Marty and Ann Brown’s Volunteer Spirit

From his years as an accounting student at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, to his position as president and CEO of PYA, a nationally prominent accounting and consulting firm, Marty Brown (HCB, ’85) has achieved great success. He also has demonstrated his generosity as a leader and continues to do so by encouraging colleagues and sharing his expertise with students. His commitment to the next generation extends to Haslam students through recent scholarship endowments created by Brown and his wife, Ann. The couple considers such support a way to both continue the support Brown received as a student to honor his beginnings and help support deserving students.

Foundation in accounting

Brown had a knack for math in high school, but when he came to UT as a freshman in 1981, he hadn’t yet considered a career in accounting. A professor recognized his aptitude and suggested that he major in business. Brown did, but he entered Haslam not long after the death of his father, and had to pay his own way through school. Professors at Haslam understood his situation, and allowed Brown flexibility in scheduling courses so that he could work full-time at a nearby drug store. This, and the free room and board he enjoyed as treasurer and president of his fraternity, helped him make ends meet.

He credits a large part of his success at Haslam to the effective instruction he received under now-retired professors Richard Townsend, Jim Reeve, and Jan Williams, among others.

By the time Brown completed his degree in 1985, he had already interviewed with some two dozen potential employers, including several of the original big eight public accounting firms with offices in Nashville. He signed on with Peat Marwick Mitchell (now KPMG), skipped his UT graduation ceremony, and moved to Nashville to begin work immediately—a progression made all the more urgent by his approaching marriage to high school sweetheart Ann Roush.

KPMG promoted Brown to manager after four years, and senior manager two years later. Auditing and consulting duties took him around the country, as did the courses he taught nationally for the firm. He enjoyed the work and gained valuable insights into the inner workings of various types of businesses.

“When you’re in accounting, you get to see how different businesses work because every industry needs accounting,” Brown says. “Particularly in public accounting, you’re getting exposed to many different elements of the C-suite from day one.”

Leading a local firm to national success

The downside of his job at KPMG was constantly being on the road, away from Ann and their first child, since his clients were located from the Tri-Cities to Memphis. When a consulting position opened up in 1991 with PYA, a Knoxville firm formerly headed by fellow Haslam alumni Ed Pershing and Doug Yoakley, Brown took it. He became a shareholder in 1995, a managing principal of consulting in 2006, and president of the company in 2015.

Brown helped the firm design a series of training modules, dubbed PYA University, to ensure that business operations bear the PYA stamp of quality, no matter the type of project. “It’s an internal curriculum built to teach our team ‘the PYA way’ as it relates to management and soft skills training,” he says. “We now have 30 or so modules to it.”

He also has seen the consulting practice expand in healthcare and multiple other industries during his 30-plus years there. Consulting now makes up a large portion of PYA’s operations.

“We developed a national brand, particularly in the healthcare industry, and that allowed us to gain client relationships in all 50 states,” Brown says. “From there, we grew to serve in other industries, including real estate, community banking, restaurant, retail, and technology companies. Since 2020, we’ve added two new offices and two new affiliate companies.” The firm now has seven offices, as far west as Montana and as far east as North Carolina, where its newest location opens in Charlotte this year.

Under Brown’s leadership, the firm has garnered recognition from major industry publications. In 2021, Modern Healthcare magazine ranked it the eighth largest privately held healthcare consulting firm in the country, after ranking it in the Top 20 for many consecutive years. To honor PYA’s respected CPA services, Forbes named it one of America’s best tax and accounting firms in 2022, and PYA regularly appears in INSIDE Public Accounting’s list of the top 100 firms.

When asked what makes Brown such a strong leader, colleagues describe him as a servant leader. Deborah Ernsberger, a principal at PYA who joined the firm in 1996, says Brown embodies the volunteer spirit. “He leads by example, and focuses on fellow team members at all levels,” she says. “I have benefitted from his leadership, training, honesty, and friendship.”

Michael Ewell, who has known Brown since they were freshmen at UT together, agrees. “Marty is a visionary leader whom everyone trusts and respects, which motivates employees, business partners and contractors to deliver on the vision,” Ewell says. “He possesses integrity of character and humility. He’s a servant leader.”

Commitment to the college

Brown’s service to others extends to his alma mater, to which his wife and children are also strongly tied. Ann graduated from UT, and son Trevor and daughter Kelsey earned their MAcc and MBA, respectively, at Haslam. For years, Marty Brown has donated time, energy, and financial support to the college. He is a member of Haslam’s Accounting and Information Management Roundtable. Drawing on his teaching and training experiences through PYA and KPMG, he often speaks to Haslam students about the continued demand for accounting.

“It’s a rigorous business discipline, one of the most rigorous studies at Haslam,” he says. “You’re developing a skill set that’s valuable to virtually every industry, good soft skills, and experience working on C-suite projects. Yes, technology is going to change the way we do traditional audits and tax returns, but the need for objectivity, validation, and assurance to financial markets and business decisions remains.”

Since its founding in 1983, PYA has been headquartered in Knoxville, not far from UT. That proximity enables the firm to maintain a long-term relationship with Haslam, and look there for many of its new recruits. Currently, PYA employs 78 alumni from the college.

“Haslam is putting out an excellent product,” Brown says. “Graduates come out well prepared for the tax track, the audit track, and the information management track. Most often they’ve already passed the CPA exam or are well prepared to do so quickly. Haslam also has done an excellent job including training in business analytics and supply chain. The students we’re getting also have the requisite soft skills. We’ve had great success.”

As part of his commitment to the college, Brown and his wife recently created three Marty and Ann Brown Endowed Scholarships, consisting of one undergraduate scholarship and two specifically for students entering the MAcc program. It’s a way to ease the financial burden for a few deserving students each year, while acknowledging the institution whose faculty helped him succeed in so many ways.

“When I think back to my circumstances, it would have been difficult to transition into a master’s program quickly due to the cost,” he says, “and those costs have certainly risen over time, so it was important to Ann and me to provide these endowed scholarships to the college. The industry and business world are always looking for good professionals.”

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