Rare Career Path: CPA, JD, CFO

How an accountant's detour through law school led him to a dream job in finance.

The year was 1992. Richard Ramos, age 30, already had survived more than eight years of long days at KPMG, but with the partnership track lengthening at public accounting firms at that time, the payoff still seemed further off than he cared for.

Jumping to a different firm might have helped him reach partnership sooner. But while working on what he calls a KPMG “swat team” for an international client that was acquiring a number of U.S. businesses, a new idea jelled. The work involved interaction with M&A attorneys, and Ramos began to observe that the legal and financial aspects of the projects fit together snugly, like puzzle pieces. How attractive would he be to corporate employers if he added legal training to his accounting background?

Plenty, he figured — enough that his new long-term goal became to one day land a CFO job. All that stood in his way were three years of law school, then practicing law for a few years, then finding a corporate job, then working his way up to CFO.

Fast forward less than six years, and it was mission accomplished — with the help of a shortcut. Not only did Ramos take a most unusual route through law school on his way to a CFO chair, he achieved an even rarer feat: His very first corporate title was CFO.

Going to law school was a plan that took a lot of nerve. “I gave up a lot,” Ramos says now from his post as finance chief at St. Louis-based Maritz Inc., a privately held company whose services for corporations include incentive travel and other employee motivation programs, meeting and event planning, and customer research. The time he spent in law school was “three very valuable years of income,” he notes. Luckily, his wife had completed two master’s degrees and was able to support them with her job as director of information technology for a healthcare organization.

 RickRamosMaritz Inc. CFO Rick Ramos didn’t like practicing law, but the experience has given him a unique perspective when assessing the potential risks and benefits of a proposed strategy or transaction.

Ramos’ confidence that he was on an ultimately fruitful track was grounded in his work experience at KPMG. “Many times the M&A counsel would make judgments about accounting matters based on personal experiences versus true expertise,” he says. “For example, how an acquisition would be treated for accounting purposes, or certain inventory-method differences between two companies, might affect results going forward. Certainly a deeper understanding of that — one that I knew I could provide — would have been beneficial.”

His work experience also proved helpful at St. Louis University School of Law. “There is a different work ethic between college and law school that everyone has to discover, but I had already experienced it at KPMG,” he says. “I treated it like a job, which is way different from the way the 22-year-olds treated it. I would leave in the morning like I was going to work, show up at school at 8 a.m. and put in a long day. It gave me an advantage.”

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