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Pettinger Turns Accounting Degree into Mergers and Acquisitions Career

Alum Applies Business Acumen to Positions in Audit, Sales and Finance
Pettinger Turns Accounting Degree into Mergers and Acquisitions Career
Jimmy Downes, director of the School of Accountancy, congratulates Paul Pettinger, '69, of Las Vegas and Minneapolis, on his induction into the School of Accountancy Hall of Fame.

Named to the School of Accountancy Hall of Fame in October, Paul Pettinger, '69, started in auditing after graduating from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. By applying what he learned while earning his accounting degree to positions in sales and finance, he also gained insight leading to successful career in mergers and acquisitions.

"The first thing you need to know about Paul Pettinger is that he is incredibly humble and modest. He's had an impressive career that we don't know much about because he doesn't share many of the details. But if you spend enough time with him, he'll share a few stories. He's a builder, who bought businesses, built them up and did a tremendous job of fixing them," said Matt Boyd of Omaha, who met Pettinger when working at the University of Nebraska Foundation.

First moving to Nebraska with his parents when he was three, Pettinger attended elementary and middle school in Grand Island and high school in Omaha. After graduating from the university, he worked at McGladrey & Pullen for only a few months before being drafted into the U.S. Army. He served his country for two years before returning to the firm.

"I was single and moved out of state for my first job. They shipped me around the country to their other offices to deal with smaller concerns. I did audits in Illinois, Iowa, Indiana and Montana, which is where I got my love of travel and seeing other places," Pettinger said.

After nearly three years, one of his clients offered him an opportunity to utilize his skills in a new field — computer processing sales.

"I surprised myself and accepted a job in sales, and right after doing so thought, 'What am I doing? I don't know anything about selling?' When I attended college, there was no Center for Sales Excellence or Center for Entrepreneurship at the university like there is now, which I sure could have used," he said.

He shared how he fell for the sales line about how the product sells itself and that they offered him three times his CPA salary, making it harder to say no. Applying the skills he learned at Nebraska, he thrived in the new role, selling data processing services to smaller businesses.

"This was 50 years ago and at least 10 years before there were personal computers. All the processing was done on mainframes, but the work had to be sent by mail. So, a business owner in small town Nebraska had to be convinced to mail in copies of all accounting records, cash receipts in the check register, and at the end of the month, we would process all that information and mail back all of the business' accounts payable, accounts receivable and other appropriate accounting reports, as well as some management reports," Pettinger said.

After moving to Minnesota, he became chief financial officer at John H. Crowther Inc. in 1976. Jack Crowther became one of his business partners, and Pettinger helped start or acquire more than 15 branch operations. After four years, he left to start or acquire other small businesses and also worked for Arthur Young, which later became Ernst & Young and then EY.

"Jack and I went back into business together years later. This time we wanted businesses that were struggling in any industry. We laid a few ground rules and acquired eight more small businesses, most of them distressed with less than $1 million in revenue and we tried to salvage them," he said. "As I learned from those in the Center for Entrepreneurship at the College of Business, some were too far gone. We were successful in most of those operations, ranging from software and data processing to a small medical device firm."

Partners for 20 years, the two looked at more than 200 companies. One of their many successes was Priority Data Systems, a customized insurance rating software company.

At the SoA induction, Pettinger talked about his diverse career experiences to an audience of accounting students, faculty and advisory board members. Jimmy Downes, director of the School of Accountancy and associate professor of accountancy, said Pettinger is a great example of what an accounting degree makes possible.

"Paul highlights to our students the flexibility of what you might do with their career when they start in public accounting. While many find career-long success in public accounting, the skill set from it opens other avenues for people to pursue," Downes said.

Semi-retiring in 2005, Pettinger lives in Las Vegas and Minneapolis. He also continues to consult with nonprofit organizations across the country.

"I've always been proud of being from Nebraska," he said. "The most important thing that I've learned overall is that you need to know how to sell yourself and learn as much as you can from others."

Published: April 4, 2024