John’s world travels help him unwind
John Bly grew up going to the same lake every summer with his family. After college, he realized he wanted to expand his horizons further than that lake vacation and has since been to over 40 countries on every continent except Antarctica. One of his favorite trips was when he took his family to Aukland, New Zealand a few years ago.
In this episode, John and I talk about how it’s very important to decompress. He’s always going full speed in the office, so he’s found taking a quarterly trip helps him perform much better. John has also learned a lot about himself and others as he’s visited different cultures. Clients and coworkers enjoy hearing about his latest adventure, which helps create stronger relationships in the office. He leads by example because he feels it’s on the firm’s leadership to set the tone for their culture, saying, “If you encourage it the right way, it becomes a family-like atmosphere.”
John Bly is the Managing Director of LBA Haynes Strand, PLLC in Charlotte, NC, NC. He’s also been a Global Board Member of Entrepreneurs’ Organization (EO) for the last two years.
He graduated from Bryant University with his BSBA, Accounting, CIS degree and later received his MST, Taxation from the University of Denver. He recently completed the Entrepreneurial Masters Program at MIT.
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Welcome to Episode 152 of the Green Apple Podcast. I’m John Garrett and each Wednesday, I talk with a professional who’s known for a passion or an interest or a hobby outside of work. Why? Because the stereotype of professionals is upside down. We aren’t all nerds who work. Then go home and do more work. We’re real people with passions and interests in outside of work. All of which, make us better on our jobs. When you think of an apple, no doubt most people think of a red apple, because that’s the stereotype of an apple. But these professionals are all green apples in a boring red apple world because they’re both good at their job and have something they love outside of work. That’s exactly the case with this week’s guest, John Bly, who’s the managing director of LBA Haynes Strand in Charlotte, North Carolina. Thanks so much, John, for being with me today on the Green Apple Podcast.
John B: Hey, I’m excited. I’m looking forward to the next bit of time to spend with you.
John: Great. Thanks man. I gave everyone a little bit of an introduction to you, but it’s probably better in your own words, what you’re up to now and maybe a little of how you got there?
John B: Sure. Absolutely. I’m currently the CEO of a regional firm in North Carolina. We’ve got 75 people. I’ve got eight partners and started off my career at PricewaterhouseCoopers, actually, as a tax associate.
John B: Yeah.
John: Sweet. Yeah.
John B: We’re the Big Four back in the day.
John: Yeah. Yeah, man. I was PwC myself.
John B: That’s right. I spent some time in Boston and then transferred to Charlotte. I do not like the snow or the cold so had to get away and been here 16 years, down here in Charlotte and running our own firm since 2004 when I decided to do my own thing.
John: Good for you, John. Starting your own firm like that and keeping it going, that’s a lot of work. But before we get to deep dive into your world, travels, I’d like to get to know you a little bit better. Because if I’m ever going to join you on some flight across the Pacific, that’s a long time together in a small space. I like to do my 17 rapid-fire questions. Let me fire this thing up. We’ll have some fun, okay?
John B: Yeah.
John: Here we go. Here we go. We’ll start with this one. When it comes to financials, do you prefer more balance sheet or income statement?
John B: Income statement.
John: Income Statement. There you go. This is a very important one. Toilet paper roll, over or under?
John B: Oh, I was under until I met my wife. Now, I’m over.
John: Good answer. Good answer. Because that’s a deal breaker right there. That could be bad. That could be bad. Do you have a favorite sports team?
John B: Buffalo Bills.
John: Oh, wow. How did that come about?
John B: I’m originally from Albany, New York.
John: Oh, there you go. How about would you say more Star Wars or Star Trek?
John B: Star Wars, for sure.
John: Yeah. Yeah. When it comes to computers, PC or a Mac?
John B: PC.
John: How about do you have a favorite ice cream flavor?
John B: Peanut butter cup.
John: Oh, solid answer. Solid. Solid. How about Sudoku or crossword puzzles?
