insight magazine

IN Play: Q&A With Mary K. Fuller, CPA

From ice cream server to CPA firm managing partner, Mary K. Fuller, CPA, shares her steps to decades of success. By ERIC SCOTT | Summer 2019

Fuller-watercolor-310Mary K. Fuller, CPA, considers herself a people person. Caring about her colleagues and the clients her firm serves has always been the priority in her career. This is a trait that her clients know well, as Mary shares a story from years ago.

“We had a long time client who thought he needed to switch to a larger accounting firm to serve his business as it grew. He tried to fire me, but also told me how much he enjoyed working with me because of the personal touch I/our firm offered. I told him we could do everything the larger firms could but with the personal attention he might not experience elsewhere.”

Fuller’s “personal touch” and focus on people have been the constant in her 37-year career at Shepard Schwartz & Harris (SS&H), a CPA and business advisory firm in Chicago. She started at the firm after graduating from the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) and is now the managing partner. She also recently began her first term as a member of the Illinois CPA Society’s board of directors. Given her success, it’s fair to say that her career path has come a long way from the days of serving ice cream at her first job, though the life and career lessons she learned then still ring true.

Q: Serving ice cream sounds like a pretty sweet gig?

During high school, I was a waitress and hostess at Maloney’s ice cream parlor at Oak Mill Mall in my hometown of Niles, Ill. Working there taught me the importance of customer service and the value of how to interact with people in a way that made them feel welcomed. I learned how to work with different personalities and developed people skills that I carried throughout my career.

Q: So, when did accounting come to mind?

I took an accounting class in high school and really liked it. I thought it might be something I wanted to pursue, so I took more accounting classes when I got to college. It was my dad who eventually influenced me to consider accounting as a career, even though he was not an accountant.

Q: Can you tell us about your career path since then?

While I was in college, I also worked at LaSalle Partners (now JLL) in their property management accounting department. I learned a great deal about basic accounting, how it worked, and how to follow through. This gave me a good baseline but after I graduated from UIC, I decided I wanted to gain public accounting experience, so I interviewed with Mr. Harris at SS&H.

When I first started at SS&H, I was on the audit track but shifted to tax since many of my clients at the time had more need in tax than financial statements. The firm also took advantage of my prior property management real estate accounting experience and sent me to real estate clients, which further developed my area of expertise.

While working full-time, I was married and started a family. After my daughter was born, I asked if I could return to work on a part-time basis instead of giving up my career, which was unheard of more than 30 years ago. I embraced the opportunity and worked three days a week while raising my daughters. I was determined to be successful. The hard work paid off — I continued to work my way up from staff to supervisor and eventually manager.

Q: What’s kept you at one firm for so long?

I truly care about the people who work for us and it’s one of the biggest reasons I was asked to fill my current position. I enjoy sharing my knowledge with them, being on their side, and helping them become successful. I also care tremendously about our clients and their businesses, which range from family businesses to privately held companies and high net worth individuals. SS&H has been around for almost 85 years and we’ve been successful as a firm because we put our clients first.

Q: You’ve also been an ICPAS member for a long time. Why is that important to you?

I’ve been a member for more than 30 years, and I’m honored to join the board and serve my first term this year. I love this profession and want to give back to the community. I care about the young professionals starting their careers and I want to be an inspiration to them.

Q: What career advice do you have for today’s CPAs?

Several things come to mind.

1. Raise your hand for the challenge. When you see something that’s important, volunteer to do it; don’t wait to be asked or you might miss out on a great opportunity.

2. It’s important to be in the moment. Be engaged in the conversation, know your audience, and actively listen.

3. Make connections with people and actually follow-up with them instead of just collecting business cards. You never know where the next business opportunity will come from or who your next client will be.

4. It’s becoming a big part of our profession, so stay in tune with the latest technological advancements impacting our industry and seek opportunity to continue learning.

5. Finally, volunteer. Join organizations and committees because you want to make a difference. Don’t do it to build your resume.

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