By Curtis Dinan
“Where do you see yourself in five years? 10? 25?”
Most students dread that question in an interview, yet as I walked down Drury Lane for the last time as a student, I thought I knew exactly where my future path would lead. It was May 1989, I was graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in business administration and accounting, and I had a career in public accounting with Arthur Andersen & Co. awaiting me in Tulsa. I felt a mix of emotions—excited, apprehensive, yet I was confident Drury had prepared me well for the next chapter of life. Little did I know the challenges that lay ahead of me and how much I would rely on my Drury foundation.
Few kids dream of growing up to be an audit partner, but that had been my professional ambition. I began my career as a staff auditor, passed the CPA exam and even received the Gold Medal for having the highest score in the state of Oklahoma. I was fortunate to have many interesting and challenging opportunities in my years as an audit staff member and manager, including working in London, Prague and Sofia. In September 2001, the firm admitted me as a partner—I achieved my dream and I felt as though I was at the pinnacle of my career.
However, there was little time for celebrating, as the greatest challenge of my career came next. That fall, the other two audit partners in the Tulsa office resigned, leaving me as the sole audit partner to lead our office. Then, in October, the Enron story began to surface. Enron was one of the firm’s largest audit clients and the fraud committed there would ultimately result in its bankruptcy. The fallout litigation would also end the storied history of Arthur Andersen.
While our office never worked on Enron, we were still affected by the negative publicity. The TV news and financial programs, newspapers and magazines seemingly gave hourly updates of the scandal. Congress held hearings and questioned our integrity and diligence in completing the audits of Enron. The firm we were all proud to work for was suddenly portrayed as negligent, greedy and derelict in its duties. Clients, their boards of directors and shareholders began questioning why Andersen was their auditor.
It is hard to say exactly how Drury and the Breech School of Business prepared me for those challenges. There was not a textbook or case study that could have prepared me for that experience. But, through Drury’s broad liberal arts education, I gained the ability to think critically, analyze and develop solutions to complex problems, and have the compassion for selfless leadership. I would lean heavily on those skills in the months ahead.
There were days when I just wanted to hide under my desk and away from my phone, but it was our busy season and clients were waiting. We had about 45 clients, in multiple states, and they all wanted to know what impact Enron was going to have on our firm, whether other clients had started firing us, if our staff was quitting and whether we would meet their deadlines. Our office staff had many of the same questions; they were worried about job security and wondered what was next. I spent my days reassuring my staff and our clients that we would meet the challenge. I spent my nights and weekends reviewing work papers and signing audit opinions.
In my spare time, I worked with our office’s managing partner to explore options for the office once Andersen closed. We considered many options, but ultimately, we opened the Tulsa office for Grant Thornton as it provided the most opportunity for our people and could keep the team together. Nobody quit during our Andersen turmoil and everyone who wanted to remain with the new firm was able to do so. We even held our client base together and the office is still thriving today.
As Andersen wound down, a large energy company recruited me for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. My concern was for my staff and a fear that without an audit partner, the Grant Thornton option may not have been possible. My staff had been loyal to me during the tough times and, as intrigued as I was, I felt that I needed to guide our team through the transition.
Fast forward two years and we added a second audit partner and prepared to promote a third. The once-in-a-lifetime opportunity became a twice-in-a-lifetime opportunity and, with the Tulsa office of Grant Thornton on solid footing, I joined ONEOK, Inc. as their chief accounting officer. I eventually became chief financial officer and then president of the Natural Gas business units. Our chief executive officer and chief financial officer later told me that the leadership they saw in me during the Andersen turmoil convinced them I was the right fit for ONEOK, even if it took two years to hire me.
Today, I am the chief financial officer for ONE Gas, the former natural gas utility business of ONEOK that became a stand-alone, publicly traded company in January 2014. I am proud to say that I am an alumnus of Drury University and the product of a broad liberal arts education. It has fed my natural curiosity, inspired a passion for lifelong learning, and developed in me the leadership skills and desire to help others. The path I’ve taken, beginning with that last walk down Drury Lane, is definitely not what I had expected, but from there to here, Drury prepared me well for wherever the road has led me.