Sunday, September 16, 2007

Harry Howe, Professor of Accounting

Harry Howe:
A True Renaissance Man

Arranged and edited by Joseph W. Norman

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Enjoy the read about...Harry Howe...below! Thanks for your readership!

Dr. Harry Howe is a well respected academic and leader in the SUNY Geneseo and Accounting community. However, his work as Professor and Coordinator of Accounting for the Jones School of Business is just one piece of a man with a truly unique set of experiences. Growing up in a loving family outside of Boston, Harry and his four siblings learned the importance of a diverse knowledge base. In turn, all became voracious readers and interestingly enough all ended up in one of the many forms of “education.” Below you will find Harry’s stories of his work as a father, husband, sculptor, contractor, business owner, and professor. Enjoy!

Joseph (JWN): I’m curious Dr. Howe, where did you grow up and what were some of your experiences in New York City?

Harry Howe (HH): I grew up outside of Boston. Went to school in New England (Brown University), and originally went down to New York City to pursue a career as a sculptor. I did that pretty seriously for about eight years. The big factor that really changed the way I looked at the world was having my first child and then my second child. That perpetuates a lot of changes and perception. So, I had always done a certain amount of construction work to put bread on the table. It is unbelievably common in any area of the arts in New York City to have something other than the arts to provide a livelihood.

I like the freedom that working in construction gives you over your own time. You could contract and do some kind of a job, work really hard at it for a few weeks and then have a few weeks or a few months to pursue something in the studio. It was kind of a nice balance and along the way I picked up a fair amount of knowledge about different building trades and putting things together.

I did commercial interior build outs for largely commercial clients, we did some high end retail client work, but largely offices, showrooms and things like that. I did that for about ten or twelve years, until it came time to move on and try something else.

JWN: What led you into running your own construction company?

HH: It was a logical outgrowth of what I did. I knew how to put the product together and it became more and more common for me to hire people to do some parts of it. Certainly, once earning a bit more of a living and putting aside resources for a growing family became a much more important thing to do, running the business became logical.

I really enjoyed it. It was an endlessly fascinating collection of people that you ran into both from the client and contractor side. I’m really glad that I’m doing something else at this point in my life, but there were a lot of pretty good years and interesting experiences I had there.

As a true student of his many pursuits, the conversation of Harry’s construction business moved into some history of New York City buildings and architecture.

First, the Empire State Building…

HH: That’s an amazing building. One of the little items of New York City social history that I always love about the Empire State Building is that there is a big plaque showing the names of all the master mechanics. You can read a lot into the social history of construction. The Irish stone masons, the Italian terrazzo and metal workers; the trades were mostly dominated by those two. There was a master wrecker who took down the Bellmore Hotel which had been on the location of the Empire State Building. Dmitri Kozlov was his name. I think of him as this kind of mad Jewish Russian destroying the building or something. You can see this plaque in the lobby of the building which is kind of a minor masterpiece of Art Deco architecture down there.

Next, onto the geography of Manhattan…

HH: You have that kind of valley between the villages and lower Manhattan. There is a guy named Carl Condit who was a historian, not so much of architecture but of buildings. One of his books discusses the role of New York City as a port city and a natural hub for communication and transportation. One of the specific factors he looks at is the underlying geology of the city. It is no accident that you have a really big central business district in lower Manhattan and a huge central business district in Midtown Manhattan and everything else is quite a bit lower in terms of rise. It has a lot to do with just how far below the surface the load baring Manhattan schist is.

JWN: You have a wide variety of interests. I’m curious what sparks all of these diverse passions? Were they the product of how you grew up?

HH: I think an awful lot of curiosity comes into play. I certainly credit my parents for nurturing a great sense of curiosity. We’re all great readers. I’m one of five children, and in one sense or another we all grew up to be educators. My sister was a teacher for many years, two of my brothers are journalists, and my other brother has been Chief Information Officer for a couple of high tech companies. He was also Commissioner of Public Utilities for Massachusetts for a while. Each of these roles has something to do with informing the public or some constituency about some particular set of issues.

I think a lot of that just comes from vigorous after dinner discussions growing up. The conversation was always pretty free wheeling. Not too many topics were off bounds. Although, more than once my mother would say from her end of the table, “Can we please raise the level of conversation?!?” When you have four boys and a sister, you can imagine that things can get a little out of control.