John B: Crossword puzzles.
John: Okay. How about a favorite color?
John B: Blue.
John: Blue. Nice. How about a least favorite color?
John B: It would’ve been pink, but now I’ve got three girls who I’ve grown to love pink. I’ll go with green.
John: Okay. Okay. All right. All right. But how about when you’re reading, more Kindle or Real Book?
John B: Real Book. I don’t know, for some reason, I like that, the actual book.
John: Yeah, me too though. I agree. I agree. How about more jeans or khakis?
John B: Jeans, for sure.
John: Jeans. How about do you have a least favorite vegetable?
John B: Broccoli.
John: Broccoli. Solid. Okay. How about a favorite number?
John B: Two. It’s my wife’s college number. She played in college sports.
John: Oh, sweet. That’s fantastic. Really cool. Really cool. How about a favorite actor or actress?
John B: The Rock, Dwayne Johnson.
John: There you go. All right. Three more. Three more. What’s a typical breakfast?
John B: Granola bar, on the run.
John: Oh, wow. Yeah. You are full speed all the time. Wow. Two more. Two more. More early bird or night owl?
John B: Early bird, for sure. That paper route, I still can’t get it out of me.
John: Oh, wow. The last one, the favorite thing you own or the favorite thing you have.
John B: Favorite thing I own is a passport. It helps me travel and see the world.
John: Passport. That’s a solid answer right there, solid answer. One question, it isn’t rapid fire, but it’s always interesting to me. It’s just what made you want to get into accounting in the first place?
John B: It’s in the family blood. My dad is a CPA, retired long time ago. My cousin is a CPA. He’s a partner at Ernst and Young. I remember as a kid, growing up, I spent a lot of time following in his footsteps a little bit, just watching him do his thing. I always really enjoyed it as a kid. I had a paper route when I was really young. Back in those days, you had to do your own collections. You had to pay the paper.
John: Oh, yeah. You did. Yeah, you did. I did the same thing, man. I had a little punch card thing that you had to flipped around on a metal ring. Yeah. Yeah.
John B: I got into, like I’ll say, basic debits and credits back then, who owed me money and who I had to collect from. Then figuring all that stuff out. It seemed like accounting was the language of business. That was really driving me from a really young age.
John: Wow. That’s fantastic, man. Yeah. Another paper route guy, look at that. That’s awesome. That was the worst, having to go up and knock on their door and be like, “No. You got to pay me.” It was just a weekly, a once a week local paper thing in Ohio.
John B: We were seven days a week, 365, at 4:45 am, for six and a half straight years. I woke up at 4:45 every day.
John: Wow. Holy cow, man. That’s next level.
John B: Yeah. I don’t have to do as much collection because I built a system where I left an envelope on the 25th of the month. I had to have it back by the Fifth. I left it with a paper on how much they owed. They would leave it out that night. I’d pick it up in their mailbox. Probably, about three quarters of the people followed that system. I’d really only had to go chase about a quarter of the people.
John: That’s it, man. You’re genius. That’s great. That’s amazing that you never stopped delivering papers because you have a system you had there. But clearly that’s not a passion or interest that you love to do outside of work anymore. What takes the time away when you’re on nights and weekends?
John B: Yeah. For me, time away is number one, besides family, the number one hobby I have and passion is around travel and exploring. I find that it helps me learn a little bit about myself. It helps me decompress. It helps me learn about other cultures and the way other people do things, which I find very helpful in life and in business.
John: Yeah. Yeah. No, that’s fantastic. Is this something that you’ve always been interested in since you were young?
John B: It’s funny. I think it’s had the opposite effect, unlike accounting where I followed in their footsteps. My family, as a kid, always went to the same lake every summer for two to four weeks. We rented a cottage. We stayed at the same place every single year for the first 18 years I was alive. I think that actually drove me to say, “I want something different.” As an adult, in my early 20s, I started to travel. Over the last decade, I’ve really kicked it up. I’ve now visited a little over 40 countries in the last ten years.
