My mother-in-law used to say, “Harold, you are never satisfied.” She was right. Even today at age 84, I feel somewhat inadequate if I am not improving something. I attribute my successes in life to that “itchy” feeling, as well as to the skills that accounting gave me.
I was raised on a tenant farm in northeast Indiana. I got my first exposure to accounting as a payroll clerk in the military. After the service, I enrolled through the GI Bill in the International Business College in Fort Wayne, Ind., where I took to accounting like a duck takes to water.
My first job after college was as a cost estimator for Fruehauf Trailers. Although the company was fair-sized, I wanted a broader insight into business, so I went to work for a public accounting firm, where, after a couple of years, I began to get invitations from companies to join their financial departments. I finally took a position as CFO for a mining-supply company in Warsaw, Ind. The job was good, and the salary lucrative, but I had a longing to return to public accounting, so after 10 years I left to become a partner in a firm in Muncie, Ind. It was there that I met Jack Buckles, a business lawyer, and John Fisher, who worked for Ball Corp. and would later become its CEO. They became my trusted advisers and mentors.
One day in 1967, John told me Bowling Green Rubber Co., a small factory in Paris, Tenn., was for sale. He would put up $90,000. I just had to invest $60,000. The books looked good, and I trusted my ability to make a go of the business, but I didn’t have any money. Undaunted, I talked with a banker in Paris. The bank didn’t want the town to lose the factory, so it lent me the entire amount.
I didn’t know anything about rubber, but I knew I could learn. I took a correspondence course in chemistry to find out more about rubber polymers. I studied, and I hired creative people who could figure out applications for those polymers, which we sold to the automotive industry. We kept improving our products and gained a reputation for being innovative. As a result, the company grew. When I bought the rubber company, which we renamed Plumley Cos., it had 35 employees and sales of about $600,000 a year. When my four sons, who helped build the business, and I sold it to Dana Corp. in 1995, we had more than 1,200 employees in six locations, and sales of more than $100 million a year.
Accounting gave me the skills to make good decisions. I was fascinated with risk/reward ratios, and relied on them to spot investment opportunities. For example, I bought and sold farms and businesses, and helped start a bank with $7 million. It now has assets in excess of $500 million.
One of the best investments I made came after selling Plumley Cos. I decided to take my cattle operation to Florida (I have always had a cattle farm) to breed bulls. The farm I bought abutted a thoroughbred horse farm, whose owners wanted to sell. They pestered me to buy them out. I didn’t know anything about thoroughbreds, but my risk/reward assessment indicated this would be a good investment, and I could learn the business. We revamped everything and eventually had more than 500 horses that we bred, trained and sold.
One of my proudest moments was when a horse I had bred, Dubai Majesty, was voted an Eclipse Award, an “Academy Award for horses” given to the breeder, for the $1.5 million she won at the race track. Only 12 horses among the 34,000 born each year get this award, so you can understand why I am proud of her and her racing history.
I’ve had a long career, which has been supported by my loving wife of 61 years, Opal, our four sons, and the two mentors I mentioned. I’m winding down now, but I will follow the advice I would give any young CPA: Study and research. I am always searching for that idea or situation that can make a great improvement not only in my life but in the lives of those around me.
—As told to Linda Segall, firstname.lastname@example.org,
a freelance writer from Jacksonville, Fla.
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