Professional Practice Partner Reflects on 36 Years of Helping BKD Grow Wisely
By Matt Wagner
Those are the words Steve Rafferty chooses when describing his more than three decades at BKD—the CPA firm he’s called home his entire career. Just two words to sum up a journey that involved working directly with every CEO in the National Office, holding numerous leadership positions and spearheading an effort to formalize BKD’s client service standards.
“I haven’t exactly treaded water for 36 years,” he says. “People can go through their careers just going through the motions or they can go all in, and I’ve been all in.”
Those fortunate enough to work with Steve say there’s absolutely no debating that. He tackled every challenge that came his way as BKD grew from an $8 million to a $500 million firm. And he’s leaving on a high note. The firm he helped build, defend and govern has grown wisely and continues to flourish and expand its reach.
“You can’t talk about growth without talking about quality control and risk management—or you shouldn’t,” he warns. “If you get out of balance, you’ll be in trouble. And that’s where other firms have gone wrong.”
‘Loved It From Day One’
Steve grew up in Kansas City, Missouri, and attended the University of Missouri-Kansas City, where he decided to try accounting classes since he was good with numbers.
“It didn’t click right away for me,” he recalls. “But when I stepped back and got the concept of accounting, a lot of the mechanics became more intuitive to me.”
In 1979, the eager college grad was hired as an entry level accountant at BKD, where his friend’s dad was a partner. Steve immediately knew he’d picked the right firm—and profession.
“I loved it from day one and found it fascinating to visit with different clients and see how they operated and made money,” he says. “It seemed like everywhere you went you were exposed to something new, and you were always challenged. The firm will challenge you as fast as you can take it—it did for me.”
Those challenges meant new roles with more responsibility, and Steve was recruited as the firm’s second assistant accounting & auditing director in the National Office in Springfield, Missouri. From there, he served as A&A director in the St. Louis office and later returned to the National Office as firmwide A&A director, where he began to establish his reputation as a straight-shooter focused on quality control and determined to steer BKD clear of gray areas.
Steve served as operations partner before being named BKD’s first professional practices partner—a role devoted entirely to firmwide quality control and risk management. He embraced his role as an educator—and enforcer—who put BKD’s good name above all else.
“What we do gets more complicated every day,” he says. “Rules and regulations get more difficult, and business transactions become more complex. Quality control and risk management are so important because we’re a profession, and there’s an expectation you get it right. Our reputation is at stake all the time if you get it wrong.”
Integrity & Quality
When reflecting on Steve’s imprint, BKD CEO Ted Dickman points to a famous William Shakespeare quote: No legacy is as rich as honesty.
“The honesty and integrity Steve represents is just off the charts,” Ted says. “How do you value someone who oversees risk? Steve’s value lies in the problems that never existed due to his leadership, and you can’t even begin to put a value on that.”
Thanks largely to Steve’s efforts, risk management is ingrained in BKD’s consultative culture, which instructs professionals to seek help from supervisors when they see risk. Steve preaches that risk management is everyone’s responsibility, and he’s proud of BKD’s vigilance in today’s litigation-laden, regulation-filled world.
“Give quality control and risk management people the credit they deserve,” he says. “They’ve got a difficult job to do, and you have to respect what they’re doing. We may not always like the answer, but we better embrace the fact that they’re doing it.”
Quality control has been an enormous focus for Steve; he estimates he’s written about as much BKD policy as anyone in the firm’s history. He’s attended Governing Board meetings for years, influencing firm governance issues as well as BKD’s far-reaching quality control framework.
“BKD has a great track record, and we have an excellent team,” Steve says. “I’d put them up against anybody.”
National Office Partner Mike Wolfe is BKD’s new chief risk officer. He spent a year working with Steve to prepare for the transition. Steve says the firm’s fortunate to have someone as competent and passionate as Mike stepping into a role that’s not for the squeamish.
“He has really good instincts on this stuff,” Steve says. “I think I’ve had better instincts than intellect, but Mike’s got both. We couldn’t be luckier.”
Mike knows he’s replacing a BKD icon who epitomizes the firm’s sterling reputation, but he’s ready to take the reins.
“I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to do the role the way Steve did it or as well as he did it,” Mike says. “So much of our unmatched client service culture comes from Steve. I just hope I can build on his legacy and adapt what we’re doing as the firm grows.”
A Lasting Legacy
While some might argue Steve’s legacy is rooting out risk, others say it’s The BKD Experience: Unmatched Client Service book given to new employees. The hardbound book highlights the firm’s five client service standards—Integrity First, Professional Demeanor, True Expertise, Responsive Reliability and Principled Innovation—and serves as a cultural guide.
Steve led the task force that traveled to Florida’s Disney Institute more than a decade ago to study client service models and solidify BKD’s philosophy. Task force members agreed a book was the best way to codify and communicate the firm’s commitment to client service.
Wendy Henry, managing partner of BKD’s St. Louis and Decatur offices, served on the task force—as did Ted—and both agreed Steve’s leadership was “irreplaceable.”
“You were our leader through all of this,” Wendy told Steve at his retirement party. “You kept us headed down the right path, and we ended up with a wonderful legacy.”
The task force members, all of whom are still with the firm, presented Steve with a solid bronze sculpture of The BKD Experience book. The inscription on the 26-pound souvenir thanks Steve for 36 years of unmatched client service. He’s still amazed by the book’s staying power; the third edition was published in 2012. When it was rolled out in 2004, Steve barnstormed every office in the firm, teaching the principles to BKDers in person and hammering home the importance of delivering on the promise of unmatched client service.
“Some of it’s timeless, but it has to be refreshed and re-emphasized and retaught,” he says. “I truly believe the value of the firm lies in the firm’s values—and the values and standards in this book empower our people to make good decisions.”
At 57, Steve’s leaving the C-suite five years ahead of the mandatory retirement age to spend more time on his 350-acre farm with wife Danita, their three horses and two dogs, Calhoun and Kindall—and the lone cat, Derby.
“For the near term, I’m going to be selfish,” he says. “I’m not planning on doing anything too meaningful. There’s a lot to do out there, and I have a lot of interests.”
A longtime outdoorsman and nature lover, Steve enjoys golfing, hunting, fishing, riding horses and “smelling the roses.” He collects antique guns and might even refurbish a few.
In July, Steve is taking a trip to Canada to fish for Northern Pike, and he’s headed to Wyoming to hunt antelope in the fall. He and Danita also have Australia on their short list of travel destinations. Until then, they’ll enjoy the beauty, peacefulness and privacy of their country estate—and share their inviting spread with friends.
“They love to entertain, whether it’s trail rides, barn dances, barbeques or hayrides,” said longtime friend and retired BKD Partner Bill Kirkman. “Steve is the one of the most gracious hosts you could ever imagine, and I love that about my friend.”
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