Howard Kies ’76 Capitalized on His Pfeiffer ‘Leap of Faith’
Howard Kies ’76 is the recently retired — and highly successful — Managing Partner for Richmond, Va.-based Cherry Bekaert LLC, one of the largest accounting firms in the country.
He grew up in Bridgeton, a small city in southern New Jersey located about an hour from Philadelphia. As his time in high school began to wind down, the idea of attending a small college appealed to him, but there were few such schools in his home state.
Then he heard about Pfeiffer College, which was drawing many of its students from New Jersey, including the daughter of his father’s business partner and the brother of his best friend. Both Falcons recommended the College highly, really winning over Kies in the process. He applied to Pfeiffer, was accepted, and enrolled — all without ever visiting its Misenheimer campus.
“Is that a leap of faith or what?” Kies said recently from his home in Richmond.
That leap would pay off handsomely in a variety of personal and professional ways — even though Kies, used to a densely populated state near New York and Philadelphia, was initially taken aback by Pfeiffer’s isolation. “It was literally not near anything,” he said. “Still, I felt at home since many students hailed from my home state.”
Pfeiffer would define the trajectory of much of Kies’ post-graduation life. He courted Lunda Williams ’76, a Pfeiffer alumna from Morganton, N.C. who majored in social work, and the couple got married in Henry Pfeiffer Chapel the day before Pfeiffer’s 1976 commencement.
“Our friends and family were already planning to be on campus for the graduation, and we were going to get married anyway,” Kies said. “We thought, ‘Why not do it at Pfeiffer when everybody’s there?’ That’s what we did.”
The professional part of Kies’ life was also taking shape. In the summer of 1976, he went to work at Cherry Bekaert (the Firm), which would be his sole full-time employer until his retirement in 2019. (He still does part-time project work for the Firm.)
Kies was promoted several times at Cherry Bekaert, morphing from a staff accountant into a leader with a knack for orchestrating strategic acquisitions. During his 27 years as Managing Partner, Cherry Bekaert expanded into all the major metro markets in the Southeast, and its revenues grew from $20 million to over $200 million.
In retrospect, this scenario seemed less than inevitable when Kies started out at Pfeiffer. Like many freshmen, he had only a vague idea of what he wanted to do professionally. In high school, Kies had worked at his father’s business, Bridgeton Travel Trailer Center, as “a gopher” who spruced up the business’ grounds and washed vehicles before they were delivered to customers. Along the way, he also learned how to serve and treat customers.
Other than what he picked up in his father’s business conversations, Kies learned nothing about the inner workings of a company. Seeing Pfeiffer as a way to fill in the gaps, he began taking courses on business — including those in accounting taught by the late Mary Russell, who retired in 1996 as Professor Emerita of Accounting after nearly 30 years of service.
Kies remembers Russell, for whom an endowed accounting scholarship was named, as an exceptionally skilled communicator of her subject matter.
“She had a way of explaining accounting that made sense to me,” he said. “That I was able to grasp accounting concepts as quickly as I did goes back to her. I came to really like accounting, so I majored in it.”
So, what accounts for Kies mastering the business side of accounting as well? Why did he choose to rise through the management ranks at one company when, in many cases, “turnover is an accepted business model” in the accounting world?
There are two answers. The first: “I was doing well. I was being treated well. I also saw that there were opportunities because the Firm was growing. I tried to take advantage of those opportunities.”
The other answer speaks to Kies’ ability to master a progression of steps that led to increasingly greater responsibilities. The first step was demonstrating technical competence: Could he complete tasks his supervisor had assigned him within a certain timeframe? Check.
The next steps required Kies to turn work around faster, so that the company could bill a higher rate per hour for his work, and, then, to master assignments of greater complexity. “Being able to handle the most complex work shows an understanding of the business as a whole,” he said.
After that, Kies began supervising accountants — which required an ability to communicate expectations clearly and to motivate, not only with words of encouragement but also with the right kinds of challenges. “I always liked to see what people were made of,” Kies said. “So, I’d give them a problem and see if they could turn a thorn into a rose.”
Kies’ arrival into the management ranks was assured when he began spending more of his time interacting with clients and supervising others. Before his appointment as Managing Partner, he would work at offices in multiple cities. At the office in Augusta, Ga., he transformed a poor-performing business unit of the Firm into a highly profitable one. “I like challenges,” Kies said. “The Firm gave me several opportunities to work on challenging clients or difficult situations,” Kies said. “I liked doing that.”
Kies would also like — and develop quite a knack for — orchestrating strategic acquisitions during his time as Managing Partner. When he assumed that title, the Firm was going through a difficult time. At issue was a “risk of success” problem: Cherry Bekaert had a lot of one- or two-partner offices in very small markets. They were profitable but some were having a difficult time attracting, developing and retaining the kind of talent that would sustain the offices into the future.
After coming up with a strategic plan for where the Firm should be in 10 years or more, Kies decided to establish a presence in the major markets of the Southeast. A multiyear process ensued in which Cherry Bekaert shed several of its small-market offices and gained a foothold in cities like Nashville, Atlanta, Tampa, Miami and Raleigh.
In several instances, Cherry Bekaert would acquire accounting firms in a large city in order to capitalize on their knowledge of the local market and increase business to the point of developing a substantial presence. At the same time, “we also wanted to grow organically”; this meant striking a balance between going the merger/acquisition route and drumming up more business from offices that were growing on their own without acquisitions.
As Managing Partner, Kies also guided the Firm in developing specialty services that brought added value to its relationships with clients. Instead of merely helping a company file a tax return, for example, Cherry Bekaert would also offer them ways to reduce their tax liability.
As Kies looks back on his career with Cherry Bekaert, he finds that there are things he misses and things he does not.
He’s grateful for not having to deal with the increasingly litigious environment that accounting firms practice in today. Said Kies: “What happened to people sitting down and saying, ‘We screwed up. How can we make this right?’”
Kies misses interacting with the 150 or so new hires each year at Cherry Bekaert.
“The energy that young people bring to an organization is always exciting,” he said. “I love watching young accountants develop.”
Kies, the pride of Pfeiffer-trained accountants, has set a great example for them to follow.
Ken Keuffel, who authored this article, has served as Pfeiffer’s Assistant Director of Communications since December 2019. He welcomes story ideas from Pfeiffer’s faculty, staff, students, alumni, and friends. The form for submitting story ideas is Story Idea/News Item Request Form.