Small Business Times
By Susan Nord
Tracy Coenen doesn’t view herself as conventional. “I have a quirky personality,” Coenen says of herself. “And for those people that have known me a long time, they all say, ‘You know, I always knew you’d do something a little bit off the beaten path.’”
Off the beaten path in this case is forensic accounting. Most people that meet her at networking functions see her name tag and say, “‘Forensic accounting. That sounds interesting. What is it?’” Coenen says.
In fact, one of her clients dubbed her the “Quincy” of accounting, referring to the Jack Klugman TV series about a pathologist who solved crimes using clues from the dead bodies he examined. Like Klugman’s character, clients call on Coenen’s unique combination of skills to investigate accounting-related claims.
Coenen studied criminology at Marquette University and after taking a course in white-collar crime was intrigued with business crime. She was advised to take accounting courses and found that the combination of criminology and accounting suited her. She took enough accounting classes to minor in it.
After graduation, she worked as a probation officer but was looking for a field that combined accounting and crime. She went back to Marquette for a master’s degree and took enough accounting courses to qualify to sit for the certified public accountant exam.
While exploring her next career move, she found out that Arthur Andersen, one of the Big Five accounting firms, had a litigation support group in its Chicago and New York offices. Unwilling to move to Chicago, she thought she could work on cases under the guidance of the Chicago office. But the work was infrequent at best and after grinding through several busy seasons in both audit and tax, she contacted headhunters, describing her ideal job, not knowing if it really existed.
As luck would have it, one of the recruiters attended a seminar featuring a speaker who was an accountant that did investigative work. The headhunter called, and even though the firm he worked for had no openings, the investigative accountant interviewed Coenen.
It was her dream job.
She worked with the Milwaukee firm for two years learning the trade under the guidance of an accountant with more than 20 years’ experience in the trade.
“Forensic accounting is something that you only learn by doing,” Coenen says. “You can’t learn it in school; you have to get experience with cases.”
With enough case experience under her belt, Coenen quit to begin her own firm in January 2000. She had a handful of clients that she had built a good working relationship through her former employer, but was cognizant of the fact that she didn’t want to steal clients.
But some of those clients, impressed with her work, decided to use both firms for projects. One such client was Northwestern Mutual’s disability income insurance division. The company uses forensic accountants to investigate claims by some policyholders to verify that their disability does, in fact, qualify for payments under the terms of the policy. Many are high-income, self-employed individuals such as doctors, dentists, and attorneys.
“She did a good, thorough job (with the former employer) and showed good qualities,” says Tom Mattocks, senior disability financial consultant at Northwestern. “She’s the type of individual that we think can go out and represent us when we need to do a detailed forensic audit.”
According to Mattocks, Northwestern has used Big Five accounting firms, but the results weren’t exactly what the company was looking for. “The public accountants tend to focus more on GAAP (Generally Accepted Auditing Principles), which is their job,” Mattocks explained. “It just seems to me that forensic accountants do this kind of work day after day and because of that they’re going to be much better at it than someone who maybe does one assignment per month for two days.”
That’s exactly the kind of niche that Coenen is establishing for herself. She also does extensive work in contract litigation and employee theft investigations. In those areas, she is usually called upon to assess the damages caused by theft or from violated contracts.
Establishing herself as an expert in the field has taken time. “Attorneys don’t go to the Yellow Pages and look for an expert witness,” Coenen says. “They don’t look in the newspaper looking for an expert witness. It’s a very long, trust-building process and there’s a really long lead time on it between meeting an attorney, building a relationship, and getting them to trust you with even a small case. And I don’t blame them because they’ve got a case, and they’ve got one shot at making that case right, and if their expert comes in and screws it up, they don’t get a re-do in court.”
Coenen said it took her a while to become comfortable with networking and establishing those relationships, but it seems to be paying off. “When I go to these groups, I’m not necessarily meeting the attorneys or the business owners who need me, but I’m meeting someone who knows someone who might need me,” she says.
One of the attorneys she has met through networking is Peter Richardson of Michael, Best & Freidrich. He sees a tremendous upside for Coenen’s practice. “A lot of it is skill and competency and a lot of it is having the ability to communicate,” Richardson says of forensic accounting, “and I think Tracy has those things.”
Richardson adds that Coenen’s “combination of criminology, being a certified public accountant and having an MBA are what separates her from the pack.”
“There are a lot of experts who are just accountants,” Richardson said.”And damages experts have to be much more than accountants because what they have to do is testify about causation of lost profits in the marketplace, which involves assessing demand.”
Highly organized, as any successful one-woman firm would be, Coenen has no thoughts of adding additional accountants to her firm in the near future.
“I like being a one-woman show,” she says. “My clients know the quality of work I do. I know what results I get, and they get to know that when they’re hiring my company, they’re hiring me, and it’s not being passed off on somebody who may or may not give the quality of work that I do.”
“Sometimes people say, ‘It’s only you?’ I see a benefit to that.”