Today’s guest is Mike Chalfant. Mike spent two years at KPMG, leaving as an associate to join a small business in the logistics industry. Since joining the company, Mike has been promoted up the ranks and currently serves as the company’s President.
Climbing the corporate ladder
Moving into operations
Big versus small companies
The value of networks
Grim: Thanks for being here, Mike! Can you tell us a little bit about your background and how you got into accounting?
Mike: Sure. I grew up in Kansas City and went to school at the University of Kansas. I could not decide between majoring in finance or accounting entering my junior year at KU, so I asked my dad for advice. His advice was to pick accounting. His reasoning was that as an accounting major, I’d be able to pursue a majority of jobs finance majors could do if I wanted to go down that path, but could also pursue accounting specific jobs as well. The accounting degree seemed like the one that would give me the most opportunity. I really enjoyed the courses, graduated, and went the ‘big four’ route. Everything worked out well and I have no regrets.
Let’s talk a bit about your experience of working at KPMG. What was that like?
I was fortunate to do a spring internship with KPMG. It helped open my eyes to what a full-time job would look like.
My full-time experience was also great. I worked on a variety of different clients in the audit practice at KPMG. The experience was great for two reasons. First, I got exposure to these large, successful, publicly traded companies and really got an inside look at how they operated. Second, I got to work and collaborate with really smart and driven people.
Being at KPMG taught me how to be a pro and instilled in me a work ethic that for better or worse is not the norm outside of public accounting. That mindset has been helpful throughout my career.
How can young associates navigate public accounting and get the most out of the experience?
First, I would encourage them to ask a lot of questions. I’d also tell them to take advantage of the resources given to them…meaning those older and more experienced within the field capable of giving good advice.
There are also resource managers who will work with you to get you into the type of work that interests you. I was really curious about the financial sector so I asked to be put on a couple of bank audits. It was a good experience. If you’re interested in certain companies or industries, be proactive and find out if it is possible to work on them.
Having spent a few years in KPMG, what led you to decide to jump into something else?
Different interests. I noticed that although I was getting great experience, the experience was mainly focused on public companies and their financial reporting. I realized that my heart was more into working for a company. I wanted to help a company grow and make money. I wanted to be involved in the forward-looking decisions rather than analyze historical journal entries. I was very interested in the business side of things.
Was there a specific thing or event that made you decide the direction you wanted to take with your career?
Good question… I kept my ears and eyes open after my third busy season. I found a role where I could still do some accounting but also venture into financial planning and analysis. The opportunity came up as a seemingly perfect fit. There was a lot of growth available at the company and it’s turned out to be everything I’d hoped.
Tell us about where this role was and about your progression.
The company is MyFreightWorld (MFW) and we are a third-party logistics company. We help our customers manage their supply chain by connecting them with carriers — the hundreds of thousands of trucking companies out there in the world. Our customers utilize the buying power we offer with trucking companies and/or leverage our carrier relationships.
At MFW, we’re responsible for understanding where these carriers go so that we can put together the different logistical pieces of the puzzle for our customers shipping freight. As a middleman, we see our carriers as our customers too. We want them to be happy with the customers we’re providing.
I started as the Director of Accounting in 2013. The role was somewhere around 75% accounting and 25% other. The COO at the time was a CPA, and the CEO was the former CFO of a publicly traded company called NIC based in Olathe, KS. So I had two guys that were my sounding boards alongside many others that helped me learn the business.
As I got exposure to operations, planning and projecting company direction, I got to know the business better and was able to add value in those areas. I discovered I really enjoyed it. I then went from Director of Accounting, to director of finance and accounting and then became the VP of Finance and Administration. That move involved taking on new roles like payroll and other HR duties. We were pretty small at the time which requires people to wear many hats. But I enjoyed the broader responsibilities and was able to also stay within the accounting realm.
With growth we’ve hired staff who I’ve helped train up to offload responsibilities. A year and a half ago I was promoted to the CFO role, and just a few months ago I was promoted to President. In my current role, I oversee the operations of the company, as well as the finance department. Fortunately, we have a lot of talented individuals working in the operations area. I’m just trying to help them by making sure they have the resources to be successful, find areas of inefficiency, and help the sales team. Additionally, I’m still involved with the finance and planning functions of the company.
It’s been a great experience, and a well-rounded experience. I have learned, and still am learning a lot, and it’s really worked out great.
You started working in corporate in 2010 and a decade later you’re a President of a company. How did you manage to achieve that?
Well, timing and circumstance were a huge factor. I have no doubt about that. I was fortunate to join MFW at the perfect time when they needed someone like me. Having said that, I did kind of take the bull by its horns, learned the industry quickly and continuously asked for more responsibility. I’ve worked really hard and put in a lot of time, which has in turn helped me to learn more and just be a generally productive employee. The leadership and ownership liked the work I was doing and were pleased to keep giving me more.
Back to timing and circumstance…circumstances led to the previous president and CEO retiring a bit earlier than planned, and instead of recruiting someone older and perhaps more experienced, they decided to give me a chance and I’m grateful for it.
