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Tom Walker | Tom Walker Jr.

Tom Walker

I was taught that in this life you need a credential. Quite by accident I found it was possible to get a CPA. All you had to do was find an accounting firm that would hire you, last three years and pass the exam. Believe me I was a tough wage negotiator, after I offered repeated wage cuts, they were finally convinced I was cheap enough to take the risk.

My immediate supervisor was a woman. I already had a mother so the thought didn’t thrill me. (Bear in mind things were different in 1965. I can only say that years later the president of a local chapter of a decisively feminist organization approved of my views. My views had changed.)

Well things didn’t go too well. A year went by and I walked into her office asking for a review. Before she could reply, I told her I didn’t understand why I hadn’t been fired. She did agree that I had made many messes, and that I had better stop. Six months later, she left to join her husband’s business and recommended me for her job.

The CPA was 19.5 hours spread over 3 days. At that time the pass rate for people like me was 2%. Each day at lunch breaks, guys were talking over the questions and the answers they gave. I could hardly remember the questions; my answers weren’t anything like theirs. It worked out anyway.

I had my credential and was off to other work. At first that other work came from drowning owners, who seeing no one else on the dock, volunteered me. Mostly things were flying in the 60’s from the guns and butter politics of the time. By the seventies things were beginning to squeeze and I spent a lot more time throwing what we all hoped were lifesavers.

A lot of them worked.

It seemed like each crisis brought up one more thing I didn’t know. They like to call accounting a practice, but crisis consulting was my practice. The owners had it more right, practice it wasn’t. They were paying me for my education.

And education it was: negotiation, forecasting, business plans, computer models, risk mitigation, start-ups, workouts, data systems, arbitrations, statistical analysis, economic models, strategic volatility, pricing timing, chaos theory, capital planning, expansion and start-up funding, on so on.

All this stuff that didn’t apply to small business, but it did. Small business didn’t have enough zero’s for such stuff. For me, starting in 1971, the computer began to change this work. Bit by bit technology carved large chunks out of the cost. Buffet said something to the effect that technology doesn’t reward capital because all the gain goes to the customer. So all this practice, this fancy stuff, became practical for small companies, so practical that now late adopters get rolled without knowing how or why.

It is the greatest time ever for business, especially small business, for by virtue of technology those with the will have a level playing field.

Biography?

Born in 1944, Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis, graduating from the same high school as Jesse Ventura. Rumors float back to me that I’ve sold-out, retired or died. So far, none of them is true.



Tom Walker | Tom Walker Jr.

Tom Walker Jr.

A lot of bad things don’t have to happen. If I can characterize my career for the past decade in a sentence, that is the sentence.

I started work for my dad in 1989, right out of college (Northwestern College, Roseville, magna cum laude – the designation being one of my few claims to fame). Two decades is probably too long to work for anyone, but aside from my general irritability, I can say I look forward to going to work every morning.

I guess I am an independent consultant, in common parlance. Economist-for hire sounds much cooler, and the label is especially valid because one of our clients thought it up. Don’t argue with the marketplace, I say. I used the term reluctantly at first: to me, a “real” economist is exemplified by some giant like Milton Friedman or Freidrich Hayek. My training was finance, and once upon a time I even did a few (blessedly, very few) tax returns.

Part of the joy in this job is disproving the things that everybody knows, but aren’t necessarily so. That actually characterizes the psychology of the boom/bust cycle neatly. The boom is on when there is broad agreement, or something more like enthusiasm, that things are a certain way. When they aren’t that way, and everyone is forced to admit it, you have a bust. Finding out that you’re wrong at this point in time is pretty expensive research when you have money riding on a presumed state of affairs.

Tom Sr.’s career, to my way of thinking, evolved around these events and helping people who had lost much but still held on to their peculiar genius and their integrity pick up the pieces and then repair and thrive once again. This can be done, and he continues to do it. But it is difficult, expensive, and the emotional damage is never really repaired. His own genius was seeing a way out of situations that everyone thought irreparable. It was rational, and I’ve played a supporting role in some of these, but his abilities always looked akin to alchemy.

When you find that things aren’t as they seem, and that this results in expensive adjustments, it occurs to you that maybe you can find these things out beforehand. And this has been my career. It takes genius to recreate a mortally wounded firm, but it takes dogged irritability and some facility with statistics, math, logic, finance, and spreadsheets to avoid the wound in the first place.

An awful lot of the time what is wrong with the economy at any given point in time can be inferred from a process of ongoing analysis and planning on behalf of a single firm. That is what I do; planning is too narrow a description, but in assessing the future – what else is any thinking in business about, anyway – one comes to assess competing scenarios, to create artful comparisons, in advance of committing resources to a course. It isn’t that entrepreneurs don’t know what they want, but rather that in the complexity of firms that have been around for a few years, particularly those with heavy capital demands, the implications of what one wants take a bit more thought and give-and-take than one mind can encompass. As iron sharpens iron…

In making these judgments, we get to a firm-level understanding of what things are expensive, and which ones are cheap. Placing your bets on this standard pretty routinely gets you on the winning side of economy at large. People will ask you, “How did you know?” Of course, you didn’t, but you did have your suspicions.

I like my clients to be as sure as is possible in this life to win on the small bets [what works for their firm]. On the large bets [the economy at large], I like them to have losses that don’t hurt and wins that set them up for decades. This is the nature of economic consulting for small, privately held firms.

I don’t know how I got here, really. I started college as an accounting major, back in the days when although professional firms already used computers, it seemed to have not yet dawned on the accounting profs*. My first love was music, although it seemed to me that maybe I wasn’t cut out for that lifestyle. The sheer tedium of accounting drove me to management studies, although fortunately I had the doggedness to get through intermediate and cost accounting (invaluable to anyone who needs to grasp finance). Management was mostly the obscure statement of the otherwise obvious.

Once upon a time my dad’s firm was an accountancy, although his personality and Johnny-on-the-spot way of handling crises on behalf of his clients made it a strange accounting firm indeed. Strange enough to help me decide I could work here, a frustrated musician who found accounting tedious, instead of taking some finance job downtown.

Before I knew what was going on – and professionally, how many of us really know what’s going on until we’re thirty – my dad had me plugged into various business planning routines — primitive by our standards today — he had instituted. I liked the work, learned spreadsheets with the help of a former colleague (and a real math genius), and sort of grew up with that software.

So here I am. By professional development, an economist; by college training, a finance geek; and, I might add, no longer a frustrated musician. I still play, but by some surprising circumstances that I won’t try to describe here, find myself playing professionally in my off hours. Why not full time? Well first, I like my job; and second, not since 1750 have any courts employed a full-time lutenist; the music jobs pay for strings, my kid’s own music lessons, and the occasional case of Bordeaux.

I can’t say that if music paid and this job didn’t, I still wouldn’t do both.

If you want to know about the lute, and more apropos here, about how economics apply to small business as more than just another irresolvable inconvenience, talk to me.

*With one notable exception, who if he is reading this, probably knows who he is.