"It took a lot of fortitude to balance the short-term decisions to cut costs with a long-term vision," he said. "The most important part was Stephen kept people motivated. He's all about keeping people optimistic. At times, as CEO, you have to be a cheerleader even as you're making cuts."
Things are looking better now. And Chipman said his biggest priority is talent. Globalization and instant communications have neutralized the kind of hard competitive advantages companies used to have, he said. The extra services that a talented, innovative team can offer are what matters.
"The soft stuff is now the hard stuff," Chipman said. "The organizations that collaborate, are agile, have great communications, have people that feel empowered, all of these soft skills, in totality, create competitive advantage."
Not that dealing with the hard side of the business is in the rear-view mirror. In the wake of the Enron-related collapse of Arthur Anderson in 2002, Chipman said he believes the auditing industry did a good job of cleaning up its processes amid new government regulations.
Now, sharp criticisms are being raised again. The industry's defense is to draw a line between what the public expects of auditing firms versus what they actually do.
"There is a huge gap between what we do and what the public at large thinks we do. We audit financial statements to professional standards. Often the public, and the investment public, thinks we are giving a total bill of health ... that our opinion is somehow an overall health check for the organization. That's not what we do."
Still, Chipman said a perception gap means "the industry is always going to be exposed to the next major business failure."
Tom Allen, chairman of the Federal Accounting Standards Advisory Board, agrees there's a perception gap. But he said that's nothing new and doesn't mean firms don't have to give the public better information about businesses, ideally flagging potential problems more quickly.
"The world we live in is a very complicated world," said Allen, also a retired professor of accounting at Weber State University. "I think the auditing profession is having a real hard time saying: 'How can we audit and understand future information?' "
Allen said the key is maintaining and updating professional standards to reflect the ever-changing financial marketplace. "There is always room for improvement."
His words echo Chipman's own about his approach to his wide responsibilities.
"There isn't a day that goes by that I don't learn to be a better CEO," Chipman said.
"To me, it's a work in process, more than any other job I've ever done."
- - -
Title: Chief executive officer, Grant Thornton LLP, the U.S. partner firm of Grant Thornton International
Background: Born and raised in Plymouth, England; has worked for Grant Thornton for 31 years. Prior to taking the top U.S. job, he ran Grant Thornton's China office. He has also worked for the firm in Dallas.
Family: Chipman and his wife, Kim, live in Wilmette with their daughters, Samantha, 13, and Emma, 10.
Interests: Follows global affairs closely and though he travels for work nearly every week of the year, loves traveling with his family. Enjoys American sports and, thanks to years in Texas, is a die-hard Dallas Cowboys and Texas Rangers fan.
Leadership style: "I think leadership is about influence, not authority. In fact, I think leadership is about the ability to influence, with or without authority."
Rallying the troops: Self-described "handwritten note guy" and big believer in recognition. "I am never satisfied that we are doing enough to recognize our people."
Civic involvement: In addition to Chicago causes, he's on the board of the Berkeley, Calif.-based Half the Sky Foundation, a charitable organization that works to improve conditions in Chinese orphanages.