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How I Became a Controller (Who Also Does ESG Accounting)

Key Takeaways

Catherine and Steve sat down with Jonathan Gregory, North America Controller for The Hershey Co., to discuss how he ended up with what has to be one of the sweetest accounting and finance jobs in Pennsylvania. Sink your teeth into this episode:

Season 4, Episode 17: How I Became a Controller (Who Also Does ESG Accounting) | Transcript

Steve Soter: Jonathan, there are few brands, I think, as beloved as The Hershey Co. At least that's what I feel in my Reese's-loving heart. Tell us a little bit about what prompted you to go there and maybe what it's like to work there. I can imagine a chocolate river that flows through the office. There's a room where everything's edible, a glass elevator that flies everywhere. Maybe I'm getting this confused with another chocolate factory. I don't know. 

Steve: Hello, and welcome to Off the Books, where we surf the uncharted waters of accounting, finance, risk, and wherever else the waves take us. This episode is brought to you by Workiva, the one platform that brings together financial reporting, ESG, audit, and risk teams as four great tastes that taste great together. And big props to Catherine for digging up the old Reese's commercial from the 1980s on that one. My name is Steve Soter, accounting enthusiast and Diet Coke aficionado. I'm looking forward to debiting a great conversation, and I'm so happy to have you with us. I'm also very happy to have Catherine Tsai joining us. Catherine, can you please introduce yourself?

Catherine Tsai: I'm not an accountant or Diet Coke aficionado, but I like asking questions. So I'm here to do some of that.

Steve: Well, indeed we are. We are welcoming longtime listener, friend of the pro groups, Jonathan Gregory, the North America Controller for The Hershey Co. and SEC Professionals Group Advisory Chair of the Philadelphia chapter. 

Catherine: And this is awesome because earlier this season we talked with Steve Saah of Robert Half about the hot job market for people with accounting and finance backgrounds, which made me wonder about career paths, like how do you become a controller or a CFO?

Steve: Well, Catherine, you know, I used to be a controller, and I'm obviously not anymore. So let's see how Jonathan Gregory feels about answering your questions. Jonathan, welcome. 

Jonathan Gregory: Thank you, Steve. Thank you, Catherine. Great to be here. 

Catherine: I've been snooping on your LinkedIn profile, and there are a couple of highlights that I wanted to ask you about, but maybe we should start from the beginning. Tell us, why did you study accounting in college? 

Jonathan: Oh, great question. I can say that I chose it willingly. I went to this fantastic business school, Saint Joe's University in Philadelphia. I knew that I wanted to study business, so I entered as an undeclared business major. And it was in that accounting 101 class where every single student needed to take accounting. And we got to the first test, and practically everyone failed except for me. The professor pulled me aside and basically said, "You should major in accounting," with the most serious face that anyone has ever given me. And I was like, "OK, yes, I would love to continue here for four years." So I very quickly went down to the registrar's office and declared being an accounting major. And it was quite the ride for four years and then ultimately went into EY, in their assurance practice after I graduated. But it was a little bit of a whirlwind for those first four years, and I did not pass every single accounting exam. So let me just, you know, get that off the table. I did not pass as well as I did every test like I did the first one. But that was the start. So I could blame one professor from Saint Joe's.

Steve: But you know what I love about that story, actually, Jonathan, is that is not uncommon. That was exactly my experience. And a lot of other people that I know. Like, you're in this introductory class. You have to take it. Everybody totally sucks. You knock it out of the park, and the teacher's like, "Hey, you know what? This might be sending a message."

Jonathan: Well, yeah, I mean, I very quickly realized that I wasn't the greatest at managerial accounting. I was not a tax guy by whatever means. I was 100% a financial reporting accounting student. But, you know, if it wasn't for that, I had no idea what I would have been majoring in at Saint Joe's. This was also the early 2000s. Saint Joe's was an accredited business school. Little did I know that their accounting program was also accredited, but they really talked up this thing called food marketing. I don't even know what that—I mean, they were giving out scholarships left and right, but they were taking anyone who was interested in food marketing. So I did not go that path. I chose accounting. And I think here I am like 17, 16 years later, and I think I'm doing OK with my choice. 

