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Asked if he's running some sort of CFO farm at Albright College, Terry Reilly reacts with a modest laugh. "I'd like to be able to say I have the magic elixir," the silver-haired professor said, "but the reality is that other professors at other schools have had similar success."
Reilly was responding to an observation that a quick check of the College's records revealed that five of his former students are chief financial officers for such large and well-known companies as Kellogg's, Cigna International, Cott Corporation, TE Connectivity and Urban Outfitters, while at least two are partners with the "Big Four" accounting, financial services and consulting firm Ernst & Young.
"I'd like to say it's about me," Reilly said, "but that's really not so."
PRACTITIONER TURNED TEACHER
Reilly set out to practice accounting, not teach it. He changed his mind 37 years ago after teaching a few off-season tax courses for Arthur Andersen, the former "Big Five" accounting firm he worked for at the time.
"I liked teaching and seemed to have done a reasonably good job of it," Reilly said of his first foray as an instructor. "So even though I had no experience prior to that, I started looking at teaching positions I found out about in The Chronicle of Higher Education." He accepted a position at Albright College, and he's been teaching here ever since he arrived in September 1975.
Over the years, Reilly has taught most of the courses in the College's accounting curriculum. His approach is to make sure his students understand what he's teaching them so they can put the knowledge they've gained to use in a variety of situations.
"My job is to take the official legislation and distill it down in a way that makes it understandable and logical," Reilly said. "I believe that you shouldn't spend your time trying to memorize something, you should spend your time understanding it."
His tests are designed to determine if his students truly understand the material. "I may take data that you've seen and give it back to you," he said."I may rearrange it, I may turn it a little bit backward, I may do something else with it so I can find out if you understand what it is you're talking about."
TOUGH BUT FAIR
Looking back on their time in Reilly's classroom, former students said that both he and his tests were "tough but fair."
"Terry was tough from the standpoint of what he expected, but his demeanor was very encouraging," said Terrence Curtin '90, executive vice president and chief financial officer of TE Connectivity. "The tests were never easy, and he expected a lot out of you. But the way he went about it was always encouraging and enthusiastic.
"You knew he was setting a pretty high bar, but he did it with a smile," added Curtin, who also serves as an Albright College trustee.
Bob Ford '81, now an audit partner in Ernst & Young's Philadelphia office, agreed. "You really needed to study, go to class and prepare," he said. "He knew right away if you were not prepared. But he made it fun. He had the ability to make you want to prepare and make you want to attend class."
"Terry's class was the first one I had at Albright that I looked forward to when I got up in the morning," said Pat Pruitt '92, also an audit partner with Ernst& Young. "I enjoyed going to it, because I knew that we weren't just going to read from the textbook. He was going to teach, he was going to give you 100 percent with the lesson and make you think and make you work."
To help make his classes more appealing to his students, Reilly lavishes them with real-life examples.
"Part of the reason I enjoyed his classes so much was that it was very much down to earth," said Jeff Rigg, vice president and chief financial officer for Cigna International. "He didn't sugarcoat things. He told it as it was, which made it real. He could take a particular subject and make it come to life by relating how he handled something on an engagement while he was with Arthur Andersen."
For Pruitt, learning there was a people component to what many think of as purely a numbers business was an eye-opener. "Terry showed us that at Arthur Andersen he didn't just work with numbers all the time, he worked with people and had to apply logic and critical thinking. It's one of the reasons I knew after my first semester sophomore year that I was going to be an accountant."
IF YOU CAN MAKE IT HERE…
For many students, the intermediate accounting course is the one that helps them determine if their future holds a career in the field. So much so, in fact, that it's earned a "make or break" reputation that applies to this day.
"What's consistent about intermediate accounting is if you ask anybody in the field how they felt during that course, their response will be universal: overwhelmed, inundated," Reilly said. "It's the second-year course, and it gives you an indication of whether you're really interested in the subject matter. Nobody wanders into that course, so if you're taking it you're probably planning to be an accountant."
Melissa Crawford '13, an accounting, economics and finance major from Downingtown, Pa., had Reilly for intermediate accounting last spring. Usually a straight-A student, she got her first B in the class.
"I'm a good student, but I wasn't doing as well as I would have liked," Crawford said. "But Professor Reilly never made me feel stupid. He was never condescending. He wanted me to understand it. He's very open to questions and wants to know how people learn."
Crawford noted that on test days many students got worked up and stressed out, so Reilly did what he could to make them feel more at ease. "He's always laughing and smiling," she said. "He was never stressed; he ignored the tension in the room and joked around. It made everyone calm down."
The course made such an impression on Eric Artz '89 that he remembers not only the course, but the textbook as well. "When you say intermediate accounting, I remember the blue book," said Artz, chief financial officer for Urban Outfitters Inc. "It was a bible that we all carried around for a while. It was a tough course, but we survived. Terry prepared us extremely well to sit for the CPA exams."
Students who make it through the intermediate course soon learn that Reilly is not only an engaging teacher, but also a knowledgeable mentor and career counselor.
"Terry really got me interested in public accounting both through the classroom and by informally talking to him," Pruitt said. "That's one of the principal reasons I chose to go in that direction."
Rigg says that Reilly helped him determine the path he'd eventually pursue as well. "I didn't know a whole lot about the different career paths available to someone with an accounting degree," Rigg said. "Terry was very good at describing what you'd do in each of the roles, so he had a big impact on my career choices and the success I've had."
In his 37 years of teaching thus far, Reilly has found that different aspects of the job offer different rewards. "One is when you're in front of a class of 25, and you're helping them work through something and you see the light bulb go on," he said. "Then you get somebody who comes back four or five years later and tells you that after they got into the business environment, they found that they were as well-prepared as—if not better than—people from big-name schools. Then they thank me and the other people in the department for helping them get there."
That's exactly what Curtin, who took a job with Arthur Andersen soon after graduating from Albright, found.
"There were about 30 people in my starting class," he said, "and some of them were from Ivy League schools. I thought, 'How am I going to hold up here?'
"What I came to appreciate was that my education was just as good if not better than theirs. In some cases those people couldn't handle it."
Reflecting on his former students interviewed for this story, the countless others who achieved success in the profession he helped
"I've been lucky over the years," he said. "I've had a lot of good students, and most of the ones who did well were serious about their education. I'm not saying it was to the exclusion of having a good time. But I think that they had their priorities in order. They knew they could do both, but they did spend the time and invest in their studies and their courses. A lot of them would be successful on their own, but it's been nice to be here to help them succeed."
Editor's note: We regret that we were not able to contact or even identify all of Terry Reilly's former students who credit him with helping to shape their careers. If you have a story about Terry's influence as a teacher or mentor that you'd like to share, please email it to email@example.com. It will appear as a Web Extra in the online Reporter.
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