Ask Ralph “Chip” Morris how long he has been married, and he replies, “245 months,” an unusual answer, even for an accountant.
“When I worked for Andrade’s Florist, a gentleman came in and got flowers for his wife every month to celebrate their anniversary,” he explains. “Coincidentally, we shared the same anniversary—March 17. I took his idea, and every month when he came in, I had a built-in reminder to grab a few flowers for my wife, Karen. I’ve kept it up for over 20 years.”
No wonder the accounting manager at Jacksonville University, Fla., indicates that he is “happily” married with two children, 16-year-old Sarah and 13-year-old Joey.
You’ve been with Jacksonville University for almost 14 years. Is that right?
Yes. During my first several years, my primary focus was to help the newly created school of orthodontics program, and its associated clinic operation, develop its accounting processes and procedures.
Tell me about a particular challenge at JU and how you dealt with it.
We had a situation last year where a person in a key role with very little backup took another position, leaving a vacancy. We ended up disbursing the work to me and several others within the office, before hiring a new person for the position. With too much work to accomplish and too little time, I quickly placed a premium on prioritizing properly and developing officewide procedures to increase efficiencies.
What processes has your institution implemented to improve operational efficiency?
We recently started using FUNDRIVER, a software application for managing our endowment investment pool. Previously, we relied on labor-intensive spreadsheets, which were time-consuming and more subject to error. The new software’s built-in reports help with footnote preparation for our audited financials, determination of spending allocations, and much more. We are saving time, improving the audit experience, and putting in place a more manageable process.
Do you have a particular management style?
I do my best to treat everyone fairly and with respect, and to recognize other people’s achievements. I believe in giving credit to others, publicly acknowledging staff contributions, and saying thank you. I have an open-door policy and I like to ask team members for their opinions and ideas on how to move forward on certain issues. When problems arise, I listen to staff concerns, seek input, and—together—we try to come up with solutions.
When mistakes are made, I try to determine what led to the mistake and how we can modify existing processes to minimize the chance of recurrence.
How do you do that?
I hold regular staff meetings that typically last for 15 to 30 minutes. I believe it’s beneficial to get my staff of six together, even when we don’t have a formal agenda. They get to break away from their desks and share solutions and best practices with their co-workers. For example, one member of the team might say, “Somebody has asked me for this information, and I’m not quite sure of the best way to go about it.” Another employee may know of a report to run or a person to approach to help obtain the information.
Occasionally, we have a five-minute meeting just to find out what’s going on and hear about what’s coming up. That’s OK, too.
I understand that you have been cross-training your employees? Explain your thinking on that idea.
We’ve been moving around job duties, and putting our team of staff accountants into positions where they can succeed and take best advantage of their skill sets. We are trying to develop as much depth and breadth of knowledge as possible to minimize situations where we are short-staffed because of a vacancy or illness. Cross-training also helps individuals to learn and expand their knowledge base, keep things fresh, and minimize the chance of getting bored. The more experience and exposure people gain in different areas, the better understanding that they have of our entire operation.
During this process, I’ve learned that cross-training employees is a lot easier said than done. It takes a lot of extra time to train and be trained, and the volume of day-to-day work must still be completed. In the long run, however, everyone is better off, both individually and collectively.
A related challenge is maintaining the standard separation of duties required in accounting. Ideally, we want two or even three people trained for every job function, but, in reality, that is not always possible. We are limited to a certain degree by accounting controls and separation of job duties.
What is the best business advice that you have ever received?
Don’t sweat the small stuff. Sometimes we need to step back and remind ourselves that this is not brain surgery.
What techniques do you use to diffuse a negative situation?
When conflict occurs, I prefer to address the issue face-to-face whenever possible. I actively listen to the other person’s perspective on the situation and try to talk it out. If we can’t achieve agreement or resolution, at least we walk away with an understanding of the other person’s perspective.
What’s the most important professional lesson that you have learned?
Treat people with respect, which entails (1) being a good listener; try to understand where people are coming from and their perspectives, and (2) never make assumptions; ask questions to get a better understanding of the entire process and the bigger picture.
Professionally, what worries you?
From an institutional point of view, the big challenge is increasing enrollment, while minimizing the level of tuition discounting. Related to that would be growing the size of JU’s endowment and scholarship aid to students.
Personally, what worries you?
Whether the Chicago Cubs will ever win another World Series. The last time they won was 1908. It’s been 108 years. [By press time, this worry was dispelled.]
Why are you a Cubs fan when you live in Florida?
I grew up in Indiana and went to Wrigley Field with my father, who lived 89 years and never saw Chicago win the World Series. Now, I’m getting up there in age myself, but I still have hopes that my kids will see them win.
They are fans as well?
Absolutely. They don’t really have a choice.
How do you unwind from the pressures of the job?
Karen and I are involved in our kids’ activities, such as baseball, softball, recitals, and Boy Scouts. We also enjoy sporting events, concerts, symphony, and theater. We have a regular dinner club with six or seven other couples, with whom we also go camping several times a year with our families.
Run into any alligators while camping?
No, but we do have sock wars. We fill socks with flour and heave them at each other, like playing dodge ball.
Your resume indicates that you were once selected by the Jacksonville Junior Chamber of Commerce as Mr. Enthusiasm. When was that?
That was a long time ago (in the 1980s). The award would probably surprise some people. In the work environment, I’m a bit more on the quiet side.
MARGO VANOVER PORTER, Locust Grove, Va., covers higher education business issues for Business Officer.