Inside Track: Best of both worlds
Entrepreneurship helps Megan Odegaard grow in her day job as an assurance manager for accounting firm.
Driving around a mountain bend in December 2006, Megan Odegaard was involved in a head-on collision that set her life on a different course than intended.
The accident wasn’t too serious but left her back ruined for volleyball — a sport the then-high school senior had multiple scholarship offers from across the country. Had the accident never happened, she likely never would have visited Calvin College and made the cross-country trek from Washington to the place she’s called home for more than a decade. She also likely wouldn’t be an assurance manager at the accounting firm BDO’s Grand Rapids office, nor would she own a business with her fiancé, John Behrens.
“I was in physical therapy, and there was very little chance I could play volleyball in college, so I visited Calvin in May 2006,” Odegaard said. “It was beautiful. Everyone was outside enjoying life, playing volleyball. Michigan was great, and I loved it. People talked a little about the white flakey stuff, but I kind of ignored it.”
Snow aside, she loves West Michigan, and without the move, she might never have made the career path choice into accounting. At Calvin, she switched majors at least four times. Odegaard knew a career in business was desired, as she watched her mother Bonnie live a successful career with telephone companies and heard stories of the 1970s when women weren’t a common sight in big business.
“She would tell me her stumbling blocks, being the only woman in the boardroom,” she said. “Those were my bedtime stories, so I wanted to go into business too and challenge the status quo.”
When she finally settled on accounting, her family continuously told her she wouldn’t enjoy the number-laden job. Reflecting back on the decision to venture into accounting, Odegaard said she realized there was a bigger, underlying influence on the decision. As a child, her family was involved in the largest business fraud case in Washington state history, her father Tom had to testify to a Grand Jury and worked with law enforcement to identify all that went wrong.
“Watching all of that happen led me to believe that accounting can do a lot of really good things, and there’s a bigger purpose in protecting an investor and business owners,” she said. “That was a huge defining moment in my childhood, the day we found out about that and how much life completely changed because of it.”
Following the decision to choose accounting, she had a few monumental lessons to learn. As a 21-year-old, she was interning at Seattle’s Trident Seafoods. A ship off the coast of Alaska needed an accountant and office manager, so she took three planes and a few boats to get to the fish-processing vessel in the middle of nowhere. She spent two-and-half months on the ship as the only woman.
“I had been pretty sheltered for the most part,” she said. “At that moment, the veil came off and I said, ‘If you can get through this, you can get through a lot more.’”
She also said as a sophomore and junior, during the Great Recession, she often was rejected for internships. Instead of wallowing in failure, she was determined to find out what she did wrong during interviews. She learned, even in a numbers-based industry, being able to tell good stories and relate to people was an important factor to landing a good job.
By the time she graduated in 2010, she had 14 job offers.
“The rejections were the biggest learning moments I had in college,” she said. “It’s not always the skills. My skills aren’t any different from any of my classmates. So much of my job is not doing accounting; it’s talking with clients, understanding problems and identifying what we can do to make it easy for them.
“If I couldn’t carry a conversation, I couldn’t help them as much.”
Despite having offers from the Big Four — the quartet of accounting firms her professors often preached — she chose BDO, in part because of the people in the office.
“When I got there, it was all about personality. If I'm going to work 60 hours a week with these people, who do I want to work with?” she said.
Since joining the firm, BDO has more than doubled in size, which has allowed for quicker career progression and opportunity, a fact Odegaard has enjoyed. Aside from the advancement, Odegaard said the firm’s Grand Rapids office is by far the best office in the country, an opinion those in the office often share with their colleagues from other offices.
“(Assurance Office Managing Partner) Tony Lawrence has set a culture that is different than most accounting firms,” she said. “There’s a lot of flexibility, cultivating leadership and trust.”
The flexibility at the Grand Rapids BDO office has allowed Odegaard to pursue another childhood goal.
On a bar crawl with her then-boyfriend, Behrens, they were talking about what to do with a piece of property that had been in Behrens’ family for more than 150 years and was scheduled to be sold outside the family. They talked about starting a cider business, but Odegaard laughed it off as just talk over beers. The next day, Behrens sent her all the forms to fill out for licensing, and Farmhaus Cider was born.
The pair met at BDO and later began dating. Three years into the relationship, they started the company, and now, three years later, they’re engaged.
Starting a business with a significant other is no easy task, let alone balancing it with another, full-time job, Odegaard said. But the experience has taught them a lot as a couple.
“You learn a lot. Having an equity discussion with a significant other, it makes it easy to get to know someone,” she said. “Not many people get to see how their significant other conducts themselves in business.”
She said when they were starting Farmhaus, which distributes hard cider statewide, they’ve learned how important it is to be vigilant about the other person in every decision made in life and how difficult it is to separate life and work. Still, she wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Someone told me recently that choosing your spouse is one of, if not the biggest, career decisions you will make, and I completely agree,” she said. “I am so proud that I get to own a business with John. Every day, he pushes me to be a better person and better businesswoman, and I just respect how hard he works and the way he goes about business. I definitely was lucky to find such a great partner.”
At the same time as launching Farmhaus, Odegaard was studying for the CPA exam, which she needed to pass to become a manager. Two months into sales at Farmhaus, on her birthday, she found out she passed the exam.
“I started a business, while in busy season at a CPA firm, and passed the exam,” she said. “That was a pretty big moment in my career.”
Despite growing throughout its three years and with no plans to slow down, Farmhaus is unlikely to take the full career focus of Odegaard. She has her sights set high at BDO.
“I like that I get to do two things,” she said. “That’s a big highlight for me. I find that having the entrepreneurship in my everyday life makes me better with my clients. I don’t ever intend to leave that fully. My track is I’d like to be a partner at BDO.”