Steve: The wand chooses the wizard, Harry.

Jonathan: Well, I was going to make a Harry Potter joke, Steve, but you beat me to it. So thank you for that. 

Steve: I'm sorry about that.

Catherine: Well, you made it to a Big Four accounting firm. What made you decide to move on from being an auditor?

Jonathan: You know. So I will give every student that I talk to—I do some mentoring for some students at Saint Joe's. We have a huge internship program here at The Hershey Co. So anytime I get the opportunity to meet other students, I always say the experience that you're going to get from a Big Four firm is priceless. Yes, it's long hours. Yes, it could be complex and tough at times, but the benefits really do outweigh the cons. So why did I decide to move on? I was working with some great folks during my time at EY. I was based out of the Philadelphia office, and somebody who I worked with very closely on a few engagements ultimately moved into the valuation practice at EY. So he got out of auditing, he moved into valuation, and then ultimately he left EY to go do external reporting at a smaller publicly traded company in the Philadelphia area. At some point or another, he eventually got promoted to controller, called me up, and he said, "Hey, man, you want my old job?" So it wasn't like I was necessarily looking. I would not say by any means was I necessarily ready to leave EY. It was just more along the lines of the opportunity really presented itself at the right time. So, yeah, that takes me on a whole different journey outside of public accounting. But I had a great number of years there serving a whole variety of clients for sure. 

Catherine: I know there are a few steps from there to get to The Hershey Co. What would you say are some of the lessons you learned along the way?

Jonathan: I worked at smaller, publicly traded companies. My first role from EY was doing external reporting. I was a senior, and I got to say that was a fairly easy—I don't want to downplay it—but it was a fairly easy transition from the days of public accounting to then being the one to prepare SEC filings. Again, this is before the days of XBRL® and some of the new accounting pronouncements that people are dealing with now. But it was a smaller company. You're still working on difficult accounting issues, working on M&A. And then I moved on to a slightly larger publicly traded company in the Philadelphia area, but they all had their niches. I would say the big takeaways, the big lessons were, OK, I'm not actually the one auditing this stuff. I now am the one having to prepare everything or, you know, be part of the process. And with that came learning the business. They were not in the business of chocolate or snacks. The first one was like a small medical device company, and the second one was basically a smaller version of like an Aramark or a Sodexo, where they do like housekeeping and dietary services. So totally different business lines versus what I'm a part of today. But it was just being able to learn the business and try to apply business and accounting and have the operations. And that set me up pretty well as I moved over here to Hershey. 

Catherine: We've got some more questions for you, but we'll get back to that after a quick commercial break.

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Steve: And we are back with Jonathan Gregory of The Hershey Co. Jonathan, there are few brands I think as beloved as The Hershey Co. At least that's what I feel at my Reese's-loving heart. Tell us a little bit about what prompted you to go there and maybe what it's like to work there. I can imagine a chocolate river that flows through the office. There's a room where everything's edible, a glass elevator that flies everywhere. Maybe I'm getting this confused with another chocolate factory. I don't know. But yeah. Tell us why you went there, and what's it like? 

Jonathan: Well, Steve, I know your favorite is Reese's, which is why I came into the office today because my background. So I figured you would very much appreciate that. Yeah, it's great working here. It's a totally different vibe than I'm used to from some of the other places I've worked. The culture, the history of not only the company but the town runs really deep with Milton Hershey and everything that he established here many years ago. But that's really the heart of this company. So it's a great work environment. Steve, you've been to the office. Not any time recently, but I did not take you to the third floor, which is where the river and the edible room is. So my bad. 

Steve: Closed for COVID I would imagine. Those were still COVID days.

Jonathan: However, I did lock you in a conference room right next to the employee store. 

Steve: Yes, you did. And I came home with that huge bag full of candy.

