Changing of the guard

Julie Kunkel, the new managing partner of Ernst & Young’s Columbus office, feels right at home at the company, where she has spent her entire career.

“I interned with Ernst & Young when I was a senior in college and began working full time there after college,” she says.

Now she is in charge of the Columbus operation and of one of its largest accounts, Limited Brands. Kunkel, 41, has risen through the ranks partly with the help very good mentors. And she says being a woman had no impact on the speed at which she was promoted.

“In the last 10 years, I’ve been focused exclusively on the retail industry,” she says. “Frankly, I’ve found being a woman an advantage.”

Kunkel is facing the same issues many in the industry are facing: hiring and retaining a high quality staff, and continuing to build public confidence.

“It’s about service delivery,” she says. “In the current environment, we have to be focused on quality and regaining trust.”

On a personal level, her primary goal is to find a healthy balance among raising two young children, work and community involvement.

“I have to choose wisely and only commit myself to things I can give my all to,” she says.

Smart Business spoke with Kunkel about the challenges of her job and the changes facing her industry.

To what do you attribute your success?

I’ve had really good mentors within the firm. There were many people here that took the time to help me grow professionally, and when an opportunity presented itself, help me move forward.

Never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d be here 20 years ago. The reason I stayed with Ernst & Young was because I’ve been given new opportunities and new challenges. It’s a very dynamic business to be in, which I like. I don’t do well with routine.

As a woman, do you feel it’s been tougher for you to succeed?

I would say no, especially in the last 10 years, since I have exclusively focused on retail. The retail industry is geared to women, since women are the primary shoppers. As an industry, it places heavy weight on issues important to women and finds a way to promote women.

Frankly I’ve found being a woman an advantage. The role I have now plays to my strengths. The environment we have now encourages teamwork and collaboration — areas where women have a lot of strength and do very well.

What are your biggest challenges in your new position?

My primary focuses are attracting, developing and retaining our people. It’s all about service delivery. In the current environment, we have to be focused on quality and regaining trust. We have to retain the best and brightest, and make sure the people we attract and hire are good, talented people.

Since we usually make the Fortune 100 Best Place to Work and Working Mother’s 100 Best Places to Work lists, I think it’s obvious that we are committed to putting our people first. My key role is to make sure that we live that culture. If we do that, then we’ll be successful with our clients.

We’re just one of five companies that have been named to both of those lists five years in a row. There has been a lot of change in the industry due to the Sarbanes Oxley Act, and we are rebuilding investor confidence.

Our firm has gone back to its original tag line — quality in everything we do — and I am committed to that ideal. If we stick to that, our client base will grow.

What are your biggest personal challenges?

I have two very young children, 4 years old and 7 months old. It’s a lot to balance. Your children are only little once. There is so much you can get involved in.

Realistically, there’s only so much you can get done. There are so many worthwhile community organizations that do great work. I am working to figure out how to balance my time.

We just moved to Columbus in June and I am learning about the community, so that is a piece that I am still working on. This is a great profession to be in as a parent. There is a lot of flexibility as far as how we get our work done, and a lot of flexibility in how we honor our commitments.

I take advantage of that flexibility by working at home when I can.

Do you foresee continuing changes in the accounting industry?

Many elements of change are still being implemented, so it will take some time for everything to settle. Within the companies themselves, the changes are being implemented in phases.

As those get implemented, the role of auditors and tax consultants will continue to change. And it takes awhile for changes to become imbedded in organizations. Even some private companies that are not required to adopt changes are looking at certain aspects of Sarbanes Oxley and implementing them, just as a good business practice and out of fiduciary responsibility to their employees.

In some cases, these companies will turn to accounting firms for assistance, especially when it comes to internal controls. Tax services continue to change, especially when it comes to what’s considered acceptable in who you have perform your work.

Historically, it was typically auditors that did all of the tax work. In some areas, it is appropriate to separate those functions.

Do you feel it is easier/harder/about the same for women to assume leadership roles in businesses today than in the last 10 years?

My reaction is that it’s about the same. We have some unique challenges, especially when you’re stepping into the shoes of someone who did it very well, as in my case. That is always a challenge for anyone, male or female.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?

The best advice I’ve received is not to be afraid to say no. People who are very capable and do things well repeatedly get asked to do it again.

There are risks that you will get overextended and not be able to focus on the things that are most important. Setting priorities is important, especially for women who have so many competing demands and want to do everything. Hearing that it’s OK to say no was very helpful to me.