Business Monday

Accountant Gary Gerson on success, UF — and what he learned in the Navy

Gary Gerson was inducted into the University of Florida’s Athletic Hall of Fame in 2002 — but it wasn’t because of the genial accountant’s accomplishments on the gridiron or basketball court.

No, during his time in Gainesville from 1951 to 1955, Gerson worked as an academic tutor to the Gators’ star football squad. His efforts kept the players on the field and were so noteworthy that he became the only non-athlete to win the coveted honor.

After serving in the U.S. Navy, Gerson applied that hardworking, entrepreneurial spirit to his new career as an accountant.

Gerson Preston is now one of Florida’s premier accounting firms.

It recently moved from its longtime offices in Miami Beach to a more modern setup at 4770 Biscayne Blvd. But Gerson made sure one piece of old furniture made the trip: a hand-carved desk he received more than five decades ago as payment for filing a tax return for his very first client, the owner of a local furniture store.

Q. Tell us about your personal and professional biography.

A: I was born in Baltimore and moved to Miami Beach when I was 10 years old. When I was in high school, everyone wanted to become a doctor, but an aptitude test I took showed that I should be an accountant and so my decision was made. I went to University of Florida and started tutoring the football players. I led the tutoring program for more than 60 athletes under Coach Bob Woodruff, and not one player lost eligibility due to grades during my tenure. The tutoring made such an impact that in 2002, they made me the only non-athlete to ever be inducted into UF’s Athletic Hall of Fame. It was quite an honor and one that I feel fortunate to have received.

After earning a master’s degree, I took the CPA [certified public accountant] exam, and at the age of 21, became the youngest CPA in the country. I enlisted in the Navy and was eventually assigned to the Navy Area Audit Office in Orlando before coming back home to Miami Beach, where I started our accounting practice. What began as a one-man shop in 1959 has today grown to become Gerson Preston, one of the largest independent public accounting firms in the state with around 100 employees.

There is a piece of history that I’ve kept with me from day one: my desk. After ending my term with the Navy, I moved back to Miami to open the firm, and I went to a local furniture store looking for a desk. I told the shop owner that I am an accountant and am opening my own firm, and the owner replied, “I have not done a tax return in five years — if you get my tax returns up to date, I will make you the nicest desk in South Florida!” That desk sits in my office to this day and is the only piece of furniture that moved from our old office to our new location. It reminds me to come into work every day with the same hunger and passion that I did nearly 60 years ago when starting this firm.

Q. How has Miami’s evolution as a place to live and do business driven changes at your firm?

A. I’ve always said that the secret to success is to do something you know and love, do it well, and stick to it. For 50 years, I have lived in the same city, been married to the same incredible woman, lived in the same house and practiced in the same office on Miami Beach. During this time, Gerson Preston established a strong foothold in the market, helping shape the community from the ground up while evolving alongside it. Miami has gone from a sleepy seaside resort town to a thriving global urban center in a matter of decades, which is why we moved earlier this year to the Design District. Miami has become the nexus point for international commerce from Latin America, Europe and even China, and our central location in the heart of this action is the perfect venue to strengthen our global practice.

Q. What are the biggest areas of your practice today?

A. Gerson Preston has always been directly connected to the economic drivers of the region, and our key practice areas are a reflection of Miami’s evolution, namely manufacturing, real estate and hospitality, international investment, professional services, litigation support, and wealth-planning. A significant portion of our business today has some form of international component, whether it be a Swiss manufacturing company looking to relocate its manufacturing operations to the U.S.; a residential developer raising capital through EB-5; or a Latin American investor seeking a safe haven to preserve and grow their wealth.

Q. What did you learn during your time in the Navy?

A. As gunnery officer in the Navy, I would avoid directing the gun mount, which impacted my hearing many years later! In all seriousness, I learned a lot while in the Navy — when you are out at sea, you don’t only have one job, you have every job. It’s amazing the responsibility the Navy gives a 21-year-old officer with only 90 days’ training at Officer’s Candidate School. First I was stationed on a small Navy destroyer with 150 men and seven officers and was given responsibility as a supply, disbursing, gunnery and cryptographic officer with about 20 sailors under my leadership. Then after two years of sea duty, I was appointed the head of the Navy Area Audit Office in Orlando, where I was responsible for auditing tens of millions of dollars of contracts.

What a learning experience for leadership, responsibility, effort and dedication. Making new relationships, building upon them and keeping them was one of the most important traits you must learn in the military, and that characteristic has helped me to work with partners, staff and clients in my professional life as well.

Our firm’s staff probably has more longevity than any other firm in the area, and we take great pride in that. Richard Preston, our managing partner, was one of my first staff members and passed up working for a Big Four accounting firm to work with us. Looking back 40 years, I think he made the right decision.

Q. You’ve been a big contributor to the University of Florida, Mount Sinai and other nonprofits. What drove you to get involved? Did your nonprofit work affect your business?

A. Philanthropy has always been part of who I am. As soon as I started making money, I also started giving back to charities and causes I felt passionate about. This not only benefited me as a person, but has also helped expand our firm’s business and social network. I enjoy fundraising for organizations in which I’m involved because I care deeply about the cause.

My work in the community began with the Mount Sinai Medical Center of Miami, a fine teaching/research institution, and one that also leads our community by giving free care to the indigent. I was proud to serve as chairman of the board.

I also give back to educational organizations. I’ve donated a variety of scholarships not only to the University of Florida, but to Florida International University and the University of Miami. I established a lecture series and contributed to the School of Jewish Studies at the University of Florida. There is no greater feeling than receiving a “thank you” note from a graduating student [who] is fulfilling their dream because of the scholarship. One of my most proud accomplishments is having UF’s accounting building named after me. Gary R. Gerson Hall is the only free-standing accounting building in the country. Go Gators!

Q. The Panama Papers have brought global attention to previously arcane matters of accounting and offshore companies. What do you think the fallout will be for the accounting and legal industries as a whole, and for the reputation of Miami, which featured heavily in the leak?

A. Miami is an international city with massive foreign investment from all over the world. It is no secret that smart structuring of foreign investment in the U.S. typically requires offshore planning in order to eliminate in U.S. estate tax risk. While the Panama Papers cast a taboo light on certain investors, I don’t think there will be a fallout for international accountants and attorneys. If anything, this scandal should serve as a cautionary reminder that international investors require sophisticated planning and structuring to avoid unnecessary adverse exposure.

Q. What do you think Miami’s next big industry will be? How can Miami diversify its economy?

A. What was once little more than a gateway access point to Latin America has emerged into a thriving and self-sustaining economy that continues to diversify beyond real estate. From international finance and hospitality to corporate investment and technology, Miami is proving that it can breed innovation and provide the capital to support it. The challenge, however, is that as our market becomes more attractive, it also becomes more expensive. If we are to sustain this level of growth, we need to address the affordability gap and make sure we don’t lose the talent we have worked so hard to retain because they feel priced out of our market.

Gary Gerson

Job title: Founding Partner, Gerson Preston

Education: University of Florida

Number of employees: 100

Personal life: Married over 53 years, four children and nine grandchildren

Hobbies: Hiking, tennis, skiing

Charity work: University of Florida, Mount Sinai Medical Center and the Greater Miami Jewish Federation