The conversation moved into some of my own diverse set of pursuits, leading Dr. Howe to respond as follows…

HH: A few things I would like to respond to in what you’re saying is the interest and willingness to combine language and communication skills with numerical and quantitative reasoning. Many people become somewhat phobic. If they are good at one, they reject the other. Interestingly, I think it is more often the quantitatively capable people who feel the freedom to explore communication. If you ever read Scientific American, you realize there are a lot of scientists out there that are very good writers. And, for a lot of reasons that probably include a certain amount of politics, people who have gravitated towards the humanities tend to be a little suspicious about numbers in general - and finance and economic matters in particular - which I think is pretty regrettable.

One thing I have seen on an anecdotal basis is that the two best conditions to come from if you’re serious about making a pot of money are to start out with a whole lot of it or to start out with very little of it. It’s probably a little better to start out with a little bit of it. I have done my own thinking about this set of issues, but it didn’t happen until several years later in life.

JWN: What are some of your other interests? I know you have dabbled in hiking and rock climbing.

HH: I haven’t had much time at all for the rock climbing in quite a while, but that is a great example of something I was very passionate about for a number of years. It was a lot easier to get to really good climbing venues when I lived further back east in the state. I was about a five or six hour drive from the New Paltz area which is a really great climbing area. You need to be spending a fare amount of time doing it, and I find myself at Geneseo spending a fare amount of time doing a lot of stuff that is around here. But, I really love climbing.
I still try to get a fare amount of hiking, walking, and bicycling in to stay active. I read an awful lot. And, then I find that I am very involved with many things around campus. Right here in the Jones School of Business I am busy coordinating the Accounting program, but over the last four or five years I have taught a freshman seminar.

I think that is a great opportunity for the students to experience a small classroom environment and hopefully learn some of the benefits of speaking up and getting involved in a class. Something I expect you don’t have much of a problem with, but many students are reluctant to do that. So the idea of a small seminar, I think, is a great addition to the kind of things we do at Geneseo.

It is a great opportunity for the faculty to explore something that might be out of the main line of their academic employment. So, for two years I taught a seminar on some of the philosophical arguments underlying capitalism. We largely used a short book by Milton Freidman, but we brought in a few other readings as well.

I did a course one year on high tech accidents; sort of looking at the costs and benefits of a variety of complex systems. There is a great book by a sociologist named Charles Perrow called Normal Accidents. His thesis is that there are certain kinds of systems which by their very nature – of complexity and the fact that a number of processes are tightly coupled - it is all but inevitable that you will experience accidents. And yet, these tend to be exactly the kind of things we rely on in modern society for power, for transportation of goods, for air travel and all the rest of that. So that was a pretty interesting class to teach.

Last year and this year again, I am co-teaching a seminar on slavery as it has existed all over the world in different cultures. I’m doing that with a friend of mine in the Philosophy department, Dave Levy. He is a seriously bright guy. It is a lot of fun to have a colleague like Dave who is just so quick at picking things up and has such a disciplined mind, but a really great sense of humor too.

I have been a member of the All Campus Judicial Committee for about ten years at this point. I think the thing I most value about that is the opportunity to understand a little bit more about what goes on in the life of students. We get to see students about two and a half hours in the classroom each week usually. And, there are another 165 and a half hours out there where they are doing something. Although the judicial committee involves somebody who has gotten in some sort of trouble and has made some poor decisions, understanding what went into that and the kinds of things that go on throughout the campus is a really useful reference for anyone who teaches here. And, occasionally there are opportunities to exercise some really good judgment. In some cases, I have felt very strongly about dismissing the student.

On a happier note, I am faculty advisor for a couple of Greek organizations. Zeta Beta Zi, which is a fraternity with many good brothers, and the APO service organization. I have also volunteered for a number of political discussions and faculty dining events. There are a lot of ways to be involved with other people in this community. You have much opportunity to get to know people outside of your department and hopefully contribute something. It has been a great life.

JWN: Now, I know you went to Union College for your graduate education, so what brought you to Geneseo?

HH: Well, the job. I had wanted to stay in the New York State area. I had a couple of job possibilities in other parts of the country and then here in Geneseo. The guy who was largely in charge of the Ph.D. program knew somebody here at Geneseo and had a good feel for the place. He said, “Harry, you should look at this. I think it might be exactly the right place for you.” So, I came up here and met a few people and interviewed here in the winter of 1995. I really liked what I saw. I was absolutely thrilled when I got the phone call from the then head of the School of Business making the formal job offer. In fact, I recall exactly where I was when I was speaking on the telephone.

