The Last Word: Ralph Bender

BY CHERYL ROSEN

  

RALPH BENDER, CPA
CFO, Manship Media Group, Baton Rouge, La.
Board member,
Capital Area United Way, Boy Scouts of America,
Girl Scouts of America, Junior Achievement,
Jewish Federation Endowment Fund, Better Business Bureau,
Baton Rouge Symphony Orchestra, International Newspaper
Financial Executives. Member, Society of Louisiana CPAs
Business and Industry, CPE and Human Resource committees.

Hurricane Katrina changed my life. My wife Edie is from New Orleans, so like most of us here in Baton Rouge, we have family members who’ve moved in semipermanently. It’s almost akin to the stories my Daddy tells about the Depression, how family members would come live with them for a while when they had nowhere else to go. We have my in-laws and my 27-year-old son who was in grad school in New Orleans, and periodically friends stay here when they come through to check on things and then go back to wherever they are living now.

The Louisiana Society of CPAs has done unbelievable things to help salvage the situation here after Hurricane Katrina. And of course the United Way has been trying to help raise and distribute funds to the service organizations. This hurricane came at a horrible time. We were in the middle of the annual United Way campaign—and then suddenly nobody wanted to think about anything but Katrina. Millions are being raised for Katrina victims—and trust me, they need it desperately—but so many local organizations are struggling because they’ve lost their core funding. I’m on the board of the Boy Scouts of a 13-parish area; we’re right in the middle of our biggest fundraiser, our annual popcorn sale, and it’s dead. The same is true for the Girl Scouts and Junior Achievement. We still have to provide the same services to our children and to thousands of additional children from New Orleans. Our United Way campaign is running far below where it usually is at this time of year, and so many agencies rely on us. I stay up nights worrying about what will happen to them if we come up $2 million short. It’s just a nightmare.

Right after Katrina, when people were looking for family in New Orleans, the Jewish Federation got some members of the community together, made lists of people who were missing and maps of the flooded area, and headed into New Orleans with a search and rescue team from New York to bring people out. I went on one mission with a red-haired Irish cop named O’Connell and an Orthodox Jew with a beard and side curls. In addition to saving people they went into the synagogues and saved 21 Torah scrolls, though of course that wasn’t as important as human lives.

My Daddy was an oil man. I was born in Texas but grew up mostly in Louisiana. I went to LSU and then worked at Ernst. Then I joined Postlethwaite & Netterville, where I got my training for life. It’s one of the greatest firms; if I had to go back to public accounting I’d go there without blinking an eye. Edie and I grew up in homes where charity and respect for all people were very important. P&N had that same environment. It was about more than accounting; it was important to them that I be active in the community.

After P&N I came to work for the Manship family media company as internal auditor and tax manager. I had two small children at the time and was foolish enough to think that the hours in industry would be better than those in public accounting. But this company has that same family atmosphere I am comfortable in. I’ve been CFO since 1991.

A good CFO has to look at more than just the numbers; you need to look into the future. There’s been so much cost-cutting in the newspaper business, and of course it’s important to be fiscally responsible. But I don’t know anybody who’s saved themselves into prosperity. You need to focus on serving the people you work with as well as the people in the community. You have to be willing to make unpopular stands, to do the right thing. In my case, that’s not difficult because the company recognizes that the value of our organization hinges upon the reputations of the people who make it up.

—As told to Cheryl Rosen

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