Character trait: Founder of consulting firm believes in inherent strength

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By Tom Kirvan
Legal News

Geographically speaking, Van Conway didn’t move far when he opened a consulting firm last year after his highly publicized departure from a turnaround company – Conway MacKenzie, Inc. – that he co-founded 30 years ago.

“Our new offices are on the floor above,” said Conway of his headquarters in Birmingham at 401 South Old Woodward Avenue, Suite 435, just one flight from where he worked for nearly three decades.
For some observers, there may be some symbolism in the move, although Conway prefers to look at in simpler terms.

“The building has been home for a long time and I am very comfortable here,” Conway said in his matter-of-fact way. “It has the space, the amenities, and the location we need.”

As for the legal skirmishing that resulted from the breakup with his original firm, Conway would only say that “we moved on and the new company is doing well,” adding that the “culture of the old firm changed and I didn’t fit it.”

Conway’s new firm, aptly named Van Conway & Partners, bills itself as a boutique financial advisory and business consultancy firm with an array of offerings that include “turnaround/restructuring services, valuation, dispute resolution/litigation services, transaction services, fiduciary services, capital raising, profit enhancement, and merger and acquisition assistance for a variety of industries, particularly in the health care, franchise, hospitality and municipal sectors.”

His team includes William Martines, Greg Roberts, Dave Jones, Josh Bach, Carrie Zhang, and Kevin Conway, a Wake Forest product and younger son of the firm’s founder. The company also is affiliated with two larger firms that provide additional staff as required “to service larger engagements,” according to Conway.

“We have a hard working and talented team, some of whom formerly worked for me,” said Conway. “As I’ve demonstrated over the course of my career, it’s my intent to treat everybody like family and to invest in their future.

“Our company manual boils down to this – right and wrong,” he said. “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. As Bo (Schembechler) once said, ‘Character is about what you do when no one is looking.’ That says a lot about our philosophy and how we operate.”

A CPA, Conway is a product of Detroit Austin High School, a former Catholic League powerhouse that counts the late NBA great Dave DeBusschere among its distinguished alums. He spent his early years in the Downriver communities of Wyandotte and Grosse Ile before his family moved to Grosse Pointe when he was 8 years old.

“My parents had four kids and we lived in a tiny house in Grosse Pointe, even though my dad owned a foundry type business,” Conway said. “He never made much money, but he provided everything I needed and he taught me how to work and for that I will always be grateful.”

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 recalled. “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 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 said of his father’s edict. “Secondly, he said for me to 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. Two days after graduating from John Carroll in June of 1974, Conway started work with the former Deloitte & Touche in its Detroit office, one of the 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 need to step it up if I was going to compete with all of the University of Michigan summa cum laudes,” Conway said. “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 the “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 said. “But I always had an itch to be my own boss.”

So, two years later, Conway and his 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.

Now, a year into forming another firm, Conway continues to put stock in a leadership style that comes from within, investing in “good people” who want to make Van Conway & Partners their career home.

“If you want to be a great leader, then you want to surround yourself with people better than you,” Conway claimed. “We want the next generation of leaders to be created from within the company.”

Part of his firm’s DNA is community involvement, which entails time and money.

“We encourage our employees to get involved in good causes and we are happy to support their efforts,” said Conway.

The Oakland County Bar Foundation is one such cause, and this year benefited from a $10,000 Platinum level sponsorship from Van Conway & Partners for its Annual Signature Event at Oakland Hills Country Club on April 28. The generous gift will help the OCBF fund legal aid work and legal educational programs in Metro Detroit.

“We’re not lawyers, but we believe in what the Bar Foundation is doing in terms of its support of worthy causes in the legal community,” said Conway, noting that Senior Managing Director Dave Jones serves on the board of trustees for the OCBF. “We know that our donation is going to go directly to those in need and won’t be eaten up by administrative costs. That makes a difference to us.”

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