Later that night, I ran into a former professor of mine, an Austrian guy who was a really great statistician. I said, “Joseph, I’ve got some good news. I’ve just been offered a job at Geneseo.” I remember his reaction, he said, “Oh, that’s good Harry. Those guys are competition for Union.”

But, it is a really wonderful college. I think it took me not all that long to realize what a good fit it is and that is not an uncommon reaction. If you look around campus and you see how long a number of people have been here, there is a reason for that. There are some very capable and accomplished people who wouldn’t have much problem being a whole lot of other places. They just get the value proposition about what this place is all about. We have a pretty interesting slice of students from all over New York State.

JWN: And, what is that value proposition?

HH: I think if you look at Geneseo from a strategic point of view, one way you can slice it is to say that there are a certain number of bright, college capable kids that come from family backgrounds which make it almost inevitable that they will go to some private college here in New York State or somewhere else. And then there are all the other bright, capable, college bound students. I think that virtually all of those kids will give a serious look to Geneseo, unless they are absolutely driven to be in a particular geographic area or they are allergic to snow or something. I think we have a pretty good draw from all over the state and that creates a pretty interesting balance.

I have a lot of friends and a lot of satisfaction in what I do. I really believe in the program and I am happy that I ended up in a place that I really enjoy being at. It strikes me as awful to be someplace that you hate or don’t like. I see a certain amount of that at conferences I go to. But, we have in addition to good students, a very collegial department. There are not a whole lot of politics or backbiting, which unfortunately is pretty common in a lot of academia. We are very fortunate to have good leadership in the Jones School of Business. Mary Ellen (Dean Mary Ellen Zuckerman, VIP) has done a great job.

In any large organization you are going to have fracture lines, but that makes life interesting. As a public liberal arts college, we are lucky to have someone like Chris (SUNY Geneseo President, Christopher Dahl, VIP) who is just such a good spokesperson for the ideal of what a public liberal arts college is all about - making that opportunity available to bright capable kids on a meritocratic basis. It is a good thing.

JWN: I’m curious, who are some people who may have inspired you or been big influences on you throughout your career, personally or professionally?

HH: Well, certainly great teachers. I was fortunate, I think, that in each of the schools I went to I had a number of really dedicated and caring teachers. And, cumulatively they make a huge impact.

I think of Dave Burling in Junior High School who was a wonderful American History teacher. He had us reading Supreme Court cases in seventh grade.

Fred Tramolo, at Exeter, who was a legendary English teacher, and someone who would just spend hours working with you on something you were writing and pretty fearlessly tear something down if it needed to be torn down.

Richard Fishman is a sculptor I worked with a lot at Brown. I think I learned an awful lot about the process of thinking about an unstructured problem from Richard. That is a fungible skill which applies to a lot of different endeavors. He also had a great openness to a lot of different ways to looking at something with great curiosity. And, also a real pride at being an adept mechanic. So, I learned a lot about welding and perfectionism from Richard.

Don Arnold and Jeff Lippitt, two really important Accounting teachers I had at Union, which helped me get through a Ph.D. program and set a course for where I wanted to go.

Teachers have an amazing and unexpected series of effects on us.

JWN: What is your definition of success? What is it that you want your students to take away from the classes you teach?

HH: I think the best definition of success is being able to do something that you really love doing. And, if you can help other people achieve that type of success, it is really sort of “success squared.” I have done a lot of different things over the years and I have to say, for the most part I really enjoyed those things. There is hard work in parts of any job that is less attractive and some of the obvious glamour items. But, when you wrap it all together and make a decision on whether or not you enjoyed doing it.

I got tremendous satisfaction out of really working hard as a sculptor. Ultimately, it didn’t go where I thought I wanted it to go, but it was very absorbing at the time.
I had an awful lot of satisfaction out of being a good construction mechanic. I’m probably the only tenured member of the Geneseo faculty who has a six inch soil cracker in the basement and knows how to use it to create a complete drainage, waste, and vent system for new construction. I was a pretty good plumber, a more than adequate electrician, a good framing carpenter, but I was not somebody who you would want to have tiling for you.

Running a small business is unbelievably absorbing and for the most part a satisfying thing to do. There is an awful lot of friction and conflict, but when you walk onto a site and see a couple dozen people doing something and a tremendous amount of change happening every day, you really get a kick out of it.

And then what I have been doing at Geneseo for the last twelve plus years has been an intensely satisfying thing to do. The idea that graduates from our program can leave here at age 22 and be on a track to become a respected professional is great. They are immediately able to move into a place of their own and develop that way. To think of young people having knowledge in professional preparation to deal with people that are really twice as old as they are and from a position of power and a certain amount of knowledge is a neat thing to think about.

