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Lindagrace Hickey Featured

10:50am EDT October 23, 2001

Introductions often proved to be a problem for Lindagrace Hickey after she was named the first woman partner at Whalen & Co. CPAs in 1984.

Despite her promotion, clients proceeded to refer to her as the secretary of the male partners at the company.

"At the time I felt like I was out there climbing a hill by myself," she says, even though she's now the managing partner and one of three female owners of the North Columbus firm.

Perhaps it's her journey into that new territory that makes her empathize with the characters in some of her favorite books, which include nonfiction stories of the Old West.

"The way of life of the Plains Indian has a tremendous fascination for me -- how they eked out their living, what caused them to celebrate, how they lived their lives day to day with the perils against them," says Hickey, who predicts she'll likely retire in the Colorado area one day.

She also admires women who met their challenges in the 1800s on the wagon trails, stories she enjoys from "Women's Diaries of the Westward Journey" by Lillian Schlissel.

Hickey's own determination and self-confidence impressed Jedd Whalen, a retiring former partner in the accounting firm, who interviewed her when she responded to a 1979 advertisement for an opening in the five-person office.

"I don't think she really gave us much choice. She's just very convincing," he says, referring to why she was chosen for the job.

She also already had 10 years experience working part time at another firm.

"There wasn't much we had to think about."

Within five years, she was named the firm's first woman partner. In 1999, the firm she left, Mathless & Mathless CPAs Inc., called to see if she was interested in taking it over because its partners were retiring.

"They thought very highly of Linda in order to do that," Whalen says.

Most of the clients were merged into the Whalen practice, which now is approaching $3 million in revenue and has 35 employees serving 1,500 business and individual clients.

"She works awfully hard, and she is extremely devoted to her clients," Whalen adds. "Her clients always come first."

Hickey credits lessons from Elmer Whalen, the firm's founder who now lives in Florida, with her ability to put people first.

"These are not just clients; these are your friends who trust you a lot," she says, describing his teachings. "CPAs are known for their independent thinking -- they don't bring bias to the table. They look at all aspects. He helped me to see that very clearly, and how your clients would value that."

That education is evident to 15-year client Karen Ballou, secretary/treasurer of Bennett & Williams Inc., a Columbus environmental consulting and engineering firm.

"She's always been very upbeat, very outgoing, very personable," she says. "She's interested in me as a person as well as my business."

Ballou also uses Hickey's services for her personal finances and another business she co-owns, Geodyssey Inc.

"She does not come across as the typical, 'I have my head buried in numbers and that is all I really know,' because she has the people skills that complement (her accounting expertise)," Ballou says. "She's not what one would think of as a typical accountant."

"She is personally responsible for breaking that mold," says Jedd Whalen.

Hickey's wit sets her apart, say many who know her, and Whalen points out she isn't the average right-brained accountant.

Her creative side comes out in the needlework she does in quilts and afghans -- she also cross-stitched a good number of her Christmas cards last year -- and one of her favorite pastimes, photography.

"I always have my camera with me," she says. "I love to shoot sunsets wherever I am. I'm fascinated by the different views of sunsets across this country."

Among her favorite photo spots: Red Rocks Amphitheater near Denver, where she often travels to visit her two grown children; the Gulf of Mexico at the southern tip of Florida; and the coast of Oregon.

Her Kodak panoramic camera also goes with her to Browns' games, where she can get the whole Cleveland stadium in one shot.

"I think they built that camera for me," she says.

Whalen says Hickey's involvement in organizations and volunteer activities outside of work makes him think she has batteries that never run down.

"She's one of those high energy people that I admire; that I'm jealous of," he says "Linda is one of those people -- and I've told her this -- that's very analytical and very accountant-like, but at the same time, she's very creative and artistic."

Her business savvy leads her to enjoy working with chambers of commerce to network and market her skills, which make her sought-after for speaking engagements to civic organizations and other volunteer services. The Westerville Area Chamber asked her to serve as treasurer of its foundation to provide educational scholarships for Westerville students. She's also president of the Little Turtle Condo Association, where she lives.

A member of Women Presidents Organization, she's a founding member of the Columbus chapter of the National Association of Women Business Owners, where she has served as treasurer for five years.

"She's very direct, straightforward and has a great sense of humor. To me, she doesn't fit a lot of the large accounting/legal practice profiles," says Melody Borchers, who also was a founding member of the National Association of Women Business Owners and is coordinator for the Women Presidents Organization's Columbus chapter. Borchers also knows Hickey as a client of her My Turf golf training business.

Borchers adds that Hickey seems comfortable with anyone, from individual entrepreneurs to very sophisticated clients.

"She's very, very confident," Borchers says, "but she kind of wins people over with her sense of humor -- a very dry sense of humor -- and instant identification with them no matter what industry they're in." How to reach: Lindagrace Hickey, Whalen & Co., 891-6224 or www.whalencpa.com

Joan Slattery Wall (jwall@sbnnet.com) is associate editor of SBN Magazine in Columbus.