Jonathan: You are certainly not the only one. I had some out of town folks on site last week, and of course hitting up the employee store is a staple during your visit, for sure. I do it all the time too, and I'm an employee. But no, to answer your question, how did I land here? Well, you know, I had been gaining these public company experiences at some of the smaller places that I had worked in the Philadelphia area. Another chance of luck, I guess. There was a manager of external reporting role that came open, and one of my friends sent it to me. It literally just crossed my desk at my previous company. And I applied on a whim, not ever thinking would I ever hear back from a Fortune 500 HR department. But sure enough, very quickly, they reached out for an interview. The rest is history ever since. But a lot of that was actually some of the work I had been doing at my previous company. I was already doing external reporting, leading that initiative. I had implemented Workiva at the time at my old company. So some of those things definitely, I believe, helped me get into the external reporting role here and then just kind of "take it and own it" is how it's developed and morphed over the years here today. Plus, I also wanted more of that Fortune 500 experience at some point in my career, and that was just that. It was an opportunity that was right in front of me. And as we talked about earlier, I was born and raised in Pennsylvania. The Hershey Co. has really deep roots all throughout Pennsylvania. So it was just kind of a natural fit. 

Catherine: Why is that so appealing to go to a bigger company? 

Jonathan: That is a good question. And I think as I was learning, I was getting more confident in my abilities as an accountant. Remember, I was failing tests at Saint Joe's. I was like the medical doctor who did not graduate first in your class. So I really just wanted to continue to expand my horizons, be able to do different things. We do a lot of M&A. We do a lot of complex transactions, and number one, it's also just a really exciting time at The Hershey Co. We continue to grow, so there's always something going on, and there's always something new. Yes, you always have monthly and quarter ends, closes, and reporting cycles. But outside of that, being an accounting major and an accountant at heart is really just, it's about being a business liaison. You want to be a critical partner for the rest of the business. I feel like that's something that myself and my team and others around here in the accounting department at Hershey that we actually do for the company. 

Steve: I feel like, Jonathan, and maybe you would agree with this statement. I don't know if this is a common personality trait. I know it was for me, but actually circling back to your comment about advising somebody to go to a Big Four firm and go into public accounting right out of school, I was thinking about, OK, what would give me the greatest amount of options going out of school? I knew I wasn't going to be—I worked at Deloitte—I knew I wasn't going to be at Deloitte for the rest of my career. I actually wasn't there for particularly long, but I knew that that was a direction that was going to open up the most options. And I wonder if going to a bigger company shares a little bit of that mentality. I was actually talking to somebody just yesterday who had worked for big companies, and now he got tapped to be like the one finance guy for a startup company. Everything is outsourced, all the accounting and finance, except for him. But he never would have gotten that role, I don't think, unless he had some really structured, mature, you know, kind of saw like how a big company works, and that sort of checked a box that then kind of opened up, I think, a whole other avenue for him that may not have been open previously. I mean, do you feel like that's kind of how we think? I still say we even though I'm not a controller anymore. Right? 

Jonathan: Yeah but, Steve, you could very quickly hop back into being a controller. I have no doubt that even the work that you're doing today can transition you pretty easily back into the workforce. So I try to go about things—I usually approach things more with like, number one, is the accounting correct? And then number two, what's the auditing implications, and what are the internal controls behind everything else I just said. Right? So it's just kind of having that mindset, I think. After having seen back in the day when I was at EY, how my engagements and my clients were operating or the types of issues that came up at those points in time, how that translates into just kind of how I think operationally and technically from an accounting standpoint. So no, I don't think you're wrong at all. I think whoever you were talking to, more power to them because yeah, definitely opens up a lot of doors, I feel like. 

Steve: Well, and I'll just say to the extent that folks like you go on to do really big things in the future, that's actually a backup plan for me. So now I have people I can go to work for in case this whole podcasting gig blows up. So just heads up. I may be calling you one day.

Jonathan: I think you're totally safe, but feel free to call. 

Catherine: Jonathan, what do you think it was that got you the promotion to becoming a controller? 

