He’s created an internal audit function at a broadcaster with 350 television stations and prepared a cable channel for a $3 billion sale. Now, he’s streamlining accounting operations at a renowned university with twelve thousand students. Most people like to make little improvements, but John Gordon lives to make big things better.
How does he do it? By applying the expertise in finance and accounting he’s developed over the past thirty years. Today, Gordon is Howard University’s controller and chief accounting officer. He says he enjoys the role because he can use his aptitude for budgets, numbers, and patterns to make a real difference at the historically Black university.
By now, it’s simply second nature. In fact, Gordon can’t remember a time before his skills emerged. High school counselors noticed he excelled in math. He took a bookkeeping course and enrolled to study business administration and accounting at James Madison University. That’s where a dedicated faculty member mentored Gordon and helped him realize his potential. He got his CPA license and then his Global Chartered Management Accountant license. Soon, Gordon was working as a staff auditor and senior auditor at Price Waterhouse (now PricewaterhouseCoopers), one of the biggest and most famous accounting firms in the world.
Gordon performed work for major clients and had the opportunity to join the team that handled PwC’s audit for the World Bank. Although the role helped him develop key professional skills, it also made him realize that he didn’t want to build a career as a partner at an accounting firm.
“I wanted to be more strategic and add value in a different way than as a partner,” he explains. “I wanted to be part of a team that looks at a business and tries to break it to put it back together in a new way. I wanted to brainstorm new ideas and put them in place.” As Gordon scanned his brain for clients and entrepreneurs who would share his vision, one name came to mind—Robert Johnson.
Johnson had started Black Entertainment Television (BET) in 1980. Gordon joined the company as a director of operations and immediately had the chance to suggest and implement new ideas as Johnson was creating, buying, and selling businesses.
“The accounting and finance people were instrumental in making Johnson’s vision a reality,” Gordon says, adding that he gained valuable experience and exposure as he closed important BET deals.
At just twenty-five years old, Gordon was setting up whole structures and entities to move magazine and publishing businesses from New York City to Washington, DC.
After four years, Gordon left BET for PBS, where he created new audit programs, advised leadership on financial matters, and worked directly with the large nonprofit organization’s board of trustees. In 1999, Gordon returned to BET for an important assignment.
Johnson was about to sell his company to Viacom, but he needed an accounting wizard to fix his finances ahead of the massive deal. He knew Gordon was just the person to do so. Viacom wanted to pay twenty times earnings. Johnson wanted a $3 billion sale. When Gordon worked to demonstrate that BET had a $150 million EBITDA , the deal closed at Johnson’s figure.
Although he had intended to move on to another challenge, Gordon stayed at BET another thirteen years. In 2013, a former colleague told him about an open position at Howard. The university’s finance department had a poor reputation with auditors. Faculty and staff viewed the department as an obstacle. Accountants took months to close the books each fiscal year.
In short, leadership needed someone to make it better. That someone was Gordon.
Gordon has found that life and service in higher education is difficult and slow , but he’s spent the past eight years gradually improving an intricate system. “Howard University is a large business masquerading as a nonprofit, and its structure makes implementing improvements a challenge. But it’s a challenge we can tackle together,” he says.
The university is the fourth-largest landholder in the District of Columbia. It operates nine residence halls, a hospital, a radio station, a newspaper, and a library. Faculty members research for NOAA, NASA, and other partner organizations.
That very structure adds layers of complexity to Gordon’s job. He revamped his staff, made key hires of people with the right professional backgrounds, earned the trust and engagement of his peers and counterparts, improved controls, and worked with the external auditors to increase communication and fix problems. When Gordon arrived, teams took months to close books. Now they accomplish the task in just one week.
In 2013, auditors cited twenty-three material weaknesses and significant deficiencies related to Howard’s reporting. Gordon and his team have that number down to six. Now, he’s a key part of the team implementing a new ERP software designed to introduce automation and bring greater efficiency to all the financial and accounting processes.
At Howard, Gordon invests in young professionals the same way others invested in him. His fraternity mentors students, and he’s encouraged members of his staff to get licenses and earn advanced degrees through a tuition reimbursement program.
Over the years, Howard has produced Supreme Court justices, Oscar-winning actors, vice presidents, mayors, governors, senators, doctors, novelists, journalists, and poets. Gordon thinks about those students as he walks the campus affectionately called “The Mecca.”
“People here are doing important work,” he says. “And we’re making things better for them so they can fulfill their dreams.”
Thoughts from Guest Editor Susan Pikitch
“Working hand in hand with the CEO of a growing, entrepreneurial company, John Gordon was just the person to bring new practices and thinking to Howard University. While higher education works slower and has its own set of norms, John was able to adapt and slowly implement changes to show what “good looks like.” His peers and counterparts liked what they saw, and now John has the trust and support to move a little faster and make meaningful improvements.”
Read features from the Issue 4 2021 Finance section, which include commentary from Guest Editor Susan Pikitch.