Q and A with Pat Gray: On crafting the finance department for Bell’s Brewery and more

Pat Gray, B.B.A.’89

Graphic of family tree with branch for each family memberPat Gray, B.B.A.’89, began working in public accounting in 1990 with local firms, and earned his CPA license in 1993. He became a partner with Gould, Stinson & Gray, PC and worked in that capacity from 2001 to 2013. Eventually, he became the CFO of Bell's Brewery, Inc. in 2013, after serving the company as a client for many years. 

Shortly after Gray started doing accounting work with Bell’s, he decided to try home brewing. He called Larry Bell to ask a few questions, and during their conversation as Larry worked on the daily deposit, he came across the check Gray had written for homebrew supplies the day before. To this day, Gray credits that conversation and his own seriousness about brewing with creating a connection and respect that lives on to this day.

As Gray readies for retirement, he reflects on the experiences he has had, lessons learned and how others can get retirement-ready.

What is the most interesting experience that you have had in your career thus far? 

Participating in the evolution of the craft brewing industry has been enlightening. When I started working with Larry Bell in 1993, the brewery was just beginning to turn a profit after 7 years of very hard work. Bell’s was a very small client of mine at the time, but I liked Larry, beer and the idea of a brewery in Kalamazoo. Bell’s sold about 3,100 barrels of beer in 1993, more than double the year before. They sold 248,000 barrels in 2013, the year I became an employee, and 499,000 in 2019. Helping a company manage that kind of growth was a great experience.

Beyond Bells, my tax work with WMU football coaches was an interesting experience. I worked with no fewer than six coaches between 2000 and 2013.  

What do you see as the biggest challenge in today’s business world?

That’s easy—COVID-19. This is that once-in-a-lifetime black swan event. I picked the worst financial time to retire, but I am also glad that I do not have the responsibility for managing the long-term consequences of the pandemic. I hope for a quick resolution and a return to a level of normalcy for all those affected.

From the craft brewing perspective, the environment, and conditions related to it, are always a challenge. You need quality agricultural products and clean water to produce great beer. And, competition in the industry continues to grow—that’s a new challenge. 

What excites you about your work every day?

Being semi-retired at this point, I’m currently looking for a new reason to get out of bed in the morning. Working as a small practitioner, I never knew what the next phone call would bring. I had to wear many hats. Working for Bell’s brought the day-to-day challenge of building a finance department while managing growth that doubled barrelage, infrastructure and employees within five years.

What is a topic that you think is vital but not getting as much attention as it should in business circles?

Employee financial education! I’m surprised by how many people don’t think about their financial futures, or do so when the choices are more limited. I planned all my life to be able to retire at 55, and my replacement started the day after my 55thbirthday. Since Bell’s does its company-wide raises in April, I decided to create communication in April for retirement planning. The goal was to send an e-mail every business day during the month. The first week revolved around the company 401(k). After that, the topics varied from technical (ROTH vs. traditional or diversification) to life (planning for the big events or managing debt.) Tackling these topics is vital to long-term financial health. 

How do you describe your leadership style? What do you find to be the essential characteristics of good leaders?

I’ve always been a hands-on leader. I don’t micromanage, but I do like to stay close to the finances. I think being humble is key as well. Every employee has a job that contributes to the success of the company. Never think your title makes you better than anyone else. Being an ethical decision maker is important in any profession, and kind of a big deal in mine. It’s also important to acknowledge your limitations. No one knows it all, and you have to be open to other ideas. It is ok to say, I don’t know.

Ultimately, you have to have the respect of those you lead. I believe these traits lead to respect.

What is the professional accomplishment that you are most proud of?

I would say my time at Bell’s. When I started, the finance department consisted of an accounts payable and accounts receivable specialist along with an outdated accounting system. I’m leaving a staff of eight, with room to grow. We also implemented Microsoft AX ERP in 2016. It feels good to have grown the finance department and improved processes and systems.

How did your academic experience in the college of business help you in your career?

College provides the technical knowledge to be successful, but more importantly, it provides tools that allow you to continue to grow.

A WMU family

Gray credits his wife as a partner in his success, noting her work as an educator and the relationships she formed with his clients throughout the years as instrumental.

Pat Gray’s family has deep roots at WMU. Check out their Bronco family tree.

  • Joan Gray (mother)—1976, Bachelor of Arts, Social Work, Gerontology; 1980, Master of Arts, Educational Leadership; 1986-1996 Worked in WMU Office of Conferences and Institutes.
  • Amy Gray (wife)—1988, Bachelor of Arts, English, French with Secondary Education; 1993, Master of Arts, Counselor Education and Counseling Psychology.
  • Patrick Gray—1989, Bachelor of Business Administration, Accountancy
  • Alexander Gray (son)—2014, Bachelor of Science, Biomedical Sciences
  • Austin Gray (son) —2019, Bachelor of Science, Paper Engineering