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Meet the New Accounting Leaders in Orange County

Local Heads for EY, PwC, UHY, Withum and Wright Ford Young & Co.

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At least half of the accounting bosses who oversee Orange County’s 10 largest firms have changed over the last two years.

In the past year, No. 2 Ernst & Young and No. 4 PwC changed their top OC officials. Two years ago, local changes were made at No. 1 Deloitte, No. 5 Moss Adams and No. 7 Baker Tilly (see list, page 30).

Below are profiles on new leaders of five notable Orange County accounting firms.
— Peter J. Brennan

 

Mary Garrett: Support for OC’s Entrepreneurs

 

Mary Garrett was appointed the Orange County office managing partner for accounting and consulting firm Ernst & Young LLP, effective Jan. 1.

She succeeded Kim Letch, who served as the office managing partner of Orange County for five years and has taken on a new role as the EY US-West Private Equity Market Segment leader.

Garrett was born in Newport Beach and raised in Irvine where she graduated from Woodbridge High School.

In fact, her family dates to the late 1800s when it began a farming business planting grapes, avocadoes and oranges.

“We have a very strong connection to Orange County,” said Garrett, adding that both of her parents are OC natives.

She spent a four-year stint at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville on a volleyball scholarship before returning here.

“What I love about Orange County is how much I’ve seen it grow and change over the years,” Garrett said in an interview earlier this year. “There’s an amazing entrepreneurial spirt in Orange County.”

Garrett earned a degree in accounting because she was excited about business and knew she would get opportunities to explore a wide variety of fields such as technology, taxes and healthcare.

Garrett’s first job out of college was at EY, meaning she’s spent her entire 23-year career at the firm.

“I really love my experience at EY,” she said. “They value respect and working as a team. I’ve made strong connections to my clients. I feel like I had no limit to my opportunity.”

Garrett is responsible for leading 578 professionals in OC, a 6.6% boost from a year ago.

Ernst & Young, with its local base at the Lakeshore office complex in Irvine near John Wayne Airport, is OC’s second-largest accounting firm by employee count, trailing Deloitte, which has almost 1,000 employees.

Garrett works with high-growth public, private, private equity portfolio and emerging companies on a variety of transactions, including IPOs, mergers and acquisitions, and international expansion. She’s also an audit partner in health and wellness and life sciences industries.

She recently organized a “branding day” to help local employees “define their brand and establish a presence at EY” and with clients.

 

Traceè Jones: A Noble Career

 

A year ago, Ted Wilm retired as Orange County’s managing partner at PwC, the fourth-largest accounting firm on the Business Journal’s annual list as ranked by OC employees.

Traceè Jones, who worked at PwC’s Los Angeles office, took over the managing partner role last July.

She didn’t have to move to Orange County because she already lives in Yorba Linda where she and her husband raised four children.

“I got the opportunity to become Orange County partner,” she said, explaining why she moved to the OC office. “I’m excited to be in this role. I’m looking forward to meeting everyone.”

Born and raised in Houston, Jones met a PwC accounting partner while in high school and decided to pursue an accounting degree because of its stability.

“I found out it was a noble career,” she told the Business Journal.

She earned an undergrad and master’s degree in accounting from the University of Texas at Austin, which she called the highest-ranked accounting school in the nation.

She’s been with PwC since joining as an intern in 1997 and became a partner in 2015. When asked why she’d stay with one company for so long, she replied that the company has provided opportunity and flexibility. She also praises the people she works with.

“I feel like they are part of my family, and you can never leave your family,” Jones said.
About 11 years ago, she moved to work in the Los Angeles office.

Jones has significant experience with SEC registered investment companies and investment advisers, as well as private equity firms and hedge fund firms.

In her current role, she wants to make sure PwC is well represented in the community.

“I’m ensuring that our brand is out in the community—providing whatever support that we can, connecting with community and business leaders, to make sure that we’re being visible,” she said.

“Once you start meeting all the people in Orange County and understanding the layout, it’s very manageable.”

