PART 4: Ed Pershing’s philosophy is captured in a phrase with four impactful words

(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the final article in a series highlighting the remarkable career of Ed Pershing, Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of PYA, the power behind teknovation.biz. He has announced that he will stepdown as CEO at the end of 2019. Since I consider him more of a friend than a boss, I’m eschewing normal journalistic style to refer to him as “Ed” in this series.)

By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA

How do you capture the philosophy of a person who led the growth of a company from two co-founders and one employee to a 375-person enterprise?

In the case of Ed Pershing, Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of PYA, that philosophy is captured in a few words that served as the firm’s tagline for a number of years – “Vision Beyond the Numbers.”

Those who know PYA as a tax, accounting, and auditing firm or one of the nation’s largest private healthcare consulting companies probably think the primary focus is on numbers. After all, aren’t numbers where those who specialize in the financial aspects of an enterprise focus? In fact, Ed would say it is just the opposite. It’s about the bigger picture; it’s about the impact that an organization can have and then how that impact is ultimately measured.

Think of it almost as a 360-degree cycle. Initial data leads you to ask, “What might this mean? What could be the impact if we take it and run with it this way?” That results in building a vision for something much bigger than might have initially been considered and going back to the numbers to measure progress and success in doing so.

That philosophy, as reflected in the words, and a visible representation of their meaning came together in 1992 when PYA purchased the old Perkins Elementary School building and restored it in a way that few thought possible. PYA had outgrown its second office on Forest Park Boulevard. The numbers said it needed to move to larger space, but what type of space?

“Buying and rehabbing the school building created a tangible, visible way to communicate that we were a different firm than most,” Ed says. Instead of going to a traditional office complex, the PYA owners took on the bigger vision of investing in an old, unused school building requiring a major investment.

Ed would say that one number alone – PYA only had 19 employees when the school building was first considered – might indicate the project did not make sense until the vision of what the investment would say about PYA was fully understood. He recalled his meeting with PYA’s legal counsel to inform him of the plan

“In words I will never forget, the attorney looked at me and said, ‘You are a damn fool,’” Ed recalled. The investment and the transformed building, however, became a symbol for a firm willing to tackle big projects that others might eschew and to think totally out of the traditional box.

Always wanting to critically assess all aspects of performance, Ed noted the total cost of the school building was only about 65 percent of the cost of a traditional professional office building – an option that would not have the “character” or visual impact of the school building. The building was named Perkins Place, honoring the legacy of the school having been named after the first female member of the Knoxville school board.

Not quite two decades later, PYA had outgrown the existing Perkins School space. Did it add onto the building or did it relocate? In 2010, the PYA owners made the same type of commitment when they decided to invest in upgrading Cherokee Mills and, in the process, preserving as much of the original building as possible. What had started life more than 100 years ago as a knitting mill before later serving as a discount warehouse-type store and call center was transformed into a corporate headquarters that celebrated the building’s rich heritage as well as a symbol for the future.

We have seen time after time how impressed people are with the statement that PYA’s investment in its current Knoxville headquarters makes. Whether it’s the large granite wall that greets visitors as they enter the reception area, the modern video technology in every conference room, or the original wooden floors that have been preserved, complete with the knitting needles that are embedded in many planks, the investments say, “PYA is different.”

So, as he prepares to vacate the CEO role, one might say that Ed’s most lasting legacy is his belief in “Vision beyond the numbers.” Vision drives and numbers measure progress.

“I don’t think graphically, I think abstractly,” Ed says. “I try to see what can be. I try to think 10 moves ahead. Most interpret the tag line as just representing traditional views of “numbers people.” I think today’s business focus on analytics and artificial intelligence reflects the ability of almost any idea, image, etc. being convertible to numbers. So, if made possible, to have vision beyond the numbers, hopefully conveys the challenge to try to see far beyond the usual horizons.

We concluded the multi-session interview with Ed citing that he has been enormously blessed beyond his wildest dreams, and that he recognizes it is answered prayers, first those of his parents, that resulted in any of his achievements. “I was so fortunate to have parents and brothers who instilled in me a foundational faith that all things come from God. I simply want to be a good steward of His blessings.”

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