John: Wow. That’s fantastic. You never once gone back to that lake, I bet.
John B: I have not. It’s on the list. I want to get there someday with my own kids but I haven’t gone.
John: That’s awesome. But 40 plus countries, that’s incredible, man. That’s really in every continent except for Antarctica, I guess?
John B: Antarctica?
John B: Yeah. Later this year, I’ve got to go to Chile and Argentina. I was trying to get a trip out of Patagonia, but it doesn’t seem to be able to work. I was trying to get what that final continent. I was going to try and get down to Antarctica, but doesn’t look like it’s going to work this year.
John: Yeah. Yeah. But it’ll be there. It’ll be there. Do you have any favorite places that you’ve been? I’m sure that there’s tons of them, but some cooler stories?
John B: I’d say for coolest or most unique, I would say New Zealand. I got to spend almost a week there. I got to do it with the family. Some of my travel is alone. Some of it I get to take the family. This is one they got to come with me. We were down in Auckland. We toured around. We didn’t even get to the western part so we don’t even get to Queenstown. Someday, we will, but it’s one of the few places I’ve been in the world that I would say I could actually move and live there. It was that beautiful and that peaceful. The people were really nice. It was just all around, an amazing place, but very, very expensive.
John: Yeah. For sure. But that’s the trade-off, I guess.
John B: Yeah.
John: Yeah. Quite a flight. I’ve flown to Australia. Man, I was losing my mind. I was like, “Wow. This is long.” Then they’re feeding you like, “This is lunch.” I’m like, “No. My body thinks it’s 3:00 am. I’m supposed to be sleeping right now. Why am I eating? It’s crazy.”
John B: It feels like all you do is eat and sleep on those flights, right?
John: Yeah, right, pretty much. You feel like you’re punched drunk, just because you don’t know what’s going on anymore. That’s really cool though. I love how you alluded to earlier how it really helps out with work, with how you’re learning about yourself. You’re learning about others, but also able to decompress.
John B: Yeah. I think it’s important. For me at least, I run at a pace that most people don’t enjoy running at. I don’t mean from a physical standpoint. I just mean I’m a hundred miles an hour all the time, whether it’s a business or personal or some blend thereof. I go, go, go all the time. I have found that my regular clock requires me to decompress at least once a quarter. At a minimum, I’ve got to do something for travel and vacation on a quarterly basis that gets me away and lets my batteries recharge to be able to run at the pace that I run at.
John: Yeah. That’s really important, didn’t realize that because I think so many of us get wrapped up in our work. Then we just burn out.
John B: I knew that that was a rhythm for me, but it became really apparent about four and a half years ago, five years ago. We ran through a Thanksgiving and Christmas break timeframe with the kids when we were doing a really large merger for our firm so we’ve grown a lot through acquisitions at our firm. We had grown almost 90% overnight and a deal that I had been working on for six or seven months. I missed any time off over Thanksgiving or Christmas. I really just had to work through those days. I was in Mexico on a work trip, late January. I really absolutely just physically crashed. I was getting some downtime for a half a day waiting for the meetings to start. I was like, “Wow. This is a physical crash.” I can feel the energy flowing out now that the deal was done and we were through it. After that, I’ve put some extra emphasis on making sure I get away at least quarterly.
John: That’s really fascinating because we’re always taught all business all the time. You clearly learned almost the hard way. Physically, that’s not even possible. There’s those passions and interests and things outside of work that are very important in making you good at your job.
John B: Yeah. I think so. I think it’s important to think about what you do at work. You have to be on all the time. If you really want to be the best at what your craft is, whatever it is, then you’ve got to be on all the time. In order to be on, you have to be off sometimes. For me, that’s how I get away and off. Some people, that might be golfer, hiking or working out or whatever it might be, but for me it’s the travel.