Jonathan: I was in the right place at the right time. Somebody asking me if I would be open to a transitional development opportunity. I guess I should back up. So I've actually been in Hershey now for seven years, a little over seven years. I started back in January of 2016, and during that entire time I've been part of the external reporting and technical accounting team. I've been leading that team for probably two-and-a-half, three years now. So I moved up within the department over the years and report to our chief accounting officer. Moving over into the North America controllership side of the house is basically a counterpart. I still report to the CAO. I still have one foot in the external reporting door, but now I'm kind of getting that granular view as to how our U.S. and Canadian businesses really operate, which makes up like 80–85% of our sales and just kind of the business overall. Now we are standing up a new division, a new business. Is really everything salty, all of our salty snacks. So over the years we've made a lot of acquisitions, and now it's time to bring them all together. I'm not part of that. There's a different controller, somebody else who I work with, one of my colleagues doing that. But I really think it was just, Catherine, to your point, right time having done well in one role and just being given the opportunity to have a development role for a little bit on the controllership side. 

Catherine: I think we do want to dig into the M&A piece, but I also noticed on your LinkedIn profile, it mentions ESG accounting. 

Jonathan: Yeah.

Catherine: Tell us more about that.

Jonathan: Yeah. So ESG accounting, I mean, that might be an informal title. That really started like a year and a half ago at minimum, actually. Before all the buzz that the SEC was going to come out with the climate proposal, we started to—at the time, I was on the external reporting team, and I thought to myself, hey, if there are things that are ESG-related, like climate or human capital or who else knows what will come down the pike, needs to make its way into my 10-K or my 10-Q or any other sort of SEC filing document that has to come through our team, we need to get ahead of it now. So probably months before the climate proposal had come out, we were meeting. We have a dedicated sustainability and ESG team. It was getting to know them, educate them a little bit because they're not following necessarily what's happening at the SEC. So it was an opportunity to educate them, get to know them, set up a good cadence going forward of when to meet and talk about things as new things are coming about. So we've done a lot within the last year and a half, and particularly since the time the proposals actually come out. We're not waiting around. We're doing a lot of work in the controllership space to make sure that we've done our gap assessment and risk analysis and all of those things so that we're prepared for anything that comes down the pike. So it's kind of an informal title, but it's definitely something that's more or less led by me in our broader controllership teams. So whether it's U.S. or global, that's where I kind of come into play. And we have some folks on our external reporting team. We have people on legal, somebody in internal audit. We have a cross-functional team that meets regularly to just stay ahead of whatever the trends are in ESG so that we're obviously ready when the time comes. Now, I was actually reading a great article just earlier this week on why more companies are hiring ESG controllers. I mean, more or less, that's what I'm doing. I'm acting in that capacity. And there's other people on the team that help on the controllership team. But it's definitely a hot area and definitely something that continuously working with the team on.

Steve: So one other part that I think is interesting about your job title is this reference to M&A. And M&A is kind of a sort of cool, sexy part of accounting, and you kind of got to get tapped on the shoulder a little bit, kind of be on the team. Obviously, the downstream is that you have an acquisition, everybody's got to go through that, but at least kind of being part of that initial group, I always felt like that was a super interesting part of my job, which fortunately I had the opportunity to do that a handful of times. Tell us, how much of an effort is that for you on a day-to-day basis? Because as you said, Hershey's actually done a lot of acquiring over the years, including during COVID.

Jonathan: Yeah. So as I was saying, I've been here seven years, and we've done an acquisition almost every single year since 2016. Some of our more recent acquisitions, Steve, have been in this new space, this not traditional confectionery or candy space. So everything's been popcorn, puffs, snacks, pretzels, contract manufacturers of certain pretzel companies. So it's definitely been an exciting time because it's outside the norm of what Hershey has historically done. But to your point, how do you get tapped? How do you get part of this team? Again, what you're probably learning from me is I'm either in the right place at the right time or I do something dumb and I raise my hand and say, "I'll do that, and I'll learn it on the fly." So for this particular example, for M&A, it was raising my hand. This was not during the time when I was running the external reporting team. Somebody else was in that seat. And, you know, she is the senior director of external reporting, really took on that initiative of due diligence, purchase accounting, valuation. You know, everything that you would do, Steve, to get day one purchase accounting correct. And then obviously monitoring for any measurement period adjustments. So I was always part of it. I helped out on some of the earlier transactions, but then once I took over the team and, again, reporting to our CAO, it was just a matter of owning it and really taking it in and showing the value that our technical team brings to the table, not only to get day one accounting correct, which as you could probably imagine, like EY and PCAOB reviews of EY or any other Big Four firm, they have a lot of scrutiny around significant assumptions and valuations that go into intangibles and other things. So I am by no means a valuation expert. We have a team that does those things, but I have certainly learned a lot over the years and to bring more to the table upfront during that due diligence process and kind of gauge where things are going to go as we get closer to closing on deals. So it's been quite an experience. To your point, it is the sexier thing that I've worked on probably over the last several years. And yes, during COVID in 2021, we did three acquisitions: one, kind of midyear, and then two—I advise no one to do this—do two acquisitions within 15 days of closing the fiscal year. So my year-end last year was very busy going through our second largest, I should say, second collectively largest acquisition ever. It was two separate ones. But at the end of the day, these were some large acquisitions taking place. 

