A Conversation With... Harold Gaar: He's not your typical managing principal

Not all the key people in a CPA firm are accountants. Take Harold Gaar, for instance. He's the managing principal at TravisWolff, the seventh largest public accounting firm in the Dallas/Fort Worth area of Texas. In 1976 with a political science degree from Southern Methodist University, he went straight from school to a three year executive training program with Belo Corp, a large media company where he gained a broad base of management experience.

Gaar's first 17 years with Belo were spent in investor relations and corporate communications. Then he moved to the corporate side, where he learned finance. After seven years, he returned to operations, this time as the Vice President of retail advertising, heading up sales and reorganizing the sales department.

Finally in 2004 he sized up the future of traditional media and realized that, as the audience began to drop off, the industry was on an inevitable decline. He needed a change, but didn't know what. Through his 28 years at Belo he had created a cushion that allowed him some time to think. So for a year, he puttered around looking for his next venture, even flirting with the possibility of entering the medical field.

Serendipity

When his long-time friend, Ken Travis, asked him to help with some consulting issues at his firm, TravisWolff, Gaar welcomed the new challenge. His diverse training at Belo gave him the experience needed to address a wide variety of organizational issues that TravisWolff was facing. Unlike many accounting firms, TW has a long history of hiring non-accountants. They recognize that business acumen is more important than a specific degree. When TW's managing principal announced that he would soon retire, Gaar began to learn from him. By the time the anticipated retirement happened in 2006, Gaar was ready to step into the position.

What's it like to be a non-accountant in a job typically held only by CPAs? "There's always a learning curve," Gaar admits. But he's proven that it is possible to be effective without having cut his teeth in the accounting industry. As often happens when a new person comes on board, Gaar brought a fresh set of eyes, a new perspective. Now he's part of the management team, and he's the funnel through which all business support passes. "Most business issues are the same, the human issues, the organizational issues, strategy, people development, having a profitable operation." What's different, says Gaar, are the industry specifics.

How did he end up on the path he has taken? To a large extent, it was serendipity. As a student at SMU, he worked on the school paper, which led to his interest in the media. That was followed by nearly three decades of practical experience learning how to deal effectively with business issues. That solid base of experience made him an excellent candidate for TravisWolff.

"The accounting industry is very exciting," says Gaar. "There is a continued demand for services, with nothing standing in the way of continued aggressive growth. Not many industries have that profile." For a forward thinker, that makes accounting very attractive. "It makes you want to come to work every day because you're building something, working on something, helping clients be more profitable."

He also finds excitement in dealing with the challenges of growth, as opposed to the challenges of decline. "At an accounting firm, you work with really bright people. Not many people make partner in an accounting firm without being exceptional. Plus you're working with people who start and run businesses... bright people."

It's exhilarating to go to a job where clients benefit from the advice you give them, explains Gaar. They take your advice and become more successful. When that happens, your firm gets past being an expense to the client, and brings value to the table. That can really make a difference in your outlook.

"Even when the economy dips, TW has never had a year of downturn," he says. At the worst, business might be slower at times, but it's either static or growing, never declining. After all, all businesses need good accountants.

"All we have to sell is peopleā€¦ our biggest product"

If Gaar had one piece of advice for people wanting to get into the accounting field, it would be this: Be open to change. Accounting breeds a form of conservatism, since you apply a consistent set of principles and methodology, but the ability to change is important too. He goes on to say that, to succeed you need to devote a tremendous amount of time to the people in your firm. You need to care about them if you're going to help them develop. You need to give your people feedback, and when necessary, make the tough decisions to let some people go. It's easy, says Gaar, to forget to put in time necessary to attract and retain good people. "All we have to sell is people. That's our biggest product."

Gaar has another piece of advice. He says that the pull of the client is strong. But from a standpoint of running a business, you need to create a structure that focuses on the clients, yet balances your time with focusing on your staff too.

Gaar describes TravisWolff as a "terrific regional public accounting firm." It has tremendous growth potential. It went from number 12 in size in the Dallas-Fort Worth area accounting firms in 2006, to number seven in 2007, according to the Dallas Business Journal. With a shortage of qualified candidates, Gaar says that, like everyone else, recruiting is a challenge. But he'd like to invite good candidates to "knock on his door" if they want to work for a quality firm like TW. "The more good people we have, the faster we can grow."

For Gaar, challenge makes life interesting, not just at work but also in private. When he's not at his desk at TW, you might find him behind the handlebars, enjoying his favorite pastime. He and his wife are what he calls "avid bicyclists." On a recent trip, he left the corporate world behind, long enough to take a bike trip with his wife, through the California wine country and down the coast. It's a beautiful and scenic route, but just like Gaar's career path, it is not a road without challenges... just the way he likes it.


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