The contrast in working for a big company versus a small company couldn’t be starker. Having done both, share your thoughts.
As I previously mentioned, my experience of working at KPMG was great. While I was exposed to these great big publicly traded companies, I was only working on a tiny piece of the puzzle.
At MFW, we have a total of 30 employees and I’ve been given a lot of opportunities in the last seven years. I’ve gotten to sit in on strategy conversations with the C-level and the ownership, see deals and negotiations, and more generally learn quickly about running a business in the transportation industry. I was given the opportunity to earn trust by sharing my input and completing tasks that I was given. It all made for a great experience. There’s no better way to learn than being thrown into the fire.
How did your public accounting experience help prepare you for your non-accounting duties?
At our company, there is a very thin line between operations and FP&A / accounting. Numbers are an integral part of everything we do. How duties are executed upon has a direct impact on the company’s numbers. Because of this, our finance and accounting staff work very closely with our operations team. We do this not only to ensure everything is properly accounted for, but to also find ways of working together more efficiently.
Finding the symmetry between the numbers and operations, and working together to build a business, is the kind of mindset that I encourage. We’re all on the same team so our collective priority is to do what’s best for the company and be efficient. Additionally, attention to detail, being thorough and the necessity of having highly organized processes are other necessities I’ve adopted from my public accounting experience and incorporated into how we do business.
What advice do you have for accounting students?
Attempt to do a great job in everything that you’re given, and pair that with asking a lot of questions. Also, read a ton about the business world, both locally and around the country/globe. Find the things that appeal to you and seek out opportunities in those spheres. You’re more likely to be successful doing something that is aligned with your interests and your personality as opposed to doing otherwise.
What are some of the most important things that you've learned about business?
Keep your eyes up and act with integrity at all times because people are always watching. Learn to trust your instincts as you gain experience and don’t be afraid to put yourself in opportunities that look daunting. Doing so keeps you always learning and developing.
From a company perspective, we’re never afraid to try new things and never too proud to abandon bad ideas if something is not working. Our company culture is a huge factor in how objectives are achieved or if they are achieved at all. It’s important that everyone feels like they can work together.
Aside from culture and maybe skillset, is there anything else you look for when hiring?
Assuming the prospect had the relevant skills and the experience needed for the job, the next part of the equation is trying to figure out if they have the ethos and attitude that would make them a proper fit in our company.
What drives you?
I'm a capitalist at heart. I want to see this company grow and I want everyone involved in that to benefit. That includes our employees, their families, and our ownership group. The growth is fun too because it means we’ve taken on new challenges, performed extremely well and as a result have victories. It means, ultimately, we’ve helped improve our customer’s lives in some way. That’s what motivates me.
You just mentioned your ownership group. Sometimes ownership can influence the cadence at which a company operates. Can you speak to this?
We have an ownership group composed of only a handful of individuals and that works well for us. I’m in constant communication with them and none of them are interested in running the day-to-day operations. They’re quite happy to leave that to me. They are happy with the direction we’ve taken and the strategy we’re employing.
And, of course, they’re aware that culture is a huge part of what we do here, so not impeding on that is important to them. We’ve tried to create an environment with a positive work-life balance. It’s important for us to stress working hard when it’s needed for our customers, but we do encourage people to have fun both at the office and at home.
One thing that has helped with this effort is to make sure we’re staffed appropriately so people are able to take time off. Our people need the ability to unplug and then to return charged up and ready to work hard. Additionally, we’ve worked hard to make our environment a place where people want to be. I think that’s worked out pretty well for us.
Who do you admire and look to for advice?
My parents. My dad has owned and run a few small businesses so he certainly can relate to some of the challenges. Additionally, I’ve been fortunate to have a network of mentors that I speak to a couple of times per year, as well as peers who are in similar positions within different industries. These are some of the people I call for counsel, inspiration or just to bounce around ideas.
How did you develop this network?
I just embraced being an active networker early in my career. I attended as many happy hour and networking events as I could. This was really driven by my interest in learning about different businesses and meeting the people who were involved in running those businesses.
Although some of it has been good luck, I’ve certainly been persistent in building my network. My advice would be to keep your ears and eyes open for any social get-togethers where like-minded people from different industries and positions will be getting together. It may be outside your comfort zone, but those relationships could be fruitful down the road in ways you cannot imagine.
What does the future hold for you?
In my personal life, I don’t want work to ever completely consume me. I want to be a good family man. I don’t have any kids at the moment, but I certainly hope to in the future. And when that time comes, I hope to know that work can’t ever come first.
In my professional life, my overarching long-term goal is to be a good leader at MFW or any organizations I may be involved with down the road. Going back to my accounting days, hard work is sometimes a vital ingredient toward being a good leader because it sets a good tone and culture. It shouldn’t be the only ingredient, but it’s one instilled in me.
Generally being a good leader, a good employee and citizen are all my long-term goals. If you do these things, I think success is inevitable.
Really appreciate your time, Mike!
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