One-on-One with Steve Cogan of REDW - Albuquerque Journal

One-on-One with Steve Cogan of REDW


Steve Cogan must emanate responsibility and integrity because people always want to put him in charge of something.

Whether it was presiding over the condo association in his 600-home community or guiding the boards of local nonprofits – including the Albuquerque Museum Foundation and Catholic Charities of Central New Mexico – Cogan has consistently found himself in leadership roles.

Steve Cogan, managing principal at REDW. (Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal)
Steve Cogan, managing principal at REDW. (Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal)

It has kind of always been this way. As a 16-year-old working as an attendant in the beach parking lots around his native Los Angeles, Cogan’s bosses approached him about overseeing the roughly 20 lots dotting the city’s coastline. (He turned it down since he didn’t even have his own car at the time to drive back and forth. And because his parents didn’t like the idea as he’d recently been held up at gunpoint while on the job at his regular lot.)

The trend mystifies Cogan who says he never aims for the top spot. It just seems to happen.

“Somehow, I’ve always ended up in these positions,” he says.

He just now took on a new one – perhaps his biggest to date. He last month took over as managing principal at REDW LLCs, a certified public accounting and business consulting firm with about 200 employees between its Albuquerque headquarters and Phoenix office.

Q: Describe yourself as a teenager.

A: School was really easy for me, I didn’t really do much in school. … I spent most of my time as a teenager at the beach, in two different roles. I was in a junior lifeguard program all summer. I grew up in Southern California, so I spent the whole summer at the beach. I never surfed, but (did) bodysurfing and running on the beach, and whatever else we did in that program. The other thing I did was I was a parking lot attendant at the beach. I used to work at Cabrillo Beach … down in Los Angeles harbor. We let people in and took money. It was a great experience because I had grown up in Palos Verdes, which is kind of an upper-middle-class area and not very diverse. Being a parking lot attendant at the beach was great. It was really a life-changing experience to be around really a diverse group of people, people from all over the world, and people from all different socio-economic groups and different places in life. Everybody goes to the beach.

Q: What was your first job?

A: My first job was pulling weeds in an oil field. My parents had a little tiny investment in an oil field company in Southern California. That was before they pretty much outlawed oil wells in Southern California. This guy would pick me up (and drive me to the site). He was one of the guys who drove and pushed up and down on the gas pedal all the time, so I would get to the oil well – it was like a half-an-hour drive to the oil wells – and I’d be just this far from throwing up from being car sick. I’d get out of the car, and rake weeds and pull weeds at the oil field. That was my first job. After that, I upgraded to the beach.

Q: What put you on the track to being an accountant?

A: I figured I could get a job.

Q: It wasn’t some burning desire to audit?

A: No (laughs). It seemed like a way to get a job. It’s a really practical career path. There’s lots of things you can do with it. Accounting is something that’s necessary for every business. You don’t run a business without accounting and finance. And it’s something where you can do all kinds of different things.

Q: You started at what is now PricewaterhouseCoopers. What was it like working for one of those big firms?

A: Pricewaterhouse is a great company. It’s a fantastic company and I loved working with Pricewaterhouse. (There were) great people. I really learned a lot about hard work and accountability, and doing really high-quality work but, at least at that time, the people who were successful at Pricewaterhouse worked 70 hours a week year-round. I wasn’t going to do that because I wanted to be able to spend time with my family and my church and my faith and the community and work. It’s pretty hard to work that much all the time and have family and community and faith, so I quit.

Q: Did you have a plan in mind when you quit there?

A: Yes and no. I took a month off and studied for the CPA exam, but then my wife had always wanted to be in the Peace Corps. We fiddled around to see if we were going to join the Peace Corps. I had never done anything like that. … We decided the Peace Corps wasn’t going to work for some reason, so we just did this random research and found this nondenominational Christian missionary school in Guatemala, and we applied and got on a plane and flew down there. It was nuts. It was a fantastic experience. We were sitting in a restaurant (with my family) before we left to go to Guatemala. We were all sitting there, we’ve got the whole family there and my dad says, “Well, have you done a will yet? You have to do a will before you go to Guatemala.” He was certain something bad was going to happen to us.

Q: Were you were teaching at the school?

A: My wife’s a science teacher, so she taught science. I taught computer science and business class, and helped with their bookkeeping.

Q: What was the Guatemala experience like?

A: I learned that human beings are just incredibly adaptable. (It was) the fact I could go from my lifestyle I had to a Third World country and figure out how to make that work, and get to a point where we loved it. I just think there’s no limit to what people can accomplish if we set our minds to it and if we stretch ourselves. From that, I just really have a strong belief we can do anything we set our minds to, and human beings are incredibly adaptable and incredibly capable. The other thing I learned from being in a Third World country is we don’t appreciate what we have. … There’s always someone somewhere who has something worse or is in a worse situation. And we don’t appreciate what we have in this country, just really basic things. … The other thing from Guatemala is we have an assumption, I think sometimes in this country that there’s a direct relationship between happiness and wealth, that just because you have money you can be happy. And I saw some of the most joyful people that I’ve ever met lived in what we would say is abject poverty – a little, tiny shared house with a dirt floor, one-room dirt floor house in a compound. And some of the most miserable people I’ve ever known are some of the most wealthy people I’ve known in this country. You can be happy or miserable in a variety of economic states.

Q: You’ve been at REDW since you came back to the U.S. in 1992. What has kept you here?

A: We just have a great group of people. I’ve just always enjoyed working here. I really like the innovation and entrepreneurial spirit of the firm. It fits well with me. I’ve done all of these kind of crazy different things in my life. That fits with me because the firm has been willing to let me spend a lot of time on the board of Catholic Charities or on the board of the Museum Foundation or (give me the) flexibility to do things with my family and my church. It’s been good in that way. I think the other reason I’m still here is I’m just kind of stubborn and persevered through the challenging times. There have been challenging times and I’ve persevered through that. A lot of times, new students ask me, “What do you have to do to be successful in public accounting?” I usually respond that you have to be able to cope with life, and persevere through the ups and downs. I think it’s really as much about having a good attitude and enjoying what you’re doing, and not giving up when there’s difficulties and challenges.

Q: If you weren’t doing this, what else could you see yourself doing?

A: If I wasn’t doing this, if I could afford it, I probably would go back and do some sort of volunteering full time, work for a charity or go back and do some sort of overseas work, some sort of work in a Third World country or some place like that. (Guatemala) was a terrific experience, something we could really make a difference (doing). Hopefully, I can make a really big difference at REDW; that’s my mission now but, if I wasn’t doing that and we could afford it, I’d just help some charity.

Q: What are your pet peeves?

A: I like to be direct and forthright about things. Maybe sometimes I can be too direct. It’s difficult if people aren’t forthright and honest about things; it’s a challenge for me.

Q: What is one food you can’t live without?

A: I have sort of a sweet tooth. (I) like small little gummy candies. My wife’s a chocolate nut; she can’t even understand why I tolerate that stuff – like any sweet, gooey chewy candies like those little Swedish fish.

Q: What was your last splurge?

A: We were at an Angels game. My son’s into the Angels. I bought him a signed Mike Trout jersey for graduation. … I paid something ridiculous, like $800, for a signed Mike Trout jersey.

Q: How would you describe yourself in three words?

A: A little crazy.

 

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