Growing up in the small, rural town of St. Albans, W.Va., I didn’t foresee any future beyond that of my family of nine. My father was a self-employed bricklayer, and my mother made $6 a day cleaning houses. I worked alongside both of them, plus milked cows and did everything else on a farm. I had just turned 16 in 1968 when my father passed away. He had no insurance other than the $200 we got from the government because he had been in World War II.
One day a few months later, my mother handed me a letter and asked me what it meant. It was a foreclosure notice on our home. The payment was $25 a month. We had no money and our electricity was turned off. I went to the principal of my high school, and he helped me make out a budget and taught me how to negotiate the loan and go to the Veterans Administration to file for my father’s death benefit.
He also gave me an honors certificate and asked me, “Do you want to go to college?” I hardly knew what to say. No one in my family had ever been to college. No one around us had been to college. But when he explained the advantages I would gain, I said, “Yes, I would love to.”
My mother was happy for me but worried about how we were going to survive. I went to Marshall University in Huntington because it was only 33 miles away and I could catch the bus home each weekend and work, cleaning offices and churches. As soon as I graduated, I paid off the remaining $900 on our house and gave my mother the title.
I started out majoring in education. Why? It was the only thing I knew. OK, I thought, you can make a good living being a math teacher. But I quickly learned that I didn’t have the patience for teaching children. Instead, I took an accounting class and loved it. I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in business administration specializing in accounting. I worked for the WV Water Works Co., then moved to Atlanta and worked 10 years for National Cash Register as a financial specialist. Meanwhile, I got married and had two children.
One day, I realized my career wasn’t going anywhere. I was doing a good job and I always got great performance reviews, but I was getting turned down to be in a management position. I decided to get my CPA. I started studying and passed the CPA exam at age 42. And that’s when my career took off.
I started at Thomas Concrete as an accountant 20 years ago and moved up to general accounting manager and controller, and now I’m the company CFO. We’ve grown to become one of the largest concrete companies in the Southeast, with over 49 plants in Georgia and the Carolinas.
I’m on the board of the Georgia Society of CPAs and participate in the AICPA’s CPA Ambassador program, which trains CPAs for public speaking and media interviews. I guess I’d always felt a little shy and never thought people listened to me, maybe from my childhood experiences. But the trainers said I speak with heartfelt truthfulness, and that made me feel good.
My son and daughter are ages 28 and 30, and both are in a business field and pursuing MBAs. And all but one of my seven brothers and sisters have been to college now. One of them, one year younger than I, is going to get her doctorate. Now that I’ve completed my MBA, she’s trying to convince me to go for my doctorate as well.
When I speak in classrooms or at my church, I don’t just want to give them information; I want them to feel that I’m talking to them sincerely and honestly. I want them to understand how I got where I am through perseverance and others’ help, and for them to remember that when you get there, don’t forget who helped you get there. Don’t forget your roots.
—As told to Paul Bonner