Sept. 2013 Man of the Month: Stephen Chipman

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CEO, Grant Thornton LLP

On average, the majority of those in the workforce stay at their job an average of only 4.6 years, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. So when someone stays with a company 32 years, that’s pretty impressive. Beginning his career at Grant Thornton at age 18, Stephen Chipman, now 51, has worked his way up the proverbial career ladder to be CEO of the Chicago-based U.S. accounting firm. Another impressive feat?

“I went skydiving, which is contrary to the view people have of being an accountant,” shares Mr. Chipman. “The other day someone asked, ‘What’s on your bucket list? Skydiving?’ I said, ‘Actually, I already crossed that one off.’”

Growing up in Southwest England, Stephen Chipman started his career with Grant Thornton International Ltd – a global, independent audit, tax and advisory firm. “After I became a chartered accountant, I wanted to get an overseas experience,” he recalls, “and was fortunate to go on a two-year assignment to the U.S. I haven’t worked full-time in the U.K. since.” And Mr. Chipman, who became a partner at age 30, hasn’t known any other profession.

“What attracted me to Grant Thornton was the opportunity for different responsibilities within the company,” he explains. “I traveled to 19 different countries, spending time in India, Pakistan, Korea, all the way down to Southeast Asia, and opened our practice in China and Vietnam. The stimulation of that variety – culturally and professionally – has played an important part in keeping me fresh, excited and engaged about my job.”

Mr. Chipman also says the professional qualifications and experiences he acquired as an accountant helped him understand the inner workings of various industries and prepared him to lead the company, becoming CEO of the Chicago-based U.S. firm in 2009. “I moved to Chicago right in the teeth of the financial crisis,” he recalls. “It was a dramatic and challenging time to take the mantle.”

Accounting isn’t a profession that attracts large numbers of women. However, at Grant Thornton about 50 percent of new-hires are women. “We’re doing pretty well in terms of the pipeline into the profession,” Mr. Chipman observes, “but to do better in advancing women into leadership roles, we formed the ‘Women at Grant Thornton’ initiative 10 years ago. I’m happy to say that this past summer more than a third of the employees promoted to partners and managing directors were women.”

Mr. Chipman also says Grant Thornton is focused on flexible work arrangements and role models to promote the advancement of women in accounting. “Role models are really important,” he affirms. “I hear that a lot when we talk to our female professionals, so two years ago we started a sponsorship program where we took senior partners and connected them with our high-performing female senior managers to provide more than just mentorship, but advocacy for female professionals. I took on a sponsorship myself with a young lady based here in Chicago, and she was one of the women who was promoted to partner this past summer.”

Voted one of the best places to work in Chicago by Crain’s Chicago Business this year, Mr. Chipman says Grant Thornton has a very deliberate, intentional focus on the experience they provide employees. “It’s a pretty simple thought process,” he says. “When you’re in professional service firms, your ability to provide and differentiate an experience for your clients is directly correlated to the experience your employees are having. We look at these important recognitions [like being named one of the best places to work by Crain’s], as an outcome of respecting our employees, rewarding them for their contributions and helping them to truly make a difference.”

Even in Mr. Chipman’s family life, accounting comes into play. “I married an American, another accountant actually,” he says smiling. “We adopted two little girls from China who are now in sixth and eighth grade.” When asked if he hopes his daughters follow in their parents’ accounting footsteps, Mr. Chipman thoughtfully answered: “Like every parent, you want your children to find their own path. But growing up around the firm, they’ll obviously have a lot more exposure to this business than any other. I try and help them understand the basics of business, and I think that will stand them in good stead, whatever they choose to do.”

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About Carrie Williams

Carrie Williams is TCW's managing/digital editor. She manages day-to-day editorial operations of the monthly print publication, website and social media outlets, contributes to a variety of feature articles and directs a team of interns, freelance writers and bloggers. In early 2013, she led the redesign of TCWmag.com/restructure of TCW's brand strategy. Her blog, "Carrie On," is a blog of reflection and discovery, discussing how to push through life when you’re handed one too many curveballs. And finally, Ms. Williams is also executive director of the TCW Foundation, a 501(c)(3) non-profit supporting underfunded women's and children's organizations.