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Chief Financial Officer, Avnet
During a recent conversation, Ken Jacobson discussed his own experience working at PwC, his trajectory to CFO, the value of doing hard things, and how he prioritizes family time.
What were your early years like?
I grew up in the suburbs of Seattle, Washington, a product of a divorced home. Both of my parents remarried when I was young, so I ended up with four parents who all cared about me from an early age, and who all brought something different to who I am today. My dad and stepmother worked in finance, while my mother and stepfather owned their own real estate firm in our area, and I always remember being interested in business.
How did you decide to focus on accounting?
After high school, I wanted to go to the top school I could get into, so I started my degree at West Point, the U.S. Military Academy. I liked it, but I also felt like I didn’t want to wait five years (after required military service) to start my career in business. After spending my first two years at West Point, I transferred to the University of Washington and focused on accounting right away. Numbers just always kind of clicked with me.
What drew you to PwC?
The year before I graduated with my accounting degree, I was able to get an internship with PwC at the Seattle office. It was a great experience and I had opportunities to meet high performing people from different offices. From my perspective, this was very powerful, realizing just how much talent resides within the firm. While I had other opportunities post-graduation, I chose to work with PwC given its brand and reputation, and how very hard it was to get a job there. With 20/20 hindsight, this was a very good decision.
What kept you at the firm for almost a decade?
One of the things I liked most about the PwC experience was that I had exposure to a lot of clients, each with different challenges and cultures. While I worked long hours and it was hard work, I was always learning something new. When I left as a senior manager, I felt ready to adapt to any kind of company culture I’d end up working with in the future. I felt prepared to handle the inherent stress working in industry, which comes with any job, and the relationships, the challenges, the workplace dynamics and all those things you need to know about, in addition to gaining skills related to accounting and finance.
After you left PwC, what was your next move?
At that point, I had transferred to Phoenix, and I knew I wanted to stay in the area, so I pursued an opportunity with a solar technology company. Initially, when I joined the company, it was booming. Things, however, changed quickly—and I ended up having to do the accounting oversight related to shutting down 35% of the company. In hard times like that, it can be unsettling, and I learned that even if your company's struggling, as an accountant, you're probably going to be the last one to sweep up and lock the door. This showed me how critical it is for you to do your job well. I think sometimes the bad times can be just as valuable for learning opportunities as the good times.
What then brought you to Avnet, where you’re now the CFO?
Someone I knew from PwC told me about a controller opportunity at the company—and one of the things that most drew me to Avnet was its culture. Most of my colleagues have worked with the company for 10 to 20+ years, and there’s a reason for that. While we work hard, we are also able to prioritize the things that are important to us personally, like being there for a kid’s baseball game. Ten years ago, when I came in as a controller, I was responsible for consolidations, technical accounting, external reporting, etc. Over time, my role and areas of responsibility have continued to expand to where I am now, serving as the CFO.
How would you describe yourself as a leader?
I’d say I’m a hands-on, roll-up-my-sleeves kind of manager, and I don’t micromanage people. I trust my team, and I think it’s okay to make mistakes. I just like to keep an open dialog: If you've got a problem, bring it to me and we'll solve it together.
What makes you happiest outside of work?
Good, quality family time. I've been married for 18 years, and we have three boys, ages 14, 11, and 6. So we just try to spend as much time together as we can. My older sons play competitive baseball, which takes us to the baseball field quite a bit. I like professional sports, too—especially the Seattle teams and music, so I love going to concerts.
What helpful advice can you share with others?
Hang in there! Sometimes work is supposed to be hard. Especially early in your career, part of the experience is dealing with stress and deadlines, and you get all of that in spades in public accounting. But remember why they hired you: You're high performing, and you can handle it. Try not to dwell on the stress of the moment. Instead, try not to take the world too seriously and think about how the hard things you’re doing now can make you better in the long run. You’ve got this.