Walt Conn spends a lot of time on airplanes. The 1985 Harbert accounting alumnus is Global Chief Operating Officer—Quality, Risk and Regulatory for KPMG. As a top executive at one of the world’s leading professional services firms, he stays on the move. That’s hardly surprising—KPMG has operations in more than 150 countries. Conn recently sat down with Harbert Magazine to talk about his work in the global marketplace, how his Auburn education prepared him for success, and why he is committed to giving back to the university.
Harbert Magazine: Your title is Global Chief Operating Officer—Quality, Risk and Regulatory. What do you do in that role?
Walt Conn: I’m responsible for the operations of our global risk management team. Our objective is to help our network of KPMG firms and personnel around the world:
• oversee and monitor quality of service in our three businesses—Audit, Tax, and Advisory;
• protect KPMG’s brand and reputation;
• comply with laws, regulations, and professional standards; and
• minimize the risk of claims against KPMG.
That includes, among a lot of other things, monitoring our relationships with audit regulators, tax authorities, and securities regulators around the world.
HM: You did not come to Auburn planning to study accountancy. Tell us about your journey to that field, and what drew you to it.
WC: I worked during high school summers for a landscaping firm, and thought that I wanted to be a landscape architect. I have no idea why, because I don’t have an artistic bone in my body, but I liked that. There were not many schools that had landscape architecture as a major, and that’s what drew me to Auburn.
But before I showed up, I decided I really didn’t care about plants, I just liked the drawing part. So I actually started in engineering. I don’t know why I didn’t start in architecture, but I started in engineering, and in the first quarter I hated the sciences and calculus classes, so I switched to pre-business.
At the time you had to take two years of business courses before you declared a major. I did not have my eyes set on accounting; it just felt natural. Many of my classmates were struggling in accounting, but it came naturally to me.
HM: When you were a student at Auburn, did you ever think one day you’d work in a global business environment? How did your Auburn education prepare you to compete in that workplace?
WC: I’m sure that I was not thinking that far ahead. In fact, I was planning to go to graduate school and I just interviewed with the then “Big Eight” accounting firms for practice, thinking that would benefit me down the road. Then somehow I got lured into going to work and getting a paycheck, thinking I would go back to school and figure out what to do in life later. Then I kept putting that off. As I sit here today, I never have gone back to graduate school. I guess I will not pursue that at this point.
So I ended up starting with Peat, Marwick, Mitchell and Co. (predecessor to KPMG) in Birmingham. I’m not sure that I was thinking beyond Birmingham at the time, so I didn’t think of any global aspect.
I got a good education in the fundamentals of business and the fundamentals of accounting at Auburn, and I developed some leadership skills that I didn’t have before. Then Auburn helped me get a job, and so indirectly Auburn prepared me for the global work I do now. But I didn’t start doing global things aside from serving some audit clients with global operations until about 20 years after I started work.
HM: How valuable do you think opportunities for Auburn students to study abroad are today, and why should they take advantage of them?
WC: I think they’re invaluable. I have firsthand experience because one of my daughters, who is in the Harbert College, spent a semester in Ariccia, Italy, last year. I can clearly see how much her confidence and independence grew, as did her awareness of other cultures, and her interest in travel. A study abroad program will impress potential employers in terms of courage and ability to adapt to other environments.
I would encourage anyone who has that opportunity to take advantage of it. I wish that I had as a student.
I should add that, even though I didn’t study abroad, my first trip abroad was with Dr. Gary Waters and my fellow Beta Alpha Psi officers for the Beta Alpha Psi national convention, which happened to be in Toronto. At that time, US citizens did not need a passport to cross the Canadian border, so I don’t know how much that counts as a trip abroad. Nevertheless, it was memorable, and Gary and I (and my wife, who also went) occasionally reminisce about that trip 35 years later.
HM: When you’re doing business in a foreign country, what are some of your key cultural and social considerations, and how do these factors affect your approach to business there?
WC: I certainly pick up points of culture, like if you’re at a traditional Japanese restaurant, you take off your shoes; and when you’re in India, you generally don’t eat beef. I am conscious of avoiding American metaphors that might not be understood in other cultures, like “hit the ball out of the park.” If somebody’s not a baseball fan, they won’t know what that means.
HM: Who are some of the people who have influenced you the most in your business career, and what did you learn from them?
WC: One person who certainly has had an influence on my career is Dr. Wayne Alderman. When I was a student here, he was one of my professors and I ended up grading papers for him, and then we stayed in touch. After I had been in our Birmingham office for six years, he nominated me to be a Practice Fellow at the Auditing Standards Board in New York, which at the time set auditing standards for audits of all US entities, and where he had been an academic fellow.
I was selected for the two-year fellowship, and my wife and I moved to New York. The intent was to come back to the Birmingham office, but I never came back, and ended up staying in New York, later moving to our Silicon Valley office, and ultimately going back to New York. I have had a completely different career path than had I not done that fellowship.
Certainly I’ve been influenced by many, many people I’ve worked with over the years, but two partners stand out for coaching me on things that I have remembered for a long time. One is that coming up with an answer, in the context of accounting, is only half the battle. The other half is communicating it in a way that’s clear, and that a client is going to understand, particularly if it’s not the answer they wanted. I’ve tried to teach that to people who have worked with me.
Then another partner told me that I’m reserved and that sometimes I need to pound my chest a little, and so that stuck with me.
