30 Apr 2019
John Bernauer alumni

John Bernauer: looking back – and forward – at 103

By

Tom Lardner

EY Americas Alumni Executive Sponsor

EY Americas Alumni leader. Dedicated to helping people build and grow their network and career. Family is my foundation.

30 Apr 2019
Related topics Alumni

Show resources

In this article we chat with John Bernauer – the oldest living retired EY US firm partner.

John Bernauer considers himself a lucky guy. At 103, he is the oldest living retired US firm partner, and his life is a testament to the sustaining power of relationships. John joined the Chicago office of Ernst & Ernst in 1938 as a newly minted CPA. The Great Depression had spawned a plethora of government regulations, and the firm was creating new services to help businesses address them. By the time he retired in 1976, John had led the Chicago tax practice to record-setting revenues. He had built many deep friendships that would endure, even until today, and he still makes it to the triennial Retired Partner and Principal Meeting.

While many things have changed since his first audit, he says the roots of EY’s culture run deep: collegiality, exceptional client service and the commitment to developing our people are built into our very foundation. John might credit good luck, but his story speaks volumes about the value of determination. He recently spoke with us about the importance of living intentionally, embracing adventure and investing in the people around us.

Tell us how you came to join Ernst & Ernst.

After graduating from Northwestern University and starting my career, I approached Herb McAnley, who was head of the management services division of the Chicago office. He said, “How do we know whether you’re qualified to work for us?” I said, “Well, I’m a CPA.” He said, “Well, let’s see if you are.” So, he gave me an examination, and of course, I passed, so he hired me. I was so happy, but I did not realize at the time that they only hired seasonally. When March 15 came around, partner Murray Mendel said: “Thanks for your fine audit work. Come back next fall.” And I said to myself, “Baloney!”

That’s a rude awakening.

Things were so different back then. You can’t even imagine. So I went and found a summer job, and a little while later, I got another call from Mr. Mendel, and he said, “John, we’re sorry that you couldn’t stay with us, but if you’re willing to go to Atlanta, they are willing to hire you the day after Labor Day.” Atlanta was a heck of a long ways from Chicago, and I had a very serious girlfriend, Dorothy Grady. So, I thought to myself, I’ll go down there and stay for about two years and then come back to Chicago and probably get a job in a private company. But Dorothy said she’d be willing to join me in Atlanta at some point. So, I went down to Atlanta, worked on the Coca-Cola audit, then went back to Chicago and married Dorothy on Thanksgiving Day, and she came back to Atlanta with me.

Sounds like an exciting way to start your life together. When did you first realize you were very good at your job?

In the spring of 1943, Hardaway Contracting Company was our biggest income tax client in Columbus, Georgia, and we used double depreciation in preparing their tax return during the war, of course, so we had written all of their stuff off. Because this resulted in a large refund, to be received in 1945, the case was assigned to the Washington office, and their engineering department came down to examine what we could do. They suggested not only that Hardaway not get a refund in 1945, but also that Hardaway owed taxes in each of the previous years, more than they had already paid. That was a big problem. The assistant manager of the Atlanta office, Del Paige, and I met with the team in Washington, where I suggested an entirely new depreciation schedule for Hardaway’s equipment. As a result, Hardaway didn’t have to pay any tax for those other years and didn’t get a refund, but now had more equipment to write off in future years. After our meeting in Washington, Del said: “John, you’ve done a good job. If we had a tax department in Atlanta, you’d be the head of it.”

That must have been quite an ego boost for a young man. How did that vote of confidence affect you?

It told me I was valuable to the firm. Our son was about 2 years old at the time, and we decided it was time to go home to Chicago, where all his grandparents lived. But all the boys were coming back from the war soon, and Ernst & Ernst was obligated to give them their jobs back. I called Murray Mendel and said, “If you guys can’t find room for me in Chicago, I’m going to have to look for work somewhere else.” He said, “Well, come back and let’s see how it goes. If you compete with those guys who are coming back, you’ll be OK, and if our business grows, we’ll need more guys.” Fortunately, after the war, things did get much better.

Eventually, you did make your way over to Tax. How did that come about?

In 1951, Paul Johnson, who was head of the tax department in Chicago, pulled me aside and said, “John, you are a good auditor, but you are a very good tax man.” So I moved over to Tax, and then a couple years later, I was made a partner. A lot of things happened after that, including getting the Lincoln National Life Insurance Company as a client. I was sort of the godfather of our insurance business in Chicago. I did that for 10 years and took over as the head of the Chicago tax department. By 1976, our Chicago office had the largest income of all the offices, and my tax department not only had the greatest revenue, but was also the most profitable. [Managing Partner] Richard “Dick” Baker came over and congratulated me and Neil Faulk, who was head of the Chicago office.

That’s quite an achievement. At that point, you were nearing retirement age but still going strong. What made you decide to retire?

Well, Neil and I had talked about it. I was 62 years old and he was about 61. He said, “We are doing a great job this year, but next year, who knows, so why don’t we retire, like we should?” We did, and I never was sorry.

John and Dorothy Bernauer (seated) in earlier days, with their children, their children’s spouses and their grandchildren.