John: Right. Right. I’m curious because that’s really important to get away, but is this something that you talk about at work as well?
John B: Yes. For sure. Actually, we do a monthly internal newsletter and especially given, the profession that I’m in, we’re really busy in our world from February 1st to April 15th. Then we have another busy season in September and October. Although, we’re not the Big Four and we don’t have that size of a busy season, it’s still very busy. We definitely encourage people to take that time off. We push them to say, “Look. I don’t care what it is. You’ve got to find that energy, whether that’s going to spend some time with your family, whether that’s going on vacation, whether it’s just going and sitting at home, whatever it is, you’ve got to take some time off in those downtimes and really get away.”
John: Yeah. Yeah. It can be binge watching Breaking Bad or whatever it is, just go do something that’s not work. That’s cool.
John B: Absolutely. One of my favorite sayings from one of my bosses when I was at PricewaterhouseCoopers was, post April 15, he said, “It’s time for everybody to go on vacation, just don’t do it in the office.”
John: Right. There you go. “Get out of here.” Yeah. That’s awesome. That’s really awesome. Do you find that that leads to more conversation around? Like some of the trips you just went on or maybe someone else is taking a trip somewhere and something like that?
John B: Yeah. It does. Just last week or the week before, I just happened to be walking by, getting a refill of water on my way to the water jug. There was three or four people talking about the beach trips they had upcoming this summer. Somebody had just been on one. Somebody else was about to go the following week. I think it does. I think it encourages some of that sharing and experience sharing. Definitely, there have been times when people have come and said, “Hey. I think you’ve been to this place. Is it good? What is it like? Are there things we should do or avoid if we decide to go there?” I think the fact that they know that and they feel comfortable asking says a lot about our culture.
John: Yeah. It really does. It really does because just to walk into the CEO’s office, it’s like, “No. It’s just John. Just go ask him. He was just there.” I imagine that those relationship are more human. It’s the best way to put it. I don’t know. They’re just genuine.
John B: That’s right. Especially at a firm our size or companies our size, if you encourage it the right way, it becomes a family-like atmosphere. I was at a wedding for one of our team members in April. There was about 15 or 20 of us there. It says a lot about the fact that they actually like each other outside of work, if that makes sense.
John: Yeah. Yeah. Like each other in work, which I would believe translates to better work product in a better bottom line.
John B: Yeah, and better teamwork. When somebody doesn’t have time or they can’t get something done, you’re always more willing to help when you know more about them and you know like, “Geez. They might be going through this. They’ve got a vacation coming up. I really want them to be able to enjoy it. I’ll spend the extra two hours doing the final finished product on this audit project or whatever.” Those things matter.
John: Yeah. I know. Absolutely. Absolutely. Then turnover’s theoretically lower because you actually enjoy the people you’re working with. You’re going to work and actually having fun with people that you like.
John B: Yeah. There’s no doubt. I say all the time you spend – and this is the unfortunate reality of most of the world — is that you spend as much time with the people at work as you do with your family when you consider your sleep six to eight hours.
John: For sure. For sure.
John B: You throw in lunch. It’s eight to ten hours minimum. Then you throw in commute and whatever, you spend a bunch of time. If you don’t like the people you work with, there’s enough jobs out there in the environment. You’ve got to go find another one.
John: Right. Yeah. Absolutely. Just out of curiosity, when you first started, your PwC days, before traveling really picked up, was there something else that you talked about or maybe it was traveling? Did you talk about that in the office?
John B: We talked about travel. We did still talk about some travel and vacations that people had coming up. The other thing we talked a decent amount about what’s other hobbies. At that time in my life, it may have been more golf related. I was an avid golfer. I still am, but just with kids and the travel, I don’t find as much time. But definitely talking about other hobbies and what people do outside of work made me feel more connected to my co-workers.