Jones has been surprised by how supportive business executives are of each other, even in different industries.

“It’s nice to see that interaction,” she said. “I’m humbled by the generosity and willingness to support each other.”

 

Crystal Li: Serving Asian Community

 

In January, Crystal Li was named the office manager and audit partner at the only West Coast office for UHY LLP.

Li’s Irvine office doubled to 21 employees this past year because her firm successfully handled the auditing for the IPO of iPower Inc. (Nasdaq: IPW), a Duarte-based provider of hydroponics equipment and accessories.

“That’s a good showcase that has led to more inquiries,” Li said.

Li was born and raised in Beijing, where she started learning English while in fourth grade. She moved to the U.S. about a decade ago as part of a training program at an international firm.
“I was pretty young when I moved here and I was excited about the United States, its opportunities, Wall Street,” she said.

In 2016, Li joined UHY, which is based in Farmington Hills, Mich., and currently has 1,400 employees companywide, which is up 41% from the prior year.

The company initially wanted to expand in Southern California through acquisitions, she said. Later, it shifted gears to grow organically.

As a result, she’s looking to hire about 10 more in this coming year, particularly to expand its tax practice. She’s looking for employees who can speak a second language, particularly Chinese.

“Our practice has an Asian focus. Most of our employees speak fluent Chinese. We’re heavily serving the local Asian community.”

Li has experience in SPACs, due diligence and reverse mergers as well as IPOs, UHY says, adding that Li has “an in-depth understanding of the differences” in business operations between China and the U.S.

“The way they communicate is different. Even though they all speak English, it could be completely different meanings,” she said. “I’m always acting as a bridge between China and the U.S.”

The mother of two young children plans to stay in the United States.

“People from different cultures work well together, particularly in California,” Li said.

 

Ken Johnson: Family Spirit

 

Withum, a Princeton, N.J.-based accounting firm that is among the nation’s 25 largest, first entered Orange County in 2020 with the acquisition of KSJG CPA LLP.

At that time, KSJG Managing Partner Larry Gregson, who helped found the company in 1979 and is well known in local accounting circles, became partner-in-charge of the office.

He’s passed the torch to Ken Johnson, who joined KSJG in 1996 and rose to become partner.

“Withum isn’t just a job—we’re a family, and we carry that spirit together in everything we do,” Johnson said on the company’s webpage. “We live the ‘Withum Way.’ We are catalysts for growth and success.”

Johnson is a graduate in accounting and business management from California State University, Fullerton (for a deeper look at the university’s accounting program, see page 22).

In the past year, Withum boosted the headcount at its Irvine office by 19% to 87. Companywide, Withum’s headcount climbed 47% to 1,802.

 

Jeff Myers: 100 Employees Strong

 

Bob Wright in 1974 founded what became known as Wright Ford Young & Co., the 17th-largest firm on the Business Journal’s list this year. While he retired as managing director in 2017, he is still involved as a tax partner.

Jeff Myers estimates he “unofficially” became managing partner about five years ago and “I guess officially within the last year or two.”

Born and raised in Orange County, the California State University, Fullerton graduate in 2007 joined the Irvine-based firm, which grew 11% this past year to 100 employees.

“We’ve been blessed by not being plagued like other firms with high degree of turnovers,” Myers said.

“We have the best firm in Orange County. We got the best people, the best culture, the best clients. We’ve had low employee turnover, which has resulted in low client turnover.”

Peter J. Brennan
Peter J. Brennan
Peter J. Brennan has been a journalist for 40 years. He spent a decade in Latin America covering wars, narcotic traffickers, earthquakes, and business. His resume includes 15 years at Bloomberg News where his headlines and articles sometimes moved the market caps of companies he covered by hundreds of millions of dollars. His articles have been published worldwide, including the New York Times and the Washington Post; he's appeared on CNN, CBC, BBC, and Bloomberg TV. He was awarded a Kiplinger Fellowship at The Ohio State University.

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