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Accounting trumped farming for Kent Johnson

Posted 5/03/16 (Tue)

Accounting trumped farming for Kent Johnson

By Sydney Glasoe Caraballo
The teenager listens to the Twins game on the radio as he drives the International 1468 tractor with a chisel plow. He is summerfallowing a field south of Noonan in the spring of 1991 while the Twins continue their winning streak, which will ultimately win them the World Series.
Beyond the play by play – and the beauty of baseball stats -- is the inarguable elegance of rate equaling distance multiplied by time, the answer of increasing immaculate rows of freshly turned dirt, the gathering geometrical evidence of his labor driving tractor.
Given his volunteer hours on the tractor and combine, he has been asked time and again by teachers, friends and neighbors if he is going to farm with his father, Roger.
Kent Johnson, who will be a senior in high school the fall the Twins win, is doing the math. Wheat is less than $4 a bushel, and the acres they farm won’t add up to two viable family incomes.
But his elective accounting class taken his junior year makes mathematical and professional sense to him. Johnson, who has convinced his parents to let him attend boarding school in Bismarck at Dakota Adventist Academy his junior and senior year of high school, is not afraid to uproot himself, to ultimately leave the family farm near Noonan.
Johnson’s pragmatism and geographically footloose spirit will find him hopping between Berrien Springs, Mich.; Lincoln, Neb.; and Orlando, Fla. He attends Andrews University in Berrien, then Union College in Lincoln and lands the Disneyworld of accounting careers, scoring jobs with two firms of the Big 4. The Big 4, which refers to the top four accounting firms who perform the majority of the world’s auditing services, are considered the elite home for the best and brightest in the accounting world. Johnson will work for two of them: KPMG and Ernst & Young. Rarer still, he is hired by Ernst & Young straight out of college.
Johnson, who currently serves as chief financial officer at Adventist Care Centers, the skilled nursing division of Adventist Health Systems [AHS], headquartered in Orlando, is quick to downplay his accolades. 
“I wasn’t aware that the large accounting firms recruit at the beginning of your senior year,” he says ruefully. “I should have been planning on the interviewing process way earlier than I did.”
A friend and classmate recommends that Johnson interview with AHS, which is a large, not-for-profit healthcare organization owned by the Seventh-Day Adventist Church (a Protestant Christian denomination). Johnson, who is a practicing Adventist and will graduate from the Adventist Union College in the spring, tells his friend that working in healthcare sounds like a snooze. But he learns that AHS also hand selects two Adventist graduates to work for Ernst & Young as external auditors of their company with the gentlemen’s agreement that they will go on to work as internal auditors for AHS after two years.
Johnson says he was fortunate to study hard and have “decent” college grades (a very high 3-plus GPA). He flies down to Florida to interview, and AHS selects Johnson to be one of their two Adventist college graduates to work for them as a staff auditor with a start date of Sept. 1997.
Johnson also takes advantage of sitting for the CPA exam in the last year the State of Nebraska only requires 120 education hours; now most states require 150 hours of education, which is basically a Master's in accounting. 
“It was a brutal exam,” he says. “I was sweating bullets to see if I would pass.”
The exam, which has four different sections, is a two-day test at that time, and Johnson takes it in the University of Nebraska indoor track and field complex. He then waits three months to get the mailed results. Johnson, back on the family farm, is cleaning out a grain bin the day he sees the mailman pull up at his parents’ mailbox with his results. He runs down the driveway and opens the envelope with sweaty hands.
The first time pass rate for the CPA exam is 10 to 15 percent. The odds are against him.
As Johnson eyes the paper, he sees that he has passed all four sections on his first attempt and earned a spot in the notable 300 Club, which means he got at least a 75 percent or higher score in every section.
Johnson downplays his success, as thrilled and relieved as he was in that moment. 
“I think I benefited from a nice curve,” Johnson says. 
He believes many – possibly less prepared than they should have been – rush to take the exam that spring of 1997 so they will be grandfathered in to be able to take the exam again under the 120-hour requirement if they don’t pass.
Johnson then begins his career with Ernst & Young by attending a new-hire orientation at the spring training facility for the LA Dodgers in Vero Beach, Fla. 
“It was an experience passing palm trees going to work,” he says. “I remember feeling like I was on vacation.”
As a staff auditor during his first year Johnson handles inventory checks with companies who hire Ernst & Young to complete their independent audits. He works with a variety of clients, from checking orange juice inventories at citrus farms to clothing at the local malls. Johnson hits his professional stride his second year and assists in audits of AHS’s hospital systems. He enjoys the work but realizes he is reluctant to leave a big firm and remain in Florida, which still doesn’t feel like home. Instead of going to work for AHS, Johnson accepts a senior auditor position with KPMG back in Lincoln. He will also later work as a controller for a software company there.
After several years of exploring his professional options and what he judges to be “a slightly fickle time” in his professional life, Johnson determines he wants to work for an established company with an intriguing mission that will allow him to build credibility, enhance his skills and establish a professional career. Johnson realizes AHS may be the best fit. He accepts a job as senior auditor with the company and moves back to Orlando, and although somewhat delayed, fulfills his gentlemen’s agreement to work in internal audit for AHS. He is promoted to director of internal audits in 2006 and to his current CFO position in 2010.
Johnson, who handles the finances for 15 nursing facilities with more than 2,000 employees, chuckles when he says his job sometimes feels like “herding cats.”
“I’m responsible for a lot of things that I can’t really control,” he says.
Moving from an analytical role in auditing to operations, Johnson is involved in the financial running of the business – including daily operations, facility renovations, constructing new facilities, implementing new software for electronic medical records and addressing Medicare initiatives.
Johnson, who is married with young children, says he appreciates the work/life balance he has achieved with AHS versus a public accounting career working for The Big 4.
His formula for a fulfilling professional life hasn’t changed, though, and was instilled while he was a farmkid driving the tractor and combine back and forth on his parents’ fields. “Be patient, work hard, and your reward will come,” he says.