December 17th, 2009 | 1:00 pm

Voice of Experience: Renee Pendleton, CPA, Partner, Cherry, Bekaert & Holland

filed under Voices of Experience

ReneePendletonBy Pamela Weinsaft (New York City)

Renee Pendleton had a steady babysitting job in college. That wouldn’t necessarily distinguish her from many others her age. But how many babysitters parlay advice from their employer into a successful career path?

“I had wanted to be a controller in a small company but, he convinced me to try public accounting first because, if I didn’t like it, I could always go to a private company. But it would be difficult to go into public accounting if I did it the other way.” She followed the advice with the intention to “get in, stay for two years and get out,” but decided to stay at the end of that period to learn a bit more. “Now, here I am 22 years later, still in public accounting,” she said, laughing, “And I blame that guy to this day.”

Raised in Portsmouth, Virginia, Pendleton started off majoring in psychology at Old Dominion University. She intended to learn to help people with their problems; however, after one semester of psychology, “I thought, these people are out of their minds. I just don’t get it!”

Seeking a new path, Pendleton recalled a high school accounting class in which she did very well. “Everything just made sense. In accounting, everything balances. And I found that, in the end, I am still helping people with their problems – it is just a different problem.”

Making Career Progress

She progressed from a junior year on-campus interview with Frederick B. Hill and Co. to a year-long internship during her senior year. “It really impressed me,” said Pendleton, “that 3 out of the 10 partners in the firm were women,” something that was rare in public accounting in the late 1980s. She remained with the firm for 9½ years. Pendleton recalled, “It was a great place to work with a pretty calm environment for public accounting. They didn’t require the hellacious hours that many other firms required and I got a well-rounded experience there doing both audit and tax work.”

In 1997, the partner in charge of Failes and Associates, an 80-person regional firm approached her. They were looking to expand and wanted someone with an audit background. Pendleton hesitated: “It took me about six months to even agree to interview with him because I was happy where I was. Finally, my husband reminded me that it wouldn’t hurt to go to talk with them and that [Frederick B. Hill and Co.] was so small [25 people] there wasn’t much room for advancement. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that I was not really growing there; I was sort of stuck. So I took the leap.”

Pendleton’s leap was scary. “For the first six months I thought, what in the heck have I done? These people are working me to death. Coming in as a manager, I had a lot to prove. I had a couple of people come up to me and say that they didn’t want me to be hired and they should be the managers. “I am very much a people person and my extroversion is one of my best traits. I hate it when people don’t like me. It was a difficult year for me.”

Still, Pendleton added, being underestimated was worse than not being liked. A female partner at her former firm offered the following as Pendleton was leaving Frederick B. Hill and Co.: ‘I’ve heard about those firms; they work you to death. I just don’t think you are going to be able to handle the pressure since you’ve worked for us for all these years. If you ever want to come back, just call us.’ Pendleton continued, “As she walked out of my office, she said, ‘I think we are going to hear from you. I think you’ll be back.’ And I thought, ‘Over my dead body.’”

That parting shot kept Pendleton from jumping ship and swimming back to the safe harbor of Frederick B. Hill. “[That partner] did me a tremendous favor. It was the best decision I ever made because, five years ago, Cherry, Bekaert & Holland, into which Failes and Associates merged in 2000, ultimately bought out Frederick B. Hill and Co.”

The acquisition lead to a bit of an awkward situation: Pendleton had to supervise an accountant who had been her supervisor when she interned at Hill. “It was very uncomfortable at first for both of us but finally I took her to lunch to talk about it. I would much rather deal with the issue and have the conversation then to just have this giant elephant in the room, especially as this was a situation that was not going to change. I talked about the requirements to be partner in the firm and whether she even wanted that. It all worked out [because] we have a mutual respect.”

Work-Life Balance at the Senior Level

Pendleton has also used her skills to deal with work-life balance issues. “I told my boss two months before I became pregnant that I wanted to work towards partner. When I told him I was pregnant, the first thing out of his mouth was, ‘Thank God, we’re making you a partner then.’ In public accounting, a woman will often work her way up, but not quite reach the senior level [with its greater flexibility], then quit when she has a child. My firm was very happy to make me a partner while I was pregnant because, they figured, ‘Now you won’t go anywhere after the baby is born.’”

Pendleton’s experience as a mother has been beneficial to the firm in other ways. She explained, “I think that becoming a mother has made me a better manager. I’ll be the first to admit that I worked really hard as a senior manager; it was nothing for me to put in 70 to 80 hours a week during tax season. Thus, my mentality for a long time was: if you are not willing to do it, the next person would. While I respected the ability of women who had children, I knew they couldn’t give the time I felt they needed to in order to be respected as a manager. I’m definitely more empathetic to people’s work-life balance and having a life outside the office.”

She continued, “While I still do believe that people who don’t have families and children do put more time at the office so they probably do deserve to advance faster, I also realized you can do both at a certain level. I feel like I’m a good role model for managers who are thinking about going into our program for senior managers and partners. They see that you can be married and have children and still be a partner in the firm. For a long time, we didn’t have a lot of that.”

In addition to her accounting responsibilities, Pendleton spends about 35% of her time on personnel issues in the office’s audit department. “It is something I love to do and I do it well. [And the results of my efforts], our turnover rate is a lot lower than that of the firm in general, as well as the industry average [which is about 30%].”

Women in Accounting: Overcoming Challenges

Pendleton is matter-of-fact about challenges facing women in accounting. “There is still that barrier. There are still men who would rather deal with other men than a woman. You have to be cognizant of the fact that you are not going to be their buddy. You [as a woman] are not going to be invited out for drinks or to the golf tournament nor would it be appropriate in many situations. In other words, you are not going win a male business associate over by socializing. So you really have to sell yourself on your technical abilities, on how good you are as a technical resource to them.”

Pendleton loves the industry just as much today as she did when she started over two decades ago. “It is a very demanding job. It is very time-consuming. It is fast-paced and deadline-driven. I love the variety of it, the different people and the ability to learn about different types of businesses.”

“It is sort of like golf. You are frustrated, frustrated and frustrated and then you hit that one good shot and you walk away thinking ‘I want to do this again tomorrow.’ I leave here some days thinking they pay me way too much for doing this awesome job.”

1 comment

  1. xiaowen

    I leave here some days thinking they pay me way too much for doing this awesome job.