Retiring from accounting firm KPMG in 2001 at age 47 opened up fresh opportunities for Alice Richter. “One of the things I had enjoyed most about my career in public accounting was talking to clients about their needs above and beyond an audit,” she says. Board service has given her more of those opportunities.
A partner at KPMG since 1987, Richter was national industry director of the company’s food and beverage practice and a member of the board of trustees of the KPMG Foundation at the time she retired. She loved her job, but as she took on more of a national role, she found herself spending too much time on planes and not enough time with her school-age children.
And though Richter hadn’t foreseen it, she picked the right time to retire. A few months afterwards, the Enron scandal blew up; the following July, the Sarbanes-Oxley Act set new limits on the actions of accountants. “After my retirement, it seemed that the profession was reduced to fact checking,” Richter says. “Needless to say, I would not have enjoyed public accounting as much in the immediate post-Enron world as I did before.”
Yet Sarbanes-Oxley’s stringent new compliance regulations for public companies also meant that her accounting expertise and insights would be needed more than ever. In 2003, she was invited to join the board of Minnetonka-based uniform and identity apparel company G&K Services (Nasdaq: GKSR). Richter was impressed that G&K had an active board which enjoyed a good relationship with the CEO and the rest of the management team. “They viewed directors as advisors to the company, which is what I think a board ought to be,” she says.
As a KPMG employee, Richter wasn’t allowed to join a for-profit board. G&K was her first, and she had a clear sense of herself and her role. “Whenever I heard the phrase, ‘We’re looking for a woman who . . . ,’ my antennae went up,” she says. “I would much rather hear, ‘We’re looking for someone with governance and financial expertise who can strengthen our board and perhaps chair our audit committee.’ I wasn’t interested in being a token female on a board.”
She also wasn’t interested in simply sitting at the board table. After her appointment, Richter spent a day riding with a G&K delivery driver.
“I learned first hand what is involved in dealing directly with our customers—who, of course, are the foundation and total focus of our company,” Richter says. “The drivers speak for us to our customers. They also hear what’s important to them and oftentimes have great ideas and suggestions on how to improve our delivery service to our customers. It was a great way to be introduced to the nuts and bolts of what makes G&K tick.” Richter seems to have set an example: It’s now standard policy that all new G&K board members go on a route drive early in their tenure.
“Alice brings significant accounting experience to our board, in addition to considerable business acumen and judgment,” G&K Services CEO Douglas Milroy says. “She is consistently well prepared and provides good, thoughtful leadership on a wide variety of issues. She is well possessed of an understanding of G&K’s business, and she well understands broader industry trends and issues.”
Her service on G&K’s board kept her so busy that she nearly passed on the opportunity to join Minneapolis-based Thrivent Financial for Lutherans in 2007. She changed her mind after talking to Thrivent’s CEO and in-house counsel. “They were talking about turning this big ship to be even more successful in the new millennium by upgrading their systems and redefining how to interact with members over the long term,” Richter recalls. “Then I met with their nominating committee and was very impressed with the commitment of the people I met. Ultimately, joining that board was something I felt I had to do. It was as if the Lord tapped on my soul and said, ‘Alice, you will make time for this.’”
After taking a couple of years to learn Thrivent’s business, Richter agreed to chair its information technology committee. There she shepherded the implementation of Thrivent’s $150 million IT modernization program and put in place a mechanism to measure the financial savings the company realized as a result.
OTHER BOARD SERVICE:
• West Marine, a Watsonville, California–based international retailer of boating supplies and accessories (2005–present)
• Bluestem Brands, a Eden Prairie–based Internet and catalog retailer of general merchandise (2007–present)