Turnaround specialist-- Company marks a milestone with a firm sense of resolve

By Tom Kirvan

Legal News

It bills itself as the "premier restructuring and financial advisory firm to the middle market in the country."

A bit boastful perhaps, but in the immortal words of Hall of Fame hurler Dizzy Dean, "It ain't bragging if you can do it."

Conway MacKenzie, Inc., a Birmingham-based operation with eight offices around the country and two affiliates in Europe, will celebrate its 25th anniversary this summer, fresh from receiving another slew of national awards, recognizing it as "Turnaround Firm of the Year" and among the "101 Best and Brightest Companies to Work For" in addition to other honors.

Van Conway, who in 1987 co-founded the firm after spending 13 years as a partner with the former Deloitte & Touche, prides himself in attempting to "keep things simple" despite the inherent complexity of the work in the restructuring field.

"We don't have a company manual per se," Conway says in his trademark matter-of-fact way. "Our company manual boils down to this--right and wrong. The way we operate is pretty basic. If you live and work by the Golden Rule, there is no need for a 100-page manual."

It's a philosophy that Conway has embraced throughout his career as a CPA and licensed professional, in which he has gained a national reputation for his expertise in the fields of "insolvency/bankruptcy; financing, reorganization and management of troubled companies; mergers and acquisitions; debt restructuring; and litigation support." His company's success has had a nice spillover effect for various area charitable organizations (see related story), including the Oakland County Bar Foundation.

Conway began working at the age of 10, earning a dollar an hour for various odd jobs around the foundry on the northeast side of Detroit. At age 16, Conway received his first pay boost to $2.12 an hour, the entry-level wage for union workers at the plant.

"I always worked as many hours as I could and did whatever I could," Conway recalls. "I had to prove myself as someone who could stand on his own, even though I was the owner's son. My Dad never cut me any slack or did me any favors. I made his coffee every morning and shined his shoes each day. He was totally intolerant of any under-performers."

His father also had four basic rules for his son to follow, according to Conway.

"First, get all A's in school," Conway says of his father's edict. "Secondly, he said for me never to bring the cops to our home. Third, I needed to respect my Mom. And fourth, 'Do what I tell you to do.'"

The last directive, of course, was a catch-all that Conway took to heart as he embarked upon his collegiate career at John Carroll University, a Jesuit school in suburban Cleveland.

"I have to admit that I had a good time in college, but I also appreciated the importance of getting good grades," says Conway. "I knew it was all about my GPA if I was going to have a chance at getting a good job following graduation."

Two days after graduating from John Carroll in June of 1974, Conway started work with Deloitte in its Detroit office, one of 25 new hires in the so-called summer class. His starting salary was $12,000 a year.

"I was an outlier and I knew that I needed to step it up if I was going to compete with all of the University of Michigan summa cum laudes," Conway says. "I was not heralded and needed once again to prove myself worthy of the job."

He was among those assigned to the GM account, helping conduct the worldwide audit of the giant automaker's finances. His work soon began to speak for itself, leading Conway to a path to become the only partner out of the 25 in "Detroit Class of 1974." At the age of 32, Conway was chosen to address Deloitte's 800 partners at an annual meeting in Florida, a plum assignment that spoke volumes about his future with the company.

"I knew that if I stayed I had a shot at running the firm worldwide," Conway says. "But I always had an itch to be my own boss."

So, two years later, Conway and his friend and accounting colleague, Donald MacKenzie, formed the firm that now bears their names, taking the proverbial "leap of faith" that didn't appear to make much financial sense at the time.

"We didn't have any clients, but we had a vision about what kind of firm we wanted to build and we were committed to working hard to make it happen," says Conway on behalf of MacKenzie, who also is a CPA and works out of the firm's New York office. "Fortunately it has worked out--we have grown to about 100 people now and we plan to grow every year going forward."

He has put stock in a leadership style that comes from within, investing in "good people" who want to make Conway MacKenzie their career home.

"If you want to be a great leader, then you want to surround yourself with people better than you," Conway claims. "We want the next generation of leaders to be created from within the company. We have some superstars in this firm and they all recognize that we are part of a family that is strong when united and weak if ever divided."

Divisiveness has not been an issue during the firm's 25 years, according to Conway, principally because "being fair and honest" is part of "the DNA of our company."

"We have high expectations here and work hard, but I tell everyone that the Little League game that you miss can never be made up or that eighth grade play that your child is in can't be replayed because you're at the office working away," he says.

The father of four children, Conway has watched his share of games over the years.

Published: Mon, Apr 2, 2012


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