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Early Experiences Eased Transition from Public to Private Accounting

A native Rhode Islander, Frank J. Tillinghast grew up in West Greenwich and graduated from Bishop Hendricken High School, where he played hockey. 

He received his undergraduate degree in Accounting from the University of Rhode Island (1995), and then earned an MBA -- with a focus on Entrepreneurship -- from Babson College.

Like many CPAs, Tillinghast began his career in the public sector where he gained experience working for companies of various sizes in a wide array of industries.  He credits those experiences with helping him to establish the foundation on which he has built a successful career.      

WHAT COUNTS: Why numbers? Was there a point – perhaps early in your life – when you knew you wanted to pursue accounting and finance?  

Frank Tillinghast: I was always strong in math and particularly, algebra. I think my upbringing was always leading me toward business.  My mother owned a small business in Warwick and my father ran a jewelry manufacturing plant.  I didn’t settle on accounting until my junior year in college. I had a great accounting professor at URI, Dr. Vangermeersch, and his class led me to accounting.  I was getting ready to graduate in the middle of the early-1990s recession and jobs were not plentiful. I looked at public accounting as a way to get into the business world.  As Dr. Vangermeersch would say, “accounting is the language of business.” That stuck with me and I believe it is true today.

WC: What was it like to transition from a public firm to working for a private entity?

Tillinghast: For me, public accounting was very much a means to an end. I knew I did not want to be a partner and make tax or attestation work my life’s goal.  However, there is no better way to get experience from multiple industries and exposure to all different size companies than working in public accounting.   During my time in public accounting, I worked on real estate, health care, manufacturing, municipal government, and not-for-profit businesses. In those days, staff accountants even field-prepped the 1120 tax returns! So I received tax and audit experience out of the gate. Ultimately, I went to work for my largest client, Duro Industries in Fall River, Massachusetts, as a financial analyst reporting to the CFO.  My exposure to so many industries and businesses helped me to choose a career path that fit my interests.  My experience as an auditor gave me an analytical foundation that I think is of critical importance to a finance chief.    

WC: Tell us a bit about how you arrived at your current position at CleanBrands?

Tillinghast: I serve as the CFO of two privately held companies: CleanBrands and CTM. CTM operates under the name SquadLocker and is currently rolling out a national athletic team dealer model to compete with the local “mom and pop” screen printers and embroiderers.  CleanBrands manufactures utility bedding products under the brand name CleanRest that are sold throughout the US and Canada at retailers – Bed Bath & Beyond being our largest retailer – and through commercial channels such as hospitality and pest control. Our products generally have two uses: allergen prevention and bed bug prevention and remediation. CleanBrands was launched in 2006 as a spin off from CTM, LLC. At the time, CTM was manufacturing textile-based consumer products in Mexico through a wholly owned subsidiary in Guadalajara. We had developed the products as an off-shoot of a project we did with WL Gore, the makers of Gore-Tex. We landed a test with Bed Bath & Beyond and succeeded in commercializing the product.  

WC:  How do you describe your role in the company?  

Tillinghast: My primary role is that of CFO. However, like many small companies, my role includes elements of human resources, IT, and general management.  As the CFO, my primary objectives include long-term and short-term planning, cash and working capital management, capital financing, and, of course, financial reporting. In the early days, my job centered around funding high growth as we launched a company from zero to $10 million in revenues in three years. This included all types of financing vehicles from multiple series of equity financing to factoring agreements and mezzanine debt. Our current financing includes a commercial credit facility with a bank and a term loan with Commerce RI. We cut our weighted average cost of capital from a high of about 25 percent to about 5 percent between 2010 and 2013. Currently, the biggest project I am working on is rolling out new Business Intelligence concepts to help our employees make informed business decisions based on timely and accurate information. This is proving more difficult than I had hoped. The technology is changing so rapidly and people take time to catch up.   

WC: What has been critical to any successes you have had in transitioning from one experience to the next, from school to work, from one professional position to another?        

Tillinghast: My experience at Babson is something that I use every day in my professional life. I even refer back to my notes and binders on occasion. I would encourage all CPAs to think about continuing their education beyond accounting. I feel my strongest skill is my ability to analyze large amounts of information, filter out the noise and focus on what is important to tell a story and make recommendations. At Duro, when I was fairly young, still in my mid-20s, I was promoted to Business Planning Manager. The company had just undergone a major LBO that included a private equity firm as part of the new ownership and management team. In this role, I worked closely with a number of seasoned business managers to develop strategic plans for the various divisions. My ability to quickly understand their businesses endeared me to those managers.  

WC: When did you join RISCPA?

Tillinghast: I joined RISCPA early in my career because it is the number one source for networking and educational opportunities for CPAs in Rhode Island. I continue to get most of my CPE credits through the Society. Today, every time I visit the Society I run into someone that I met early in my career and there is a bit of a reunion. I enjoy that.  

WC: Are you involved in committees or activities through RISCPA?  

Tillinghast: I am on the Social Committee, which is primarily tasked with running the Charitable Golf Tournament. This is an opportunity to work with other CPAs doing something I love while being able to help out a local Rhode Island charity.  This year’s tournament will be held on July 7, at Warwick Country Club. My plans include joining the BIG committee. I am thrilled that James Morrison, our incoming president, is coming from the private industry.  Outside of the Society, I serve on two boards: the Central Falls Detention Facility Corporation and Warwick Continental Little League.