John: Yeah. No, that’s awesome to hear because I don’t know what it is. Why do you think it is that even when people ask and they’re genuinely interested in what do you like to do or what did you do this weekend or whatever, people are still really reluctant to share? That’s not our default mode.
John B: I think there’s one category of people who believes that they’re not going to talk about what they do at home, at work. They’re not going to talk about work at home. We’re not going to ever change those people, even with this awesome podcast and the ideas around, the impact it can have on life. Those people, it’s built in their DNA. They’re never going to change. It’s the other people who may think, especially if they’re talking with somebody who’s maybe not at their level, maybe it’s a level higher or lower, they get nervous about building a deeper friendship or something. I’m not sure exactly but I think it’s around the connectivity. They get nervous that maybe it’s seen as a weakness.
John: Right. Right. Would you say that your traveling is a weakness or more of a strength?
John B: I would say it’s a strength. I’d say it allows me to bring a different perspective to the workplace.
John: Yeah. Yeah. It makes you better at your job. That’s the thing that I’m always so fascinated by. We’re not in junior high anymore where people were going to make fun of you and put you in a locker. Maybe that was just me, I don’t know. But anyway, people are excited about what people are doing, especially if the other person has a genuine interest in and they ask. You can tell if a partner has a checklist, “Oh, I need to talk to five people by the end of the month.” It’s like, “No. No.” That’s someone that actually cares about the people that are around you go such a long way.
John B: I think if you know something about somebody, it matters. Today, a co-worker of mine had a sick kid the last few days. I know they were going to the doctor yesterday. I was on my way out to a meeting a few hours ago, four or five hours ago. I said, “Hey, how did it go yesterday? What did they say?” They gave me the update. I think that those things, because I remembered, because I actually care, right?
John B: It’s not decisions, it’s I care. I want them to be okay. I know what it’s like to have a sick kid.
John: Right. How much do you feel like it’s on the firm to create that culture versus how much is it on the individual to maybe be a source of change or to just find their little small circle?
John B: Yeah. I think a lot of it’s on the firm. I think a large portion is on the leadership of the firm. I think if leadership doesn’t share openly and doesn’t talk about those things and they say, “Oh, I didn’t do anything this weekend.” Then I think that permeates. People think that that’s the way we, as a whole, do things, right? The collective we of the organization is, “We don’t care about whatever it is outside of work. We care about what you do at the office.” That permeates from the top I believe.
John: That’s the thing is firms hire a whole person. Yet a lot of times they only care about the accounting part of that person, but that accounting part is less than a third of them. The majority of them has this whole other piece that if you just take a moment to shine a light on or celebrate or nurture, then, wow, those people are so alive. Then the culture becomes alive. I think it’s great, what you’re doing, man. It’s really cool. That’s really cool. Do you have any words of encouragement to anybody listening that might be on the fence, those people that aren’t hardwired DNA, but those that we can still save?
John B: I think it’s asking the questions. I think it’s always easier to ask the questions and share that you’re interested in somebody else’s likes. It’s easier if you ask somebody. If you’re one of these people who you’re nervous about it or you’re having trouble sharing, ask somebody else what they did this weekend. Be genuine about it and say, “Oh, did you go to XYZ with your child? Did you spend time with your boyfriend or girlfriend?” whatever those things are that you may be asking. It will reciprocate. To the extent they share and they’re comfortable, then they will follow up and say, “What’d you do?” That’s when you need to be willing to share and not just hold it inside.
John: Yeah. That reciprocity is such a real thing. It’s so cool when you’re able to recognize it while it’s happening. It’s such an easy tip for everyone to just take away from this episode, too, as we bring this in for a landing. Thanks so much, John, for being with me today on the Green Apple Podcast.
John B: Thank you. I really appreciate it. I look forward to catching up soon.
John: Wow. That was so much fun. I loved how John said, “If you encourage firm culture the right way, it becomes a family-like atmosphere.” This is so true and something that I hope corporate leaders think about when they imagine what could be possible.
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