I was shocked today to hear that a dear friend, and previous partner of mine when I was at Rutherfords, died suddenly last Friday. He was in the prime of his life.
I’m writing this piece for three reasons. First, Don King’s life was a life to be acknowledged and celebrated. Secondly, his passing is a sober reminder of how important it is for us to use our time and talent to best effect. And thirdly, I want to share a couple of important life lessons from my relationship with him.
Don will be remembered not for his skill as an accountant (which was considerable) but for the positive impact he had on the people he came in contact with. The thing I admired most about Don was the fact that he had a very tough background as a child and had good reason to carry a chip on his shoulder. But he rose above that and through determination and hard work carved out a very successful professional career. He had a wicked sense of humor but always took life, work, family and friendships seriously.
At Principa we talk about the need for professional offices to have serious fun – he totally understood and was a master practitioner of that concept. I doubt that there were many days when he didn’t look forward to coming to work, when I was at the firm anyway, and not for that reason! And I doubt if there were ever any people in the office who did not enjoy having him around.
I first met him as a student in one of my classes at the College I was teaching at in the latter part of the 70’s. He was quietly competent. Quite, because he was not someone who felt the need to talk unless he had something useful to contribute. Competent, because he took his work seriously and he consistently got top grades.
After I left teaching and went into public practice he approached me about working with my firm. Unfortunately we had just made an offer to another person otherwise I would have hired him in a heartbeat.
Right after Don called I got call from Jim McKerlie who was one of the partners in our biggest competitor at the time—Rutherfords. I had supervised Jim’s research thesis for his post grad degree when I was at the University of New England so I knew him well, I had a very high regard for his ability and I liked him a lot. He asked if we had any good candidates for the position we’d advertised who would be worth hiring. Big dilemma: Don is looking for a job and is extremely competent as well as deserving of the opportunity; Jim is a friend looking for a good team member—but he is also a competitor so do I really want to give him another competitive weapon? Why can’t life decisions always be easy?
The first life lesson I learned from this experience is simple. My father always said when confronted with tough decisions do what your heart says is the right thing and everything will work out. The right thing was to put Don and Jim together so I did. Don joined Rutherfords, he and the firm were a great fit and he eventually became the Managing Partner who guided the firm through a massive period of transition and expansion as part of the WHK Group – a public company and one of the few successful listed accounting firms in the world.
My father was right. When you do the right thing, good things come back to you. After Don joined Rutherfords our two firms became closer, largely because Jim and I shared a common vision about the emerging “modern” practice. Within two years (I can’t remember precisely) I joined Rutherfords and Don took over responsibility for the accounting and tax work of the clients I brought to the firm.
It was through Rutherfords that I met Paul Dunn and it was with Paul Dunn that I started Results Accountants’ Systems and have been privileged to work with thousands of wonderful people for that past 20 years. It’s interesting to contemplate whether any of this would have happened had I chosen not to put Jim and Don together. He may have joined Rutherfords, our firms may have merged, I may have met Paul Dunn but who knows?
Don remained my right hand man throughout my time at Rutherfords and did all of my work after I retired from practice. The practice lesson I learned here is that if you have a good guy on the ground YOU do not need to be the person who “does the work.” Delegation is crucial for practice growth. If you’re having difficulty delegating it’s because you don’t have the right people, you don’t do enough training, your ego is too big, or you’re concept of practice contribution is misdirected.
And now to the second life lesson. For as long as I can remember I have been talking to anyone willing to listen about the idea that those of us who are fortunate enough to be in public practice have considerable scope to choose what we do, with whom we do it and for whom we do it. Don’s passing reminds me how important it is to follow your passion and make life choices that allow you to make the contribution you were put on this earth to accomplish and to enjoy life while you do that.
If you really don’t like what you’re doing stop doing it or make a choice to fix it! There will always come a time in your life when you will ask yourself the question: have I made the best use of my time and talent? Given that you are going to ask yourself this question at some time, it’s a good idea to ask it when you can actually do something about it not when it’s too late. I think Don asked and responded to that question early in his life.
So here’s some advice that I’m sure Don would agree with: live life fully, do work you enjoy doing, work with clients and team members you respect and like. Love your family, be a nice person and have fun.