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Part Two: Strong and Courageous: One Woman’s Nontraditional Path to Chief Financial Officer

by: Smith and Howard

March 8, 2016

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The following is part two of a two-part article written by David Lee, CPA of Smith & Howard from an interview he had with Julie Ray, the CFO of Mount Paran Christian School.

Mount Paran Christian School has seen explosive growth over the last 15 years. Managing this growth requires great leadership skills and a sincere passion for the mission of the organization. Julie Ray entered her position with the school in the midst of the great things that were happening at the school. From day one, she was “drinking from the firehose,” learning independent education business operations.

Julie’s first few years with the school were very much a trial by fire.

As we discussed in part 1 of this article, she did not have traditional accounting training. First, she had to get a more in-depth understanding of accounting. She had a working business knowledge she had gained along with that which she learned in school, but she needed more. This required her working for a few months across the desk from the school’s then-current auditor. She also utilized MISBO and networked with many of the CFOs at other member schools of MISBO. Julie emphasized that those other CFOs were on her speed dial.

She went further to say that her success in the initial six months was a testament to the support team she had.  At no point during any of the transition, did the work stop, regardless of the leadership. This made it an easy transition for her.

With all of the trial by fire Julie experienced, I had to follow up with the question of what at the school had provided her with the greatest challenge at MPCS. Julie’s answer: “I love building things from the ground up.” Four major “ground-up” projects were tackled with Julie at the helm:

  1. While still in her first six months her new role, Julie had to tackle an accounting system conversion.  This required the consolidation of multiple manual databases into one. Julie also went on a “seek and destroy” mission to all homemade, manual processes.  The purpose of this was to help make the school more technologically savvy and improve operations.
  2. A year and a half after starting work at the School, the nation was going through an economic downturn. Navigating this downturn was a major challenge. There were many things that could have intimidated her, but she said the gifts that were provided and events that occurred that were truly the work of God.  The school received one of the largest gifts from a private foundation in the state of Georgia which enabled the purchase of the Murray Arts Center property. During one of the worst economic downturns experienced in history, the school continued to grow in enrollment and programs and was able to increase tuition.
  3. Staffing the school with the “right staff” over the years. One of the keys early on for the success of the business functions of the school was to ensure that these functions were being performed by those with business experience.  Establishing a new position for a comptroller, and hiring a SHRM-certified and experienced human resources professional, were among the first changes.  Over time as management changed, key hires in IT and Operations leadership were pivotal as well.
  4. The school made a substantial purchase in 2007, prior to the downturn.  This was the Murray Arts Center.  The leg work involved in supporting and integrating this purchase was significant.

Given all of the challenges Julie faced, I asked, “What made you continue to be ‘The little engine that could’?” She said that she is someone “who truly, deeply believes in the mission of this school. I truly believe this school is a special piece of God’s kingdom.” Even prior to taking on her role with the school, she had discussions with others where it was said that: “there’s just something about this school.” She has “seen changes in her family and there is an honest embracing of faith, that is a life-changing relationship that happens here.” Seeing and talking with the children at the school, Julie said that this is what led her to think: “we must do this well, we must make sure this mission succeeds.”

“Dr. Tilley [the school’s headmaster] is a visionary growth driver. He works to make the branches of the tree broader, so that the tree grows faster… I am there to make sure the trunk of the tree is keeping pace. I not only strongly believe in the mission, but I would follow him through fire.”

With all of the amazing things that have happened at MPCS, it made me wonder what has surprised or shocked her the most. Julie’s answer to that is The Murray Arts Center.  The donor of this property had a relationship with the previous headmaster and the change from that headmaster to Dr. Tilley could potentially have created a prolonged strain on a relationship with a donor. Instead, the donor embraced this change and sold the property to the school at a cost of half of the value of the building. In order to make this purchase, the school had to launch a capital campaign and meet the requirements of a significant challenge grant during the economic downturn.  The fulfillment of that challenge grant, especially during the economic downturn, in support of the acquisition of this building was something that was not easily accomplished.  Julie attributes this success to God’s will played out through faithful donors, passionate leadership, committed development efforts, and a unified community of MPCS families.  Keeping score in the business office was just a privileged vantage point from which to witness the miracles that took place, one after another to make the acquisition possible.

Another story that hit home with Julie occurred during the economic downturn. The school had several parents whose jobs were affected by the downturn. Some lost jobs and took a significant hits to their income. The school worked with them as much as possible and in some cases, the family accumulated significant debt to keep their children in school. One situation in particular stood out with Julie, when parents had been diligently making monthly payments on a plan set up with the school and had been so focused on meeting their obligation that they didn’t realize they had actually paid their debt in full and were in the clear. Experiencing the relief of losing that burden right along with the parent was a highlight of Julie’s experience. As Julie pointed out, in her position, she is privileged to share in the triumphs of many and it makes her realize how special Mount Paran Christian School is.

I asked Julie: “If you could go back to 2006, what would you have told yourself then?” Julie turned her chair to retrieve two 3×5 notecards and presented them to me. Each had a Bible verse written on them.  She said, “This is the advice I gave myself and it is what kept me coming back every day”:

Joshua 1:9: Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.

Psalm 37:30-31: The mouths of the righteous utter wisdom, and their tongues speak what is just. The law of their God is in their hearts; their feet do not slip.

Julie went further to discuss some of the day-to day decisions that do not come easy. She discussed faith in God and knowing that he is at our back guiding her in these decisions.  Further, she believes that if you sense he is telling you to do something, do not quibble.

As we wrapped up our conversation, Julie said that not a day goes by that she does not feel affirmed in the decision to send her children to the school and the decision she made back in 2006 to lead the business office. She went on to mention that if you have drive, you are willing to learn and willing to work, then there is a place for you at Mount Paran Christian School. One of the current initiatives of management is Metacognition which is the process of lifelong learning.  This past summer, their executive council read the book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, by Carol Dweck.  This is a book about not falling into fixed mindset, believing you have a limited set of skills or knowledge, but allowing yourself to operate in a growth mindset where you are fluid, a work in progress and continually building and improving yourself.

Julie’s story is a great one.  Regardless of your faith, her story shows that you need to give passionately and have faith in the mission of your organization and its leadership, regardless of the industry.  If you are passionate about the mission you serve, it will repay you ten-fold. 

On a personal note, I consider myself fortunate that I find myself in a career where I am able to operate in an environment with a growth mindset, serving great companies and working for a company that I care about.  Julie’s story teaches us that if you do not find that passion immediately, follow what you love, keep learning and you will find it.

To view Part One of this series, click here

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