Catherine: Add that to your resume. And you have an MBA, right? 

Jonathan: I do, yes.

Catherine: What persuaded you or convinced you, you should pursue an MBA?

Jonathan: Oh, well, again, love this question because again, whenever I have interns coming to me or students coming to me, they're always asking what should they do after college? So getting an MBA or getting any other sort of post-undergraduate degree was never on my radar. It was actually when I got to Hershey back in 2016, I was at like the first CFO town hall that I was ever attending. And the CFO at the time is not our current CFO. The CFO at the time was talking about career and moving people around, and they're big fans of transitioning people throughout the organization. Would gain different experiences. And she said a phrase that sticks with me to this day. She said, "What got you here won't get you there." And I thought to myself, OK, I'm the new guy. I just got here, but apparently I'm not going anywhere. Right? Like, that was the mindset that I had in my mind. But, you know, Hershey is one of those fantastic organizations that it actually allows for college and undergrad, post-grad, and other certificate type programs to be reimbursed. So it was something that I looked into. This is back in 2016. I did it fairly quickly after coming on board here at Hershey. And again, you have to remember, I was like 10 years removed from graduating from Saint Joseph's University. So the school is totally different. And I actually ended up going to Syracuse University. It was the university that I always loved. I actually, being from northeastern Pennsylvania, it wasn't terribly far from where I grew up, so I was very familiar with Syracuse. I could have went back to Saint Joe's, I could have went to Temple, Villanova. There's a ton of great universities in the Philadelphia area. But I kind of wanted to go back to the roots of me liking Syracuse growing up as a kid. And it was a phenomenal program. And it's really benefited me, actually, because now I look at things in different ways. Learning about supply chain. Supply chain was not as—I mean, it was relevant, but it wasn't as relevant in an undergraduate curriculum, obviously, if you weren't a supply chain major. So like just learning new things 10 years removed from college was pretty exciting. And I would highly recommend it for everyone, actually, especially with CPA exams and 150 hour credits. So it's a good way to get through undergrad, get an MBA, and then move on to CPA. 

Steve: Well, Jonathan, as we get ready to move on and wrap up the conversation, can you tell us just quickly, where do you see your career headed in the future with, again, all of these like super great building blocks that you've put together?

Jonathan: Yes. I mean, number one, I hate this question. I feel like I get it a lot.

Steve: But you can make up another question you want to answer. That's OK, too.

Jonathan: I'll answer. I'll just say that as long as I'm growing and I'm continuing to learn and I'm continuing to provide something to the business and be a part of something bigger than me, then that's kind of all that matters. You know, I've learned through some of the other companies that I worked at, accounting is always the same. It's the same no matter where you go. But if you have actually a passion for the product or the service or whatever it is that's being sold, that makes it way more important than just doing accounting. So if you have a connection to what it is you're selling or promoting, then it certainly makes your job a little bit more enjoyable and you'll then have a little bit more passion behind what it is that you're striving for. So hopefully I'm just trying to take that mentality with me as I move through my various career progressions. 

Steve: I like it. I like it a lot.

Catherine: I thought you were going to say you wanted to be the next Willy Wonka.

