Bill Kimsey remembers walking down Sixth Avenue in New York City one evening with then Ernst & Young chairman Phil Laskawy. It was the summer of 1998. And Kimsey recalls saying to Laskawy that, despite the organization’s success in the US, “If we don’t bring Ernst & Young together globally, then we won’t have done our jobs.”
Within a few months, Kimsey was tapped to do just that: the following October he relinquished his post as Chief Operating Officer of Ernst & Young LLP for the newly created post of Global CEO. He soon discovered that he had taken on not just a new position, but the challenge of his life.
“It was phenomenally difficult,” reflects Kimsey, “clearly the toughest assignment in my 30-plus years with the firm.” Kimsey describes Ernst & Young’s globalization efforts up to that point as being largely about collegial get-togethers and sharing experiences among member firms. Despite the desire to portray Ernst & Young as one global organization, “We really weren’t there yet,” he says. “We could see the demand, but we weren’t coordinated or organized to serve global companies the way we needed to.”
Over the next four years, Kimsey and his team worked to piece together a framework to support a truly global organization. It wasn’t easy. While most partners agreed it was the right thing to do, in other ways it was “like going against human nature,” recalls Kimsey. “We were asking partners around the world to give up some of their autonomy and to trust us.” And that took some doing.
A brave new (global) world
Finally, the long months of globe-hopping and trust-building paid off. In December 2001, the documents were signed that, according to Kimsey, “really put the new global structure together.” Then, almost immediately, came the bombshell that rocked the business and accounting world: Arthur Andersen was dissolving under the weight of Enron.
As it happened, Ernst & Young’s newly adopted global structure positioned its member firms to capture most of the former Arthur Andersen practices, which were already well integrated worldwide. Within months, Ernst & Young acquired 57 of those practices, more than any of the other Big Four. By the end of 2002, Ernst & Young had grown globally by 25% and was ranked first or second in seven of the top 10 markets in the world.
“Our globally integrated organization is creating a competitive advantage for both our clients and people, alike” says current Global CEO and Chairman Jim Turley. Turley gives much of the credit for that integration to Kimsey, who Turley says “helped create a new global organization.” But Kimsey is quick to add that he didn’t do it alone: he acknowledges the vision and support of executive partner and former Global COO, Paul Ostling, as well as former CEOs and chairmen Bill Gladstone, Ray Groves and Phil Laskawy. Kimsey also recalls the encouragement and guidance he received from his long-time friend and mentor, former chairman Bill Kanaga. (See our Winter 2009/2010 edition for a look at how yesterday’s leaders helped build today’s Ernst & Young.)
Expanding his global footprint
Since retiring from Ernst & Young in 2002, Kimsey has hardly slowed down. In a post-Sarbanes-Oxley world, his global experience has made him an in-demand executive. He currently serves on the boards of Accenture, Royal Caribbean Cruises, Parsons Corporation and Western Digital Corporation. He also previously served on the board of NAVTEQ, the map software company recently acquired by Nokia. When considering the boards he would serve on, Kimsey says he was looking for opportunities that would allow him to leverage and expand his “global footprint.”
While he still prefers hands-on management over board work, there are some advantages to the latter. “As a board member, I can ask about everything without all the day-to-day operational responsibility — that’s a nice change of pace,” he says with a smile.
New worlds to conquer
While Kimsey was serving as West Region Managing Partner of the US firm, he and his wife, Nancy, fell in love with the area around Santa Barbara, Calif. So, soon after retiring, the Kimseys started dabbling in real estate there (even though, as Kimsey admits, “We didn’t know the first thing about it.”) First, they developed a couple of mixed-use buildings. They then spent more than four years building their new home overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Kimsey calls it Villa di Serenita— “house of serenity” — but is careful not to refer to it as his dream home. “People who build ‘dream homes’ seem to pass away soon thereafter,” he laughs, “and we plan to be there a while.”
The Kimseys’ most recent challenge involves another new world: grapes. The couple has recently planted more than 22 acres in a 45-acre vineyard they are developing. The goal is to grow and bottle a “luxury” wine under their own label. Vintner Kimsey calls the work some of the most interesting he’s ever done.
The best is yet to come
Kimsey isn’t surprised at the ongoing trend toward globalization. What does amaze him is the pace at which it’s happening. As for Ernst & Young, Kimsey is “just thrilled” with the progress he sees, saying that, globally, Ernst & Young has come “further and faster” than he ever could have hoped for. The end result, he says, is new opportunity for people around the globe. And that is how Bill Kimsey has made a world of difference.
Thinking globally, acting locally
While Bill Kimsey has been in the global spotlight most of his professional life, it’s the charitable work he does in his community that provides some of his greatest satisfaction. Since relocating to Santa Barbara, Kimsey has joined the board of Path Point, an organization that serves the developmentally disabled — “the forgotten people,” as Kimsey calls them. He also serves as vice chairman of the board at the Cancer Center of Santa Barbara, which is currently raising $33 million for a new cancer treatment facility. The Kimseys cochair the steering committee for the fundraising effort. In addition, Nancy Kimsey works closely with a local hospice. “The more involved we become with these groups, the more important I feel it is that we do so,” says Kimsey. “It just makes sense for those of us who’ve been so blessed to give back to the greatest of our abilities.”