t really consider it exercise – I rollerblade for fun. Hanging out with my kids and playing games like kickball and baseball. I read, but the only books I read as an accountant are things like trashy romance novels because I don’t want to think about what I’m reading. I like golfing – playing it more than watching it. Also, I like watching any live sport, so I’m anxious to see my kids get more competitive.

Overall, anything family oriented, because you can never spend enough time with them when you are working all the time.

VIP: Do you do work with other organizations?

MJC: I am the treasurer of the Rochester Children’s Theatre. I never knew what they did before I joined their organization. One of our partners knew the president of the board, so he recommended me, and it is really a wonderful organization. They put on productions for children, and the actors are phenomenal. We do six or seven productions a year and we try to coincide with the school calendars.

I’m on the Business Advisory Council for the Jones School of Business at SUNY Geneseo and I’m a member of the Al Sigl Center WalkAbout Committee and the Rochester Women’s Network. This year I had to say no to a few organizations, because I don’t like joining something I can’t put the time into.

VIP: What does it take to be successful in your position?

MJC: In this job you need to be organized in order to juggle everything. As an accountant you are looked at as the number one advisor of the client. It is a wonderful feeling, but it is a lot of pressure and responsibility. They ask you everything; you’re all of the sudden an attorney to them, a Human Resources expert, etcetera. If it is something we cannot directly answer, we refer.

On top of that, as a partner, you are required to do the administrative functions. So, you have to be able to run a business as well and make sure it is functioning properly. Keeping your people happy is essential.

Also, in this industry, your personal skills are huge. You have to be able to interact with all sorts of people. You need to be able to change to accommodate their personalities. Every job that we do we have a different team working. So one week I could be working with this team, and the next week I could be working with another team. Not only are you changing to your client’s needs, but also to your teams. It is constant change of your own personality to make it work. That is critical in my job and public accounting in general.

Technical skills obviously - it is essential in this ever changing industry. And, leadership ability is essential, but it depends on the person’s definition of success.

VIP: What do you look for when you hire somebody?

MJC: When I hire somebody, the interpersonal skills are a key thing that I look for.

I recruit at Geneseo, so I know that if somebody is graduating from there, they know their stuff. When I go in, I’m not testing them on their knowledge. I want to know if this person will fit into our organization. What is there personality like? Can they talk to me? If so, then they can talk to our clients. I need to get an idea how well they will function here. I absolutely look for that.

VIP: Who are three people you would like to meet?

MJC: Susan B. Anthony, primarily because I am a woman. She had to be a pretty cool person. Another person is someone like Ben Franklin. He was a genius. I always wonder, “How can somebody be that smart?” Then, just for fun, George Clooney. Not just because he is good looking, but because he seems so nice and down to earth.

VIP: What are some difficulties that you deal with managing a team?

MJC: Personnel is difficult to manage. You try to keep people motivated, efficient, and growing to the next level. But, there are certain people that just aren’t cut out for the job, so sometimes you’ve got to get rid of them. I am fortunate enough that I have not had to do the official firings. I’ve been involved with the evaluation type, uncomfortable conversations. Just the day to day managing is challenging. It is hard to keep everyone up to speed when they are all not of the same ability.

VIP: What are some procedures that you use to manage the day to day?

MJC: We don’t do much soft skill training although once we become managers we will go off to a training program. But, we do have a good mentoring program here which has worked very well. Everyone is assigned a mentor when they walk in the door. And, we allow people to change their mentor every year. We do have a great process in place that seems to be working.

We have an open door policy, so people tend to feel comfortable talking to the partners. For the most part, we try to treat everyone like equals. It is very much, “I don’t know everything and you don’t know everything, so let’s work together to get the job done to the best of our ability.” Most of our people are comfortable with that.

Keeping the lines of communication open is essential. I was one of the people that wanted to work a reduced schedule when I had my children. And, when I was going through it was a new concept, but the partners at the time were accommodating, and we made it work. Now, I’m back to a full schedule, but we have young people who need the same thing I did so we remain flexible. It is about keeping the communication open. What do you want, what do we want, and how can we make it work?

VIP: What are some of the challenges in your industry?

MJC: The industry itself is challenging because it is always changing. Competition is a huge challenge. What has happened in our industry because of Sarbanes-Oxley is the bigger firms have fired many of their smaller to mid-size clients because they did not have time for them. So, the regional firms like us have really benefited because those are our ideal clients. I think those companies have realized that they don’t need a national firm – they can get better service for a cheaper price. National firms could not give them the service.

We don’t do any public companies – it is too risky when you are only doing a couple of them. It is not worth it. It is a huge investment in learning, training, and malpractice insurance. We decided as a firm to not do them. But, there are many great regional firms in the area that we are competing with.

On another note, keeping up with all of the standards is hard. It pushes down to the private firms, and then it pushes onto the accountants because we have to charge to get the job done. That is our industry.

VIP: What part of your job do you enjoy the most?

MJC: The people – you get to meet so many great people. I used to hate public speaking in college. I would get sick before I had to give a presentation. Now, I feel like that is all I do and I like it.

The standards are difficult, but we are aligned with BDO Seidman, an accounting firm ranked number five internationally. Because of our relationship, we get access to all of their resources. They send out emails when they get new information, so that makes it easier to stay up to date. I don’t feel like I need to read every standard front to back, which is beneficial.

BDO also serves as a consulting resource. We use each other if we run into a situation that we’ve never dealt with before. All the time, we’ll send out an email which says, “Have you ever encountered this before?” And, we get great feedback.

VIP: What are some memorable gifts you’ve received?

MJC: I’m going to put them together; one was from my daughter and one was from my son. They put together these books for Mother’s day at school – it is fun to see what they think. I have both on top of my dresser at home and I look at them all the time. Also, my very first Mother’s Day, my husband bought me a gorgeous ring with an aqua-marine stone - my daughter’s birthstone.

VIP: What advice would you give to a college student?

MJC: First, enjoy it before it ends. Second, when you are going through the interview process, BE YOURSELF. Don’t try to act like somebody else because it won’t help you in the long run. Get into something you enjoy and learn as much as you can about it. Grow with it.