Jonathan: I wouldn't mind like, you know, being an operator of, like, the Hershey Chocolate World ride. I think Steve went on it when he was here.

Steve: Well, I tried.

Jonathan: Oh you tried. OK.

Steve: Well, we didn't stay for that extra day because the park was only open on Saturdays at that point.

Jonathan: Well, you need to get out here this spring or summer or something.

Steve: You know what? Between the rides and the employee store, you're right. I'm overdue. Hey, speaking of...

Jonathan: Yes.

Steve: Was Willy Wonka based on Milton Hershey? I've read varying sort of reports about that as I was kind of like, you know, getting ready for this. 

Jonathan: Well, not highest priority on my reading list, Steve. But I would like to assume that the answer is no. That's my assumption. That's unofficial though.

Steve: OK. Fair. All right. Well, we've got some more research to do. 

Jonathan: Yeah, we'll do it. I'll make some time this weekend. 

Steve: Perfect.

Catherine: Before we let you go, we have to get to the closing question of the day. So, Jonathan, if you were to pitch a new candy to Hershey's, what would it be? 

Jonathan: Oof. Well, the hot new item is everything sweet and salty. Combination of throwing Reese's peanut butter into a pretzel is high on the list and things dipped in chocolate. A little bit of sweet and salty is probably where I'd go. I don't know. I'm more of a classic guy. I like the regular Hershey bar. I'm a Kit Kat fan. Right. But this whole idea of what we're building and developing, it's got to be something sweet and salty.

Catherine: All right, all right. Steve, do you have an answer for this one?

Steve: Well, sort of. It's not a great answer because I similarly love Kit Kat, as Jonathan has mentioned, and it's probably obvious to everybody, I love Reese's Peanut Butter Cups. Throw those two things together, and you get a Reese's Sticks, which actually came out like a few years ago. But they are amazing, actually so much so, they're a little bit hard to find, at least here in Salt Lake City. It's 50/50 as to whether or not—there will always be a box. Whether or not there are any left in that box is a whole other thing. Anyway, I love them. And that was actually what I came home with. At the employee store, it was literally like the biggest box they sold of the Reese's Sticks. So. Sorry, that was not a great answer to your question because that's my favorite candy, not the one I would suggest, but they already did it. So why suggest something new? Because it's beautiful.

Jonathan: Well, Steve, now I feel like you need to very quickly tell the story of when—it's not the last time I saw you in person, but when I saw you in person in New York City. Why don't you—

Steve: Well, yes. You were kind enough to bring me a box. It wasn't Reese's. I'll throw it out there. It wasn't Reese's Sticks, but it was the traditional, presumably hot off the factory floor box of freshly made Reese's peanut butter cups, which I think lasted all of about maybe 72 hours at my house. Yes, they flew off the shelves, as it were, or my dresser, actually, which is where I kept the box, trying to hide that from the kids. That was totally unsuccessful. They picked up on that in a second.

Catherine: My gosh. Jonathan, how do we get to be better friends?

Jonathan: You just need to see me in person. I mean, I lugged it up on a relatively short train ride. However, when I handed it to him, I said, "Good luck finding space in your carry on for this."

Steve: Oh, I did. I made it work. Don't worry about that. I'll make it work.

Catherine: Excellent. Well, thank you for being here on the show today. 

Jonathan: Thank you guys for having me. It's been great. And hopefully I inspire some future accountants of tomorrow.

Jonathan: Well, let's hope so. Jonathan, we sure appreciate you coming on. Thank you for joining us. And thank you, dear listener, for surfing along. I'm Steve Soter. That was Catherine Tsai. And this has been Off the Books presented by Workiva. Please subscribe, leave a review, and tell your buddies if you like the show. If you're watching this on YouTube, please drop us a note in the comments. Tell us what you liked, what you didn't like, what you want us to talk about. Or if you're old school like me, feel free to drop us a line by email at Surf's up, and we'll see you on the next wave.

Off the Books Season 4, Episode 17: How I Became a Controller (Who Also Does ESG Accounting) with Jonathan Gregory


Steve Soter, Catherine Tsai, Jonathan Gregory

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