Rare Career Path: CPA, JD, CFO

How an accountant's detour through law school led him to a dream job in finance.
David McCannApril 23, 2008

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.”

In addition to his wife’s job, Ramos’ income stream during his law-school years included some freelance work for former accounting clients and, after completing his second year, a part-time job at a local law firm. After graduating in 1995, the firm elevated him to full-time status.

The unhappy part of the story is that Ramos hated practicing law, even though he spent most of his time on the familiar M&A beat. “It was tough,” he says. “It was a difficult job requiring a lot of work. It was a minimum of six days a week, often seven, and usually 12- to 14-hour days. It was a training ground for getting a lot of work done in a short amount of time.”

Also tough to take was that, at 33, he found himself “back at the bottom of the totem poll” at his job. Worse, his starting salary was almost 40 percent less than what he made his last year at KPMG. But he doggedly viewed lawyering as a necessary step in his career plan. “I always had my eye out for the future,” he says. “That’s what kept me going.”

Ramos had no fixed date for making the transition to the corporate world. He continually networked, letting people know of his intentions so they could help him keep an eye out for opportunities. And about two and a half years after he joined the law firm, a former colleague at KPMG recommended that a client, Purcell Tire & Rubber Co., consider Ramos for its CFO opening. It did, and Ramos got the job, which also included being the company’s general counsel.

“It was the exact thing I was looking for,” he says of privately held Purcell, a tire distribution company based an hour and a half south of St. Louis, with, at that time, about $200 million in annual sales. “I was able to use both my CPA and legal backgrounds. I was in charge of finance, legal, insurance — everything except the manufacturing and distribution operations. It was a great way to jump into the corporate world.” He was especially thrilled that for the first time in his career, he didn’t have to keep track of billable hours.

After three years at Purcell, Ramos landed a job in September 2000 as CFO of the research company at Maritz. His commuting time went from 80 minutes to 10, a huge quality-of-life benefit. After a couple years, Maritz’s longtime CFO set a retirement date for a few years in the future, and in preparation, the company restructured its finance operation so that all the finance officers of the various business units would report up through a newly created position directly under the CFO. Ramos was given that position.

He became CFO of Maritz on April 1, 2006. Much of his time during the first year was spent buying out the shares in the closely-held company owned by Maritz family members and concentrating ownership in one family member, then working out a new financing plan for the company going forward. “That project has been incredibly successful, and we’ve been able to do it and remain debt-free,” he says, adding that his is a “really good job.”

While Ramos didn’t like practicing law, he says his legal experience informs his CFO duties every day in tremendously valuable ways. “It’s about knowing the inter-relationships between the financial decisions you make and what the legal consequences are, and being aware enough to raise legal issues earlier in a decision-making process,” he says.

The legal mindset is different from the financial one, Ramos notes. “To a large extent law is about risk aversion,” he says. “A lawyer tends to advise you toward the decision that is most risk-averse. As a finance chief, you’re looking at opportunities and trying to maximize the value of the company in everything you do. With my background, I can see both sides and balance the risk with the opportunity, see when a risk is worth taking or not taking. And I can decipher better and faster what I’m being told by counsel.”

His legal experience is especially helpful in negotiations. “You know all the implications of the terms and representations you’re making, both legally and financially. It’s more of a ‘one throat to choke’ situation,” he says.

In a recent example, when evaluating a potential acquisition, Ramos noticed that terms of the proposed deal “did not appear to square with inventory turns and receivables days. That became a focus of our acquisition negotiations, versus waiting until due diligence found the matter.”

Two years after becoming Maritz’s CFO, Ramos says that what motivates him day to day is winning. “I like to win,” he says. “It can be a small win, like winning a project bid, or a big one, like having a record-breaking earnings year.”

After planning and executing such an ambitious and unusual career path, Ramos says he’s content to stay where he is. He has no desire to test the public-company waters. “We’ve done a lot of good things here, but there is a lot more we can do.”