Tim Flynn has lived through some remarkable crises during a career that has taken him to the top position at KPMG International. His profession was turned upside down during the Arthur Andersen-Enron scandal in 2002, and the near-collapse of the nation’s financial system in 2008 led to the most challenging economic environment since the Great Depression.
As serious as those times were, Flynn was well-prepared to deal with them, thanks to 30 years of experience at a Big Four public accounting firm and vital lessons from Sister Mary Magdalene, principal of Nativity of Mary School in Bloomington.
“I spent some time in her office,” a grinning Flynn said. “She was a small, demure nun – small in stature, but she could make an impression on you. I was ‘spirited’ and quicker with the lip than she would have liked. When you got in trouble, you stood in the hallway. Big trouble was if your desk was in the hallway.”
Flynn not only survived those hallway “timeouts” but also learned something from them, and he hasn’t stopped learning. His philosophy: Work hard. Listen carefully. Communicate clearly. Involve co-workers in decisions. And above all else, trust people.
“I’m often asked how I define leadership,” Flynn told St. Thomas graduate business students as their commencement speaker last May. “To me, it’s very simple. It’s all about trust. It is about earning the right to have others put their trust in you, and then living up to that responsibility every day.”
Flynn learned the value of trust and hard work early in life. He grew up in a family of eight, his dad the chief financial officer of Overland Express, a trucking company, and his mom a homemaker. After those formative years at Nativity of Mary, he graduated from Bloomington Kennedy High School and enrolled at St. Thomas, where he majored in accounting and put in 32 hours a week – 60 in the summer – unloading freight and working as a trailer mechanic at Overland.
A self-described “analytical person,” he fell in love with accounting and, in the words of Dr. Shirley Polejewski, was a natural who made a big impression in her Cost Accounting course.
“I only hope that each year I teach, I have a Tim Flynn in one of my classes,” said Polejewski, who has been at St. Thomas since 1976. “He was a serious, outstanding student who had – and still has – a work ethic that along with a value system is among his greatest attributes.”
Flynn graduated in 1979 and went to work at what then was known as Peat Marwick Mitchell. His first assignment was to conduct audits on privately held family businesses and he moved on to work with high technology companies such as Control Data and Cray Research. He wrote two books, Going Public: What the High Technology CEO Wants to Know and How to Build a High Technology Business.
As he climbed the ladder in the Minneapolis office, he was asked in 1987 to move to California’s Silicon Valley to work in the firm’s high-technology practice.
“It didn’t feel right for my family,” he said, referring to his wife, Susan, and their daughter, Laura (son Tyler was not yet born). “I began to think, ‘Where is this career going?’ If I wanted to accelerate my opportunities, the move would be a good launching pad. I reflected a lot on it – on how to balance career with family.”
His decision: no move. As it turned out, the man who led the Silicon Valley operations moved to Minneapolis the following month to run that office, and Flynn became a partner a year later. “He liked me,” Flynn said. “He didn’t fire me!”
Flynn was among two dozen partners chosen in the early 1990s to participate in KPMG’s Leadership 2000 program. He ran the firm’s Midwest manufacturing practice from 1993 to 1996, and moved to New York in 1997. He was global managing partner in two areas – human resources (1998-2000) and audit (2001-2005) – and today serves as chairman of KPMG International, with 137,000 professionals in 144 countries, and KPMG LLP, its U.S. member firm.
The Andersen-Enron debacle forced accounting firms to reexamine practices and recommit to fundamental values, said Flynn, who called it “a dynamic moment. We needed to reassure our people and our clients that this was a great profession,” and in doing so he insisted on ethical behavior beyond reproach.
“Some people did things that were flat-out wrong,” he said. “We instilled a values-based corporate culture – that you can’t just put your head in the sand if you see something wrong. You need to tell us. I can’t guarantee that everyone always is doing the right thing, but I can create the right environment where people will do the right thing.”
Flynn believes people “cross the line” for three reasons: They rationalize their decisions (“I’ll do it just one time, but not again”), they look for implied permission (“My boss knows I’m doing this; if I’m wrong he’ll tell me”) and they do it out of fear (“If I don’t, I may lose my job”).
“People see themselves as falling into traps,” he said. “We need to have the means in place to help them through the process.”
Flynn is proud of the changes that he has engendered, both within the profession and at KPMG, especially given the nation’s economic challenges. He recalled the conditions when he graduated from St. Thomas: inflation and mortgages near 20 percent, high unemployment and a $800 million government loan guarantee that allowed Chrysler to survive.
“We go through these cycles,” he said. “This one is just deeper and longer lasting. It will change people’s habits. They’ll think longer term about spending and investing, and that’s significant.”
Recognizing the need for fundamental change and having the appropriate perspective on the economy are two reasons that Flynn has succeeded, according to retired KPMG partners Bill Simon and Paul Snyder. It also helps to be intelligent and personable, they point out.
“Tim can digest and process information faster than anyone I’ve ever met,” Snyder said. “He’s a good team builder. Even when his plate is very full, he reaches out and helps people. He takes time to build and nurture relationships in an honest and sincere way.”
“His personality is such that he can convince people to get on board and help him get things done,” Simon said. “We’re all born with the potential to be leaders. Tim has demonstrated he is one.”
Flynn appreciates recognition but is modest in accepting praise, and it’s almost as if he’d rather receive it from other quarters. He said as much last year when he received the Dean’s Medal of Excellence at the Opus College of Business graduation ceremonies.
“I am humbled by receiving this tremendous honor,” he said. “I just hope Sister Mary Magdalene is listening from above. She’ll be relieved to know that all my ‘visits’ to the principal’s office paid off.”
Tim Flynn and St. Thomas
• Joined the Board of Trustees in 2006 and serves on the Audit-Finance Committee. He also is a member of the Opus College of Business Strategic Board of Governors.
• Graduated from St. Thomas in 1979 with a bachelor’s degree in accounting. His son Tyler is a junior. Other family members with St. Thomas degrees include his father (Richard ’44), two brothers (Tom ’80 and Peter ’81), a sister (Margaret ’84), father-in-law (George Moskalik ’39) and the latter’s father (Joseph Moskalik ’10 – 100 years ago!).
• Has encouraged the university to cut costs and minimize tuition increases, especially during tough economic times and as demographic changes loom. “St. Thomas has done a fantastic job of expanding and being willing to take risks,” he said, “but there must be more innovative and cost-efficient ways to deliver higher education. When you recognize you need to change, it’s less painful if you do it yourself than if someone does it for you.”