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2021 12 People: Tom Watson

Steady Rise

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By the time Tom Watson was a sophomore in college, he was already a licensed insurance agent.

Those in his office pushed him to stay in the field after graduating, but Watson wasn’t so sure.

“I was, like, you know, I think I really need to try out my accounting degree,” he recalls. An internship in 1991 with BKD LLP cemented that feeling.

“I really just fell in love with the client service aspect of it. You could go out and meet really interesting professional people and help them work though any problems they may have,” he says.

Watson, 50, has been with BKD ever since. And in June, Watson will officially take on the CEO role of the company that employs about 2,900 people in 40 offices nationwide and estimated fiscal 2020 revenue of roughly $695 million, according to BKD’s website.

There are many reasons why he’s remained with the accounting firm, Watson says, but mostly because its commitment to excellence and discipline resonated with him.

“That really fit my mindset. I was really big into learning and continual self-development,” he says.

When he learned in August he was selected as CEO by the firm’s governing board, he says the moment was surreal.

“It’s just really, really amazing to feel like, hey, I’ve got the chance at leading this great team,” Watson says. “It’s a tremendous sense of responsibility. It’s time to really lean in even further.”

He says the difference between being a regional managing partner and chief executive is the shift from strategic to operational thinking.

The transition has been an intentionally gradual one. The baton is passing from Ted Dickman, who is retiring, to Watson over the better part of a year.

“We’re four months in and it’s been a really effective transition,” Watson says, noting there really isn’t a playbook. “I think the vision our leadership team had was, let’s create the first five or six months to allow me to really ask questions.”

As 2021 unfolds, more decisions will transfer to Watson. He will officially assume the role on June 1, 2021.

Watson predicts technological changes will demand a shift in strategies. The challenges he’s identified are maintaining BKD’s culture in a more geographically scattered workforce and harnessing technology to help clients solve problems faster than ever before.

“We’ve been around nearly 100 years and there are so many things we do very, very well – unmatched client service values, pride values – core values will not change regardless of what this technological transformation might do,” Watson says.

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