Ultimately, I think accounting is an essential part of running a market based economic system. If you are going to have property rights you need people to understand what the property actually is; to measure it, to record it, and be able to communicate about it. You can believe as a lot of people do that property rights are not only an inherent right in themselves, but are the foundation of a whole lot of other liberties and rights. That is something that I think I have picked up from my father, who was a contract lawyer, over the years. He spent most of his life practicing law.

JWN: What did your mother do?

HH: She raised five kids and then went back to work after my youngster brother went off to college. She started working as a secretary at Wellesley College and ended up becoming a departmental secretary. I have a much better understanding from the last ten or twelve years of just what that job entailed, how incredibly important it was, and how forbearing she had to be for a lot of academic pre-Madonnas, and just how much she brought to the job. There is a lovely bench on the campus in memory of her. She died quite unexpectedly at age seventy, the first year I came to Geneseo. But she was a richly loved and respected member of the Wellesley community.

The five of us span a total of about thirteen years and she just did an awful lot of things for all of us. Whether it was taking us over to hang out with all of our cousins, her sister, my aunt, has seven kids, and all of us grew up as one big extended family. We did a lot of family trips and outings. We would go to museums, theatres, concerts, parties, and discussions and things.

She had a pretty good sense of humor. She had her honors diploma from Smith College hung up over the washing machine in the basement. She was of that generation where no matter how bright or educated you were, it was a very normal thing for a woman to stay home and be a housewife. We were really lucky.

JWN: What are some of your career goals over the not too distant future?

HH: A lot of my personal goals are wrapped up in the success of the Accounting program. I really believe in what it does both for the students that go through it and for society in general. It’s a challenging time across the board in education. There are a lot of specific things we need to do to continue to be a leading program. We have a relatively new masters program that really everyone in the School of Business has come together to help create and support in one way or another. I have been director of that for the past several years.

I think we are making really good progress in growing the kinds of courses we really need to have and getting the kinds of resources we need. I see that as really being a successful and valuable adornment to what is already a good foundation in accounting education.

I think the success of the program is first and foremost in my mind, but I have a number of things that I have been writing as well. One of my efforts will be coming out in book format in the coming months. One is ready to go to the editor for serious review and one is not too far along, but one effort is going to be quite possibly the most comprehensive treatment of a subject on planet Earth. I take a bit of satisfaction in that.

JWN: What is your favorite candy bar?

HH: I guess, when I get a hold of it, a good old fashioned Hershey bar is not the worst thing in the world by a long shot. And, Cadbury I remember used to make some pretty good milk chocolate. I don’t pretend to any great sophistication in my choice of candy bar, so both of those are good solid products that I am happy to endorse.

JWN: What are some favorite books?

HH: I have loads of favorite books, but three that occur to me right now, because you and I share an interest in finance are as follows. First, is the New Financial Capitalists by Baker and Smith. This particular book is a short history of Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co., and an explanation of the leveraged buyout movement. The first couple chapters provide a careful and thoughtful treatment of the role finance capitalism plays in an orderly economy. This is an area that a lot of Americans are sensitive about. If people don’t understand finance, there is a tendency to assume the worst about what business people are actually doing. When you look at the history of how value is created you really start to appreciate the creative role that thoughtful allocation of capital to new and emergent businesses brings to the table.

Another is a book by Charles Kindleberger called Manias, Panics, and Crashes. It is a topology of bubbles in various markets, whether it is natural resources, comic books, credit, or tulip bulbs. What is great about that book is that it is not only good history, but it presents the understanding that human psychology and passions are really the story of all of these manias, panics, and crashes. There is a tendency to get excited about things and lose all sense of proportion and kind of divorce valuation from fundamentals. And that brings me to the third book…

Any person who is at all interested in finance and investing should read at least part of the first edition of Benjamin Graham’s Security Analysis. Graham pioneered the concept of value investing on the realization that once you peeled away the emotional reaction a lot of people had in securities, there was tremendous cash flow potential in any of these abused issues. For somebody to come up with that insight and to argue as forcefully as he did about a rational plan of investment, I think, was an interesting act of moral courage in 1934. You can certainly see the impact that his approach had on the world, not only from his own success, but from his star pupil’s, Warren Buffett.

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Dr. Harry Howe
Associate Professor / Coordinator of Accounting
SUNY Geneseo
Jones School of Business
South 107
Phone: 585.245.5465