One other person who comes to mind is my seventh grade English teacher in Nashville, who was a renowned English teacher there and influenced my writing. I firmly think the ability to write is important in business, even for an accountant. People think, “well, public accounting is a numbers profession.” It’s a writing profession just as much as numbers.
HM: That leads into the next question. Aside from business courses, what other areas of study would you recommend for Harbert students as they prepare for careers in this global marketplace?
WC: Aside from any global aspect, I think writing skills and presentation skills are critical to anyone in business. I would encourage students to take as many writing and public speaking classes as they can. Looking back, I wish I had taken more world history, geography, and world economics courses.
The world has changed so much over that time, even within the past two to five years. But going back to world history and geography, KPMG has firms in 152 countries. That’s a lot of geography, and it’s frustrating to me when I hear of a country and can’t visualize where it is. So I wish I had picked up more geographic knowledge, if I could have retained that over time.
One thing I’ve learned in the past few years is how much world history, specifically wars, European colonization, and other relations between countries, impact business today. I wish I had studied and retained more of a knowledge about wars and other relationships between countries in Europe, the history of China, the history of India. Because those really do have an influence on business today.
HM: Regulatory practices vary from country to country, so how do you work with people in different countries and cultures to successfully comply with regulations?
WC: That’s a significant part of my role. Different countries have different regulatory setups, different levels of maturity and experience among their regulators, and of course different cultures have different levels of emphasis on compliance. So whether for purposes of complying with regulations or otherwise protecting our brand, we have policies, guidance, and monitoring.
I’m part of a risk steering group that has the national risk management partner from about a dozen of our largest KPMG firms and a few other global leaders like me. We meet three days a quarter in person and have regular conference calls to discuss how to drive quality in our services and implementation of risk management strategy. Part of that indeed relates to regulatory compliance and the regulatory environment, as influenced by audit regulators, securities regulators, and tax authorities in 150-plus countries. That’s a big challenge.
HM: What trends do you see in the globalization of business, and how do they change what drives business success and global success?
WC: The world is getting smaller and smaller, and it’s just part of our society that people travel more. But a big part of it is digital communication. There are more and more ways to communicate instantaneously with people in other countries. Also, the global media has changed a lot in the past few years. Just the speed and geographic spread of media, particularly from English-speaking countries, make the world smaller.
In addition, there’s such a level of disruption in business. By that, I mean a new product or market that evolves rapidly and displaces products or businesses or entire markets that have been around for a long time. Obvious examples would be Uber and Amazon, but there are countless other examples. Businesses that aren’t preparing for disruption of some kind are at risk, and sometimes disappear. You think about some of the companies that have virtually disappeared. Who knows what products and services will be further replaced by robotics?
We’re seeing a lot of businesses focus on how they can prepare for disruption. How might they be disrupted, what can they do to disrupt other companies, or to disrupt disrupters?
Cybersecurity is on the mind of virtually every public company board. And blockchain, and perhaps cryptocurrency, will change the way business is done in a lot of areas. Blockchain has the potential to really disrupt the accounting profession, so we as a firm are figuring out how we can react and even take advantage of blockchain.
Artificial intelligence, data, and analytics. Certainly data and analytics is an area that I would encourage students to think about taking courses in. I know the Harbert College of Business has business analytics courses, and I think that those are going to be relevant in all aspects of business, as companies use data and artificial intelligence to try to predict consumer interests.
It seems like there’s more happening in business globally and domestically than at any point during my career. Then you add on top of that the geopolitical environment that we find ourselves in.
As we sit here today, there’s tremendous uncertainty about what’s going to happen March 29th when Brexit becomes effective, deal or no deal. Brexit will have a significant impact on our clients, and on our firm. [Editor’s note: After this interview, the planned March 29 Brexit was delayed.]
Then, on top of that, President Trump’s policy-making and demeanor create uncertainty around the world. There’s a lot of apprehension about what President Trump and the American government will do.
Uncertainty is not good for our business. Change, ironically, is. If there are changes in tax regulations in any country or multiple countries, or in other types of regulation, or the disruption that I referred to, it’s good for our business. Particularly for our tax and advisory services, change and disruption mean that our clients need help in how to react and strategize. While there’s uncertainty, organizations tend to stay on the sidelines waiting for certainty to come.
So the world’s in an odd place with all the uncertainty there is geopolitically right now.
HM: Even with all the demands on your time as a leading executive, you’ve served Auburn in a number of ways, including serving on the board of the Auburn University Foundation. You’ve also made significant donations to various university efforts. What about Auburn makes you want to do this, and what would you say to graduates, and even current students, about giving back to Auburn?
WC: Well, Auburn has been and is a big part of my life. I believe my Auburn experience helped me develop into a leader and thus had an impact on my career that can’t be overstated. My wife graduated from the Harbert College, and we have two children at Auburn—also in the Harbert College. If I have any hobbies outside of work, it is Auburn athletics. I’ve really enjoyed my work with advisory councils in the Harbert College of Business and Tigers Unlimited and my service on the boards for the Foundation and the Auburn Alumni Association. I’m also looking forward to the opening of the Jay and Susie Gogue Performing Arts Center later this year.
I’m proud of Auburn and want the institution to continue to be competitive among elite universities, so for me, giving to Auburn is the right thing to do. I encourage our alumni at KPMG to give back to Auburn. I speak to them every year, and especially encourage them to get in the habit of giving as soon as they graduate, regardless of the amount. Then focus on the amount later in their careers, after they have a habit of annually giving to Auburn.