David Kessler ’85 began working for the company now known as CohnReznick right out of college, excited to put his Smith accounting degree to work. He stayed through the years, adapting as the company evolved, grew and expanded across industries. In 2020, he became the company’s CEO.
It’s a progression that speaks volumes about the leadership he brings to the top job of one of the country’s largest professional services firms—and one he didn’t always envision.
“I always enjoyed the many new challenges and problems to solve with each new day. I thrived on the variety of opportunities throughout the firm—assurance, tax and advisory, and with clients of different sizes and industries. And I’ve enjoyed strong relationships with clients, and peers and mentors at CohnReznick,” he says. “However, there was a time when I contemplated an opportunity with one of my favorite clients.”
After nearly 10 years with the firm, he was offered a CFO position with a client in Madison, Wis. It seemed like an exciting new step.
Kessler recalls talking it over with the managing partner at the time, a mentor of his. “He said, ‘Congratulations, but is this really what you want to do? Just factor in: You’ve been at this for 10 years and you’re going to be promoted to partner within a year.’”
Kessler says he was a bit stunned. “I said, ‘Well, I didn’t really know that.’ That was a nice piece of information to have in this decision process.”
Kessler stayed and made partner that year. It’s been a quarter-century since that conversation, and he thinks of it as a pivotal moment in his career—one that underscored the vital nature of mentorship and community at work.
CohnReznick has a formal mentorship program that matches each new employee with one who’s been with the firm awhile. Additional mentorship, Kessler says, happens organically, grown by a culture that promotes sponsorship and encouragement. “We hire about 380 college graduates a year, including from Smith, and I speak to all of them in a town hall, where they can ask me anything. I recommend to new hires that they find three mentors from different areas within the firm—or more. Everyone at CohnReznick is willing to share their story and help others.”
When Kessler joined the firm, its footprints were small: just two Maryland offices that specialized in affordable housing and real estate. Today, there are 25 offices around the country, a large operation in Chennai, India, and individual employees scattered around the world. Real estate continues to be the firm’s biggest practice area, but two-thirds of its work now is in other industries.
“It still feels the same as it did when I started, when we had two offices and everybody knew everybody, but with even more opportunities—and I like that,” he says.
Kessler was born and raised in Maryland. As a kid, he knew he wanted to attend UMD one day—and he knew he’d major in business. His grandfather had been an accountant, and Kessler found himself drawn to that work.
He started at Reznick, Fedder & Silverman upon graduation, the company that became the Reznick Group, and then CohnReznick. “I’ve been at the same place my whole career, but I’ve done many things,” he says.
Much of his work has been in the firm’s core area, but it’s the variety of experiences that have motivated him—like the time he was involved in major forensic accounting projects that drew in the FBI, Department of Justice and IRS criminal division.
In accounting, particularly in a large firm like CohnReznick, there are always opportunities.
“You could end up working with one of our clients in real estate, or renewable energy, or government services, or cannabis, or a professional sports team,” Kessler says.
“It keeps things exciting.”
He has worked on mergers and acquisitions, performing buy-side and sell-side due diligence. He has served as a co-managing-partner of the firm’s second-largest office, as head of the firm’s real estate private practice, and holds a seat on the board.
He came to the CEO role on Feb. 1, 2020, just before COVID-19 would change the world. The pandemic would put months of planned business travel on hold. Instead, he’d spend that first year in virtual sessions, connecting with CohnReznick’s 3,000 employees via video.
He shared with them his vision for the firm—continued growth into new industries and innovation in building new, proprietary technologies that use AI and robotic processing to analyze and map information. And he spoke about his years with the firm and his enthusiasm, which never seems to dim.
“I get really passionate about our business, about how we can grow, how we can create opportunities for people, and create a workplace that’s full of innovation and community and mentorship. That’s what drives me.”
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