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Strong and Courageous: One Woman’s Non-Traditional Path to Chief Financial Officer (Part One)

by: Smith and Howard

March 8, 2016

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The following is part one 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.

While attending the Midsouth Independent School Business Officer’s (MISBO) New Business Officer Intensive in 2013, I participated in a session presented by Julie Ray, CFO for Mount Paran Christian School (MPCS).  During the session, Julie told the story of her career.  Her story – that of following an unusual route to becoming a CFO – was a great one.

Fast forward two years…Smith & Howard now serves the audit needs of MPCS and I have the pleasure of working with Julie.

As part of my leadership training, I am tasked with interviewing one of my clients about their career and reporting back to my leadership guide about what I learned.  I immediately knew Julie’s story was the one that I wanted to write; I felt there was more to the story than we heard at the conference. I was right, and after the interview, I did not want to just report this to my guide, but I also wanted to publish it for others to read.

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My wide-ranging conversation with Julie is being presented in two parts. Part one is Julie’s lesson that one does not have to follow traditional routes to enter leadership roles. Part two is Julie’s lesson that following passion and faith can be vital to being a leader.  

Education and Building Management Skills

Julie graduated with a Liberal Arts Degree from University of Texas. Part of her degree included business courses, but early on, she found that her interest was in Liberal Arts. Her father was in the military, stationed in Germany, and she spoke German. Her degree ended up being a degree in Liberal Arts with a concentration in German literature.  Julie’s liberal arts background and German language skills lead her to a beginning career in telecommunications for British Telecom in the Washington DC area.  At British Telecom, she handled project support and procurement for private networks and later obtained her MBA from George Mason University. During her time at British Telecom, her division was acquired by MCI. At MCI, she performed many of the same functions, but also developed project management and bid services skills, supporting the development of network services contracts. From MCI, Julie left to work for EQUANT which was the commercial selling division of SITA, an organization that provides the network backbone for data communications networks in the airline industry.  Her role as branch manager of the Mid-Atlantic states territory at EQUANT included both project management and sales.

From Glue Bottles to CFO

Julie left EQUANT to become a mother. Her husband worked in the telecommunications field as well and his work relocated the family to Atlanta in 1999 when their first daughter was 9 months old.

Following the birth of their second daughter, Julie decided she wanted to become more involved at their oldest daughter’s preschool, Mount Paran Christian School. Initially, her involvement included mainly odds and ends tasks, refilling glue bottles in her daughter’s classroom. This was when MPCS was hosted by Mount Paran Church of God, using that facility as its campus. For the most part, the folks at the school were not aware of her knowledgebase and management skills.

When the school moved to its present-day campus in 2003, the preschool moved to a separate building. With this change in the campus dynamic, MPCS needed someone to handle the front desk, scheduling and logistics for students and other administrative functions.  Julie took the role.

Over the next couple of years, Julie’s role evolved and as the school contemplated the structure and use of what is now known as the Murray Arts Center, she was asked to support the board finance committee in its valuation of this building. Shortly after beginning work on this project, in 2006, Julie was approached by Dr. David Tilley, the headmaster of the school.

She says she will never forget that day because it was following a lockdown drill at the school. After the drill she was with standing around with others in her “yucky orange vest” and was approached by Dr. Tilley and asked to meet with him in his office. Dr. Tilley informed her that the School’s business officer had to leave the school unexpectedly and he wanted Julie to take the role.  This was halfway through the school year and although there is never a good time to lose someone in this role, the mid-point of the year was especially difficult timing.

The decision to take on a larger role was not one that was easily reached by Julie and her family.  Initially, she had not planned on going this far into serving the school. After conversations with her husband and some “deep thought and prayer,” she told Dr. Tilley that she would take the role for the remainder of the year.

Dr. Tilley expressed his hope she would decide to stay in this role beyond that time and as you now know, she did. At first, she was over the business office, information technology and human resources departments. Then she took on operations and the Murray Arts Center team. It was at that point that her role officially became that of Chief Financial Officer. Ten years after moving to the business office, she still proudly serves the school in this role.

My final question for Julie was: “If you had not taken the position in 2006, would you have still become involved in the school?”

Julie said that if she had not taken the position of business officer/CFO she would have taken another heavy role with the school. She did not know exactly what that would have looked like, but she would still have been involved up to her eyeballs.

I enjoyed hearing this story because in the accounting field, we typically hear the stories of those who go through traditional means of working in public accounting and then go into private industry jobs. This story taught me that you do not always have to go the traditional route to get to where you want to go. 

To read Part Two of this series, click here

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