Charlotte’s Mike McGuire prepares to lead accounting firm Grant Thornton

In about seven months, Mike McGuire will be heading up one of the largest accounting firms in the U.S., Chicago-based Grant Thornton.

Last week, the privately held firm announced the promotion of McGuire, its Charlotte-based chief operating officer, to CEO. He replaces outgoing CEO Stephen Chipman.

Starting in January, the Charlotte resident of nearly 30 years will be tasked with running a company that reports annual revenues of about $1.3 billion and has 56 offices in 29 states and 6,438 employees.

Twelve years ago, McGuire’s employment future was up in the air.

McGuire was working in Charlotte, as Carolinas audit division head for Arthur Andersen while that accounting firm was collapsing in 2002. That year, the firm was convicted for obstruction of justice over destroying documents related to its work for energy company Enron Corp.

In 2005, the Supreme Court overturned the conviction. But by then, McGuire, who had worked for the company for 20 years, and thousands of other Arthur Andersen employees had already lost their jobs as it went under in 2002.

That same year, McGuire took a job with Grant Thornton and has risen through its ranks.

Holding key senior leadership roles at Grant Thornton has helped prepare him to become CEO, he said. He served as head of human resources and sales and marketing for the company before becoming chief operating officer.

“I think the way our firm operates and the way we do transition planning … it’s not like being thrown in the deep end,” the 55-year-old said. “I think it’s really about planning and really building my skills along the way.”

Grant Thornton counts some Fortune 500 companies, as well as others, among its clients. In the Charlotte area, it employs roughly 288 people.

McGuire’s comments have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Q. Will you continue to live in Charlotte in your new role?

A. I’m going to have a place to live here in Chicago, and I’ll have my office here in Chicago, as well as still spending time in Charlotte. I’m going to keep my house (in Charlotte.) My wife, Melissa, has a business in Charlotte. (She’s a co-founder and one of three directors for Charlotte-based staffing, recruiting and consulting firm Sherpa.) We’re going to stay (in Charlotte) and we’ll be in both places.

Q. What are the rewards and challenges of being a commuting executive?

A. One nice thing about it is I get to work and meet with a lot of different people. I love the people side of this business. (Another) one of the advantages is I go to a lot of nice restaurants when I’m on the road. One of the disadvantages is that it’s a lot harder to manage my weight.

Q. What does a CEO-in-waiting do?

A. I have built a plan. It was like 160 pages … a very executable plan that covers a lot of areas around our strategy and what we’re going to do, who’s going to do it, when we’re going to do it. I wasn’t going to share a 160-page plan with all of our partners, because that’s obviously overkill. I summarized it all the way to basically a five-page plan and white paper.

I’ve also … developed a plan for my first 90 days, my first six months and my first year. I’ve developed that in close collaboration with people inside the firm and some folks that I have as mentors outside the firm.

Q. Who are some of your mentors in Charlotte?

A. There are folks that I work with in Charlotte, folks like (Peter Browning Partners founder) Peter Browning, (former Bank of America chief executive) Hugh McColl and (TV show “Carolina Business Review” producer and moderator) Chris William and really many others. Also, Brad Gabosch, one of my retired partners from Grant Thornton, who has been a mentor for 30 years.

Q. What is your management style?

A. I really believe in the value of a team, versus making unilateral decisions. I actually try to put a team together that has differing points of view so we get to the best answer. But … we’ve got to get to a point where we make a decision. I don’t like to have a culture of having a lot of meetings.

Q. What’s the fastest-growing segment of Grant Thornton’s business?

A. One of them is our advisory business. As companies continue to expand, they’re looking for assistance from us in finding ways to help them develop their supply chain, help them manage their growth, and mergers and acquisitions and things of that nature.

The other area is tax – in particular, our tax-consulting areas such as international tax. With companies going international ... they really need our help from a tax standpoint.

Q. What changes have you witnessed in the accounting industry?

A. The accounting profession has become significantly more specialized. You just can’t go start an accounting firm and build those kind of capabilities, because most of the people who can serve those clients are already in the industry somewhere. So, it was natural for the industry to consolidate. I think another reason for a lot of consolidation, … since 2007, 2008, was just a function of the economy.

Q. Name a challenge facing the accounting industry.

A. You have people that have financial backgrounds or accounting backgrounds who may in college decide that they want to go into investment banking, go to work in private equity. We may compete with Facebook and Google. And we used to only compete against other accounting firms.

Q. On a personal level, what is one of your weak points?

A. It’s hard for me to say no to people. I really like to help people. I’ve hired Vick Phillips as my chief of staff, and over the past year he has helped me managing my schedule and learning how to say no a little more often.

Q. How has Charlotte’s business climate changed in the past three decades, and has it changed for the better?

A. Overall, it’s better, because it’s a lot more diverse in terms of industries. I also think the Charlotte business community is more diverse from an international standpoint.

Because of the diversity, Charlotte is just a lot more complex, in a good way. Back when I first started (working in Charlotte) you could almost get five to 10 people in a room and make a decision, like we’re going to get pro basketball or pro football. Now … you have to involve a lot of other constituents, which is the right thing to do. But it does slow the process down.

Q. Last week was a tough week for Charlotte, with former Mayor Patrick Cannon’s guilty plea. What advice would you give to the city as it tries to move forward?

A. Twelve years ago, when Arthur Andersen went away, we all lost our jobs, we all lost our retirement and everything else. I told our partners at the time it’s like we just fell off a little boat at the top of Niagara Falls. You don’t sit down at the bottom of the falls and feel sorry for yourself.

I think it’s time for us to wrap this chapter up, move on to the next chapter and start moving forward. And I think we will do that.