"Suddenly I was with this very large organization, with great training and opportunities for travel. It was one of those little quirks of life," he said. "It was fortuitous, and it was, professionally, the best thing that ever happened to me."
"He is truly someone I feel I can respect," Kim Chipman said. "And respect is the No. 1 thing for me. ... Solid. I guess that's the one word I'd use for him."
She left the firm when they were married and was earning her MBA when he was asked to move to Asia.
"For me it was just the best possible opportunity," he said. "I was barely 30, had just made partner, and they said: 'Go to Asia and build Asia Pacific.' It was fantastic."
The move to Hong Kong was significant in another way that was not apparent at the time. Chipman said he and his wife both grew up in modest, middle-class homes. Living in Asia, he said, "opened our eyes to the needs in places like China. Our perception was we were normal, just normal middle-class folks. And then you live and work in Asia, seeing real poverty for the first time, and real need. That was a real life-changing event."
When they returned to the United States and once more were living in Texas, the couple decided to adopt first one daughter from China, then a second two years later. The family settled into life in Dallas, when serendipity intervened. Chipman was asked to return to Asia for the firm.
"That was great because we were able to travel around China, and they were able to really connect with their home culture," he said of daughters Samantha, 13, and Emma, 10. "I think it helped to sort of put into perspective their questions about their adoption. It was a wonderful experience."
It was during this second stint in Asia that Chipman was tapped as one of the people being considered for CEO for Grant Thornton's U.S. member firm. As a member of the senior management team, he said he had finally begun to think about the possibility of the top job.
"I am not one of these individuals that has really planned out my career," he said. "I've tended to be sort of a three- or four-year guy, and then I'm ready to do something else. ... But when I was part of the senior leadership team, and I really had a seat at the table with our previous CEO, for the running of the business, I started to think that, well, this could be an interesting job. Maybe I have some of the skills that could be effective in that role."
Chipman had, of course, followed the standard path to corporate leadership. And as the CEO selection process moved along, he burnished his resume with executive training programs at Harvard and Oxford. But when he finally took over for Nusbaum, in January 2010, Chipman said he wasn't ready for the feeling -- literally an "every fiber in your body tingling" -- of being the person in charge.
"By the time it happened, I thought, I've rounded off the edges and I'm feeling pretty good about this," he said. "Then you get in the chair and you realize there isn't anything that really prepares you for the job.
"As I've reflected on it," he continued, "it's that sudden realization that you're looking up and there's no one. Obviously there's a board that is very important and a huge part of the counsel and advice, and I'm certainly responsible to that board. But that whole 'buck stops here' on decisions, that suddenly becomes very real. You've got 6,000 people in the U.S., and they are all looking at you. And they are looking at you for answers. That's a huge responsibility."
The timing of his ascension didn't make it any easier. Accounting tends to lag typical businesses when it comes to ups and downs. So the market turmoil of 2008 was still very much in play when Chipman took over the reins.
"We were absolutely in the teeth of the storm of the impact of the financial crisis," he said.
"It certainly, as I look back on it, was a huge growth moment for me," Chipman said. "I don't think you know your ability to deal with these sorts of things. All the Harvard courses and all the Oxford courses, and the training and all the roles I had, all that stuff is fantastic, and I probably in some form or fashion drew on that. But until you're in the chair, until you're in that moment, you don't know."
One thing he learned was how to deal with the nonstop scrutiny a CEO faces, magnified in the blog and social-media age.
"Every moment of every day, you are being watched. At a time of crisis like that, no matter how bad a day it's been, or how difficult a problem you're grappling with, people don't want to see you looking like the place is falling apart," he said.