Matthew Schell ’03 came to Illinois State on a full scholarship and was described by his high school coach as a “self-made” player. His ability to identify opportunities and develop an executable roadmap served him well, both as a part of the Redbird squad and in the classroom.
Using the traits of hard work, commitment, and perseverance developed on the gridiron, Schell continues to progress in his career nearly a decade after completing a dual undergraduate degree in finance and accounting.
Schell achieved a first for an Illinois State alumnus when he was chosen to serve as a Professional Accounting Fellow with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) in 2012. He is now completing a two-year appointment in the Office of the Chief Accountant (OCA), which serves as the principal advisor to the SEC on financial reporting, disclosures, and auditing matters.
“My co-workers thought I was crazy,” Schell said, recalling his decision to apply for the prestigious position. There are only approximately 40 CPAs in OCA, of which about half are fellows chosen from stiff national competition. Most fellows typically come from the Big Four accounting firms and face internal competition to even be recommended to the commission by their firm.
Schell was not deterred by the fact that no fellow had ever emerged from his firm at the time, Crowe Horwath LLP (Crowe), which is one of the largest public accounting and consulting firms in the U.S. Crowe recognized the value of serving as a fellow and supported Schell in his endeavor, which included letters of recommendation from the CEO, the managing partner of the New York audit practice, and the managing partner of the regulatory matters of the national office.
Using connections Schell had established with Illinois State University and at Crowe, he developed a plan to study relevant accounting and auditing policy topics of the day in order to prepare for the interview. He read SEC speeches from the past few decades and wrote an essay on an accounting policy issue as part of the application process, knowing he would have to present and defend his work during the interview.
Defending his essay was only part of the brutal interview process he completed with the help of Illinois State faculty. His former accounting professor, Linda Leinicke, wrote a letter of reference and provided support for Schell—whom she had identified years earlier as a student with a bright future in a field he initially didn’t even consider.
Schell chose Illinois State primarily for football. Initially undecided academically, he pondered chemistry and finance. Once in College of Business classes, he showed a confidence and ease in the very accounting courses that often convinced others to choose another major. Leinicke consequently encouraged Schell to pursue accounting while studying finance.
“The tech boom was happening and companies kept asking about accounting,” Schell said, recalling his experience interviewing for finance internships as a junior. He ended up leaving the football team, working on campus and at a local bank, and delaying his graduation to add the accounting major.
“I took 18 hours of accounting in one semester to get that double major,” he said. Looking back on the journey, Schell realizes the path was a perfect fit for him, as his father was an accountant and a banker.
“The papers I doodled on growing up were debit and credit tickets. I spent hours in the bank around loan documents and rolling coins. I played with my dad’s finance calculator in church,” Schell said. “I paid attention to the stock market, read The Wall Street Journal as a kid, and had an investment account with the money I made mowing lawns. Looking back, I was almost destined to follow the accounting and finance track.”
He did not follow the expected path after graduation, however, turning down offers from the Big Four to join Crowe. “Given my background, I took an offer with a firm that provided an opportunity for me to constantly reinvent myself and was focused on financial service companies,” Schell said. He wanted to be where he could help manage and achieve growth, not only for himself, but for the firm.
While Schell started in Indiana, he relocated to New Jersey within two years of graduating. He helped open the firm’s office there, handling everything from hiring staff to the crucial task of building clientele.
He made another change when he and his wife, Barbara, moved to Washington, D.C., so she could advance her career as a pediatric anesthesiologist. While in D.C., Schell expanded his knowledge in accounting and auditing policy issues. He increased his time speaking on technical accounting topics by changing his role and working for a Crowe national office partner. This partner was critical to his next endeavor, as she introduced the idea of pursuing a fellowship with the SEC.
“I didn’t truly know the extent of the SEC’s and OCA’s roles in establishing and enforcing accounting and auditing policy while I was a young student at Illinois State,” Schell said. One year into his fellowship, he does not hesitate to say the experience has surpassed all expectations.
Although he had to sever all ties with his firm to take the paid SEC position and he is not certain where he will land after the appointment ends in fall 2014, Schell has no regrets. He relishes the opportunity to tackle the most difficult of issues: “The SEC answers hard questions. We regularly receive consultations involving unusual, complex, or innovative transactions with no clear authoritative guidance. We don’t answer the same question twice and often establish a precedent with our decisions.”
The fellows work in teams of three to review the consultations. The teams are frequently immersed in the underlying accounting and overarching problems an industry may be facing. In addressing a consultation, the team may also coordinate with other country’s regulators and the requirements of different exchanges the issuer may be listed on. These complex transactions for some of the world’s largest companies could involve questions about either International Finance Reporting Standards (IFRS) or U.S. generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP) accounting requirements. His areas of expertise and focus while at the SEC include financial assets, debt equity, derivatives, leasing, and non-stock based compensation.
This challenge is only one of many for Schell, who has two children under the age of 5 and a spouse with a full-time career. He participates in triathlons and recently became a chartered financial analyst (CFA). He also continues to be a student, participating in the SEC’s Securities and Financial Regulation Certificate Program through Georgetown Law School.
His love of learning, and especially his appreciation for Illinois State, has resulted in Schell keeping strong ties with the College of Business. The recipient of an Early Career Achievement Award from the college, he enjoys returning to campus as a mentor and speaker.
He did so most recently in the fall, giving students the confidence that they too will receive all they need to succeed if they apply themselves while at the University. Schell also shared his own personal mantra, which has carried from campus to the apex of action in the world of accounting: “Don’t be afraid to set big goals and to tackle challenges others will not.”