Clearly, you were ready for it given how hard you’d been working. Once you retired, how did you choose to spend your time?

I’ve been so lucky. Dorothy and I loved to travel. We had made good friends with the vice president of Lincoln National Life, Bill Lewis, and his wife, Betty, so the four of us took several trips together, and we had a very nice time. Finally, we got tired of traveling, bought a condo in Naples, Florida, and decided that we’d enjoy ourselves going back and forth between Naples and Chicago. She passed away in 2005, but I’ve continued to make the trip.

You’ve mentioned Del Paige and others who influenced you. Does anyone else come to mind?

Oh, sure: Bert Belda and Larry Rocca, we got to be good friends. Del continued to be my mentor and friend until I came back to Chicago. Horace “Hod” Barden was head of the Chicago office, and Dorothy and I became good friends with him and his wife, Laura. After Hod passed away, Dorothy and I would still get together with Laura, and I’d do Laura’s income tax return and help her with her investments after I retired.

That’s true friendship. What about those who came up under you? Does anyone stand out in your memory?

Merwin Dan, who took over for me, was an outstanding tax man and a very good businessman. Jim Dox and I got to be close friends before he was made head of the tax department in the Los Angeles office and then head of the West Coast region. He left the firm when the Arthur Young merger took place and went to work for TransAmerica, but we still got together once or twice a year.

During your time with the firm, what was a significant change that impacted the way people were doing their jobs?

Tax software, like the first version of a program like TurboTax. We had a program that would run the returns quickly, and it made as many copies as you wanted to instead of using carbon paper.

Over the course of your career, did you see any change in advancement for women in the workplace?

Slightly. Just about the time I retired, we hired Karen Cassidy. She was very good, and after I retired, they made her a partner. Allstate insurance company hired her away. She took over their tax department, and boy, she made wonderful changes and had a great career there.

After all this time, you still come to the Retired Partner and Principal Meetings, which take place every three years.

I can’t do it by myself, as you’re aware. I have my caregiver, Mrs. Cora Pelegrino, and nobody could be a better caregiver than she is.

What makes you want to stay connected to the firm?

I’ve always felt the firm was my life. During my time there, it was collegial. If one guy did well, good for him! We could always achieve something else. We were not competing with one another. The other firms had some smart people, but I’m not sure their relationships with one another could compare with our firm.

John (center) celebrated his 100th birthday (a little early) at the 2014 Retired Partner and Principal Meeting with (L to R) Dick and Audrey Lewis; John’s caregiver, Cora Pelegrino; and Jean Griffith.

The spirit of partnership still remains. That’s the foundation that you and others laid.

I had the good fortune to work under [former managing partners] Alwin Ernst, Hassel Tippit and then Dick Baker, who was absolutely outstanding — smart and charismatic. Now, Mark Weinberger knows where he wants to take the firm, and by golly, the way he talks, he going to do it.

In your experience, what are the keys to longevity?

First, one of your parents has to have had a long life. Second, do things moderately. Eat moderately. Enjoy your scotch or your wine, but not too much. And third, when you make up your mind to do something, do it.

I understand you have some comfortable routines: going to Mass; taking walks; having dinner with friends and family. Are you still seeking out new experiences?

Have you heard of StubHub?

Yes, I love it.

I just saw the Red Sox play the Yankees at JetBlue Park, the Red Sox spring training park. We used to see the Yankees when they came to Chicago, but for some reason or other, I never saw the Red Sox. That JetBlue Park is so organized, I am amazed. By golly, as soon as I got out of the car, there was a cart to take me right to the gate, where there was a lady with a wheelchair for me. And my tickets were on my cellphone, you know, from StubHub. Talk about being lucky.

Sometimes we make our own luck, right? In any case, John, we’re lucky that you’re part of the EY family.

I really enjoyed reviewing what happened to me from when I was a young man on to the time I retired. That’s the first time I’ve reviewed my career like that in a very long time.

More about John Bernauer

  • Was married to his wife, Dorothy, for 64 years
  • Has two children, four grandchildren and three great-grandchildren
  • Hosted Easter dinner for 22 people this year
  • Has never missed a Retired Partner and Principal Meeting

 

EY and accounting in John Bernauer’s time

1940: CPAs commonly use a desktop machine to manually file, sort and retrieve data.

1942–45: The world is at war, and many clients convert their operations to defense industries. The FBI requires that firm employees working with these companies be fingerprinted and subjected to rigorous security checks.

1950: Ernst & Ernst celebrates its 50th birthday.

1966: Arthur Young & Co. installs an RCA Spectra 70 electronic computer system to centrally store and share information among its 40 US offices.

1974: Mary Finan becomes the first woman at Arthur Young & Co. to rise through the ranks to partner.

Explore more highlights of the EY story through our interactive timeline.

Summary

At 103, John Bernauer is the oldest living retired US firm partner, and his life is a testament to the sustaining power of relationships.

About this article

By

Tom Lardner

EY Americas Alumni Executive Sponsor

EY Americas Alumni leader. Dedicated to helping people build and grow their network and career. Family is my foundation.

Related topics Alumni