“What do you do when you don’t know the answer to something?”
Certified public accountant Jim Denton believes his response to that interview question in 1984 is what cinched the job for him at Arledge & Associates in Edmond, where he’s built a 30-year career in audits, commercial tax returns and bookkeeping.
Denton showed up unannounced at John Arledge’s accounting firm and, perhaps because he dropped the name of a church friend who was Arledge’s banker, was granted an impromptu interview with the owner.
“If I don’t know something, I go to the master tax guide and look it up,” Denton replied.
“That’s just what I wanted to hear!” boomed Arledge, who gave Denton his chance.
Today, Denton is managing partner and similarly prods associates to look up, in the now online tax codes, what they don’t know. “Young people often want to just ask someone, because it takes less time,” he said.
Arledge & Associates employs 26 including bookkeeping services director Mona McCool, who’s been with the firm since it opened in July 1983. Denton expects annual revenues to top $3 million this year.
From his firm’s 13,000-square-foot office building at 309 N Bryant, Denton, 56, sat down with The Oklahoman on Tuesday to talk about his life and career. This is an edited transcript:
Q: Tell us about your roots.
A: My father was from Denison, Texas, studied geophysics at SMU and worked in mechanical engineering for 35 years with Conoco. He met my mother when he was working in Yoakum, Texas, her hometown. I grew up in Ponca City with two younger brothers. I’ve lost both parents and one brother who had Down syndrome.
Q: What was your thing growing up?
A: Music. I played Little League baseball (my dad was the coach) and some football until ninth grade, but music is what stuck. I started playing bass in the fourth grade, and played in Putnam City High School’s orchestra and jazz and concert bands. I took private lessons in high school, and won a full scholarship to UCO (then Central State), where I earned a bachelor’s in vocal and instrumental music education. My late father-in-law, Coleman Smith, was my professor and choral director in the men’s glee club. My senior year, Dr. Smith recruited me to play bass for the coed, touring group “The Tunesmiths” in which his daughter and my future wife, Cathie, sang. Cathie and I dated all that year, got engaged soon after graduation and married a year later, in May 1981.
Q: So you started out as a music teacher?
A: Yes. I taught two years of high school band at Pond Creek-Hunter, north of Enid. I loved teaching one-on-one and choosing music for contest. But I realized I wasn’t cut out for teaching over the long haul. It was difficult being an outsider in a small town, and I was nervous being in charge of a roomful of students. I oversaw the marching and concert bands, but not orchestra, which is what I was trained in.
Q: What led you to pursue accounting?
A: Cathie suggested looking in the employment ads in the paper to see what paid well. One job for an accountant, with two years’ experience, paid $42,000 plus benefits; I was earning $13,000 as a teacher. Cathie said, “Be one of those (an accountant),” and I didn’t know what “one of those” was. My father — who was always the smartest guy in the room — did his own taxes, and paying someone for professional services was foreign to me. We moved back to Oklahoma City for me to pursue accounting full time at Central State, while Cathie, who’d taught in Enid, worked full time as a secretary. Throughout our marriage, she’s taught private piano lessons, until only recently retiring.
Q: Tell us more about how you landed your job with this firm.
A: I’d been working as an intern, through tax season my senior year, with another small firm, which I anticipated would keep me, but was laid off right when I graduated. It was a rugged time. It was ’84 and the oil bust, and only three UCO accounting graduates were hired by big eight accounting firms. I was handing out resumes right and left, and making calls eight hours a day, to no avail. But then John Arledge took a chance on me. He was the consummate mentor.
Q: What are some of the biggest lessons you learned from John Arledge, the founder and former chief executive of your firm?
A: He taught us that as professionals, we must always give our very best effort in serving our clients and the public. Clients hire us because we’re honest. We’re providing a service on which they depend to help improve their lives. It’s a very personal service. Clients change firms because of people, usually partners. Mr. Arledge also taught us the importance of staying in a professional mode; that we’re constantly representing the firm and the accounting profession with our actions and words, even when we’re away from work.
Q: I noticed your picture with Stephen R. Covey. Are you a fan?
A: I am. His “7 Habits of Highly Effective People” has been one of the most influential books to me, along with “Good to Great” by Jim Collins and “True Professionalism” by David Maister. I’m currently reading “The Elements of Persuasion” by Richard Maxwell. It’s about the art of storytelling in our businesses. World-class leaders know how to tell a story from the inside out. This book details what makes a great business story. I just finished “Boundaries for Leaders: Results, Relationships, and Being Ridiculously In Charge” by Henry Cloud. It’s about having the discipline to determine what the main thing is, and deciding what you will allow and not allow in your business.
•Position: Arledge & Associates P.C., managing partner
•Birth date and hometown: Feb. 4, 1958; Ponca City
•Family: Wife Cathie (They celebrated their 33rd wedding anniversary in May) and daughter Abby Bruce of Edmond
•Residence: Edmond’s Turtle Creek addition
•Education: University of Central Oklahoma, bachelor’s in accounting and bachelor’s in music education
•Church: Crossings Community Church
•Professional involvement: Edmond Area Chamber of Commerce and Oklahoma Venture Forum
•For fun: He and Cathie sing in the Canterbury Choral Society, hold season Thunder tickets and follow the band and orchestra of Western Heights High School where their daughter and son-in-law teach music education