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Martha Sullivan

Martha Sullivan

Introduce yourself to our audience. Tell us who you are and what you are currently focused on.

“Strong, yet Balanced. Connected. Flourishing. Good Humored. Can-do.”

These are the words that describe me best. These are my core values as I go about my daily living as a mom, spouse, sibling and friend. They influence my work and relationships with clients and colleagues as a Partner in the Business Transition Strategies group at Honkamp Krueger & Co., a Midwest Top 100 CPA and consulting firm.

My current focus is on serving business owners, through education, consulting and support, to build transferable businesses and thereby create value. If your company isn’t transferable – that is, it can’t run without you, your hard work isn’t creating long-term value. That means when it comes time for you to do something else, whether years or decades down the road, there may not be anyone interested in taking over and/or paying for it. That’s an unnecessary outcome if you aspire to more.

Tell us about your favorite Ellevate Network memory or success story. Why are you a member?

Ellevate is a friendly voice in the often-lonely place of a professional woman. While much progress has been made for women in the workplace, there is still far to go. Responsibility is shared on the part of the individual, their employer and their communities.

We know that women hold up “half the sky.” We wear many hats, personally, professional and as community leaders. Ellevate holds a part of that sky as a community to share ideas, access supportive guidance and make the connections that help us thrive. We do it together.

What is one of your most memorable career accomplishments?

Many years ago, I went to work for a family business owned by a highly entrepreneurial couple. The business had experienced strong growth yet was bleeding money. So much money that their bank was calling the note. The couple fired their accountant and hired me to come in as CFO.

What the business had in entrepreneurial energy, culture and courage was directly proportionate to the lack of fundamentals and business discipline. Accounting systems were flawed and filled with errors, business decisions were focused on top line only, and spending was out of control. The owners were in over their head and seeing the business-life flashing in front of their eyes.

My fellow managers, along with the owners, knew the stakes and worked supremely well together. We educated our colleagues with transparency on why things were changing and how what might have seemed like a great approach before now hurt us all. We not only survived but then set the foundation to thrive. It was a privilege to be a part of the turnaround effort – to save the company, jobs and community of great people.

What are some career challenges on your radar?

An age-old question “Now What?” is one of the top challenges on my radar. It’s a question I ask myself as well as my clients. We, as human beings, should always be growing on some intellectual, personal and/or spiritual level. Yet deciding what that means is not always easy.

I consider myself as a bit of a serial employee. I’ve worked for many companies throughout my career, so I appreciate the fact that the first year is the “dumb as a rock” phase as you work through the tribal rules, relationships and roles. Several years in, you know the ropes and perhaps question whether you are enjoying what you are doing and whether it’s providing you the type of challenge you want. The question – what’s next?

For many of my clients, “what’s next” may mean selling the company they’ve built to maximize their personal and business opportunity in the market. For others, it may be due to family or other personal demands. Ultimately, options need to be weighed and consequences considered.

I believe that this challenge is best overcome through a disciplined and structured approach that leans on the talents of a good, well-rounded posse. Living by example for my clients, I’ve assembled mine of both professional and personal guides. Together, we build the vision and the plan.

We’d love to hear more about your career path. What led you to where you are today?

As noted above, I consider myself to be a serial employee, seeking different challenges and opportunities along the way. If someone had told me the path I’d take to get to today, I would have placed a bet that there are three-headed dogs and I was looking at one.

Initially, I was in information systems reviewing, selecting, documenting and implementing systems. I went to work for an accounting firm as a non-accountant in their newly formed consulting practice. After approximately five years, I got tired of being told “You can’t do that. You’re not an accountant.” Fine. I’ll play. Off I went to get the credits needed to be eligible to sit for the CPA exam and then got the credential. Best act of rebellion ever!

From there, after several more years, I went into a controller role for a family-owned company. We did three or four major enterprise-wide systems conversions in my six years there before I left for a new opportunity. I was recruited out of that new opportunity to lead the turnaround of another family company. Leveraging the turnaround experience, I went back into consulting in the Transaction Support services practice of a global CPA firm performing due diligence and other special projects. When the travel and workload demands became too much for our family, I moved to a COO role for a regional CPA firm which allowed me the opportunity to work with family-owned companies again at the same time I was helping run the firm. Soon, the “What’s Next” bee was buzzing in my ear. I became credentialed in mergers and acquisitions as well as business valuation and returned to working with clients full-time with Honkamp Krueger’s Business Transition Strategies group. Having walked in the shoes of a leading executive, I appreciate the challenges, opportunities, loneliness and drive inherent in leading and owning a company. Every step of the way has led me to here.

What legacy do you hope to leave through your work?

Privately held and family-owned business are, in my opinion, the backbone and heartbeat of our communities. They have heart – providing jobs, services, products and economic momentum – to you and me. Many of these companies are owned by fantastic people that know their business extremely well yet are unaware as to how a future investor might look at the company. Would an “outsider” value the same things they do, whether the “outsider” is a third-party, a key employee or manager, or next generation family member? Experience tells me, to a person, absolutely not.

These differences in perspectives can catch a business owner by surprise. Decisions made in everyday business come home to roost and they discover that, because of them, the next generation isn’t ready or, worse yet, isn’t interested. Third-party prospects question sustainability of results and walk away. Business owners ultimately regret the path that led them out of the business.

My goal, and hopeful legacy, is to change that outcome. The legacy of transferable and sustainable businesses. A growing understanding within those businesses of what it means to build true value in a company. The legacy of a business owner taking pride in knowing she did her homework, built a strong thriving company, maximized her personal and financial accomplishments aligned with her goals and eagerly moving to what’s next in her life.

What is it about your job that makes you feel it’s the right fit for you?

Back in the 1930s, there was a popular cartoon character “Popeye”. He is best known for his spinach-fueled strength and a phrase “I am what I am!”. This is my “Popeye” job. I feel energized, strong and motivated to do well. I’m surrounded by colleagues with energy and a drive to continually grow stronger. Lastly, I am free to build my practice in a way that is a win-win for the firm, our clients and me. I am what I am – let’s use my talents for the collective well-being.

What would you say your personal superpower is?

My superpower is in the “can.” I learned early in life to prove myself, strive, survive and thrive. When told no, I problem solve. When the token female, I own it. When told can’t, I figure out can. (Is “rebellious” a superpower?)

What does success look like to you?

Success is synonymous with self-sufficiency and balance. I grew up at a time watching my mom unable to cosign my car loan because of her gender and role in the family. (My dad, the breadwinner, was out of town.) Right then and there, I defined my personal success around owning my own self-sufficiency and self-reliance.

Yet self-sufficiency and self-reliance just for the sake of it is not enough for success. There needs to be balance. Balance in your health, relationships, family life, work, play, etc. It’s easier said than done and can only be done with the support of others. Kind of ironic, eh?

What is the best career advice you ever received?

“Think like an owner.” I was very young in my career when I received this advice from my boss. He was an owner himself and knew the power of perspective. Thinking like an owner meant acting as if it were your company, your money, your employees, your customer, your reputation – not someone else’s. It places a completely different lens over how one views risk and opportunity.

As I think about it today, this is akin to the “Golden Rule” of “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. It sets a tone for doing the right things for the right reasons – building value and wellbeing for the company and its stakeholders.


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