Paul Gurman

Knocking On Doors

Paul Gurman wasn’t an overnight success. As with any high-achiever, his success was borne not only of intelligence, but also of commitment, study, and long hours of work over many years. Just as importantly, it was borne of the confidence to demand consideration and the courage to face rejection.

Indeed, Paul has never been one to settle. After graduating from college, he didn’t take his first job offer, but instead continued knocking on doors until he found a better offer. When embarking on an entrepreneurial career, he didn’t fold in the face of his initial struggles but knocked on doors until the business began to grow and flourish. And when his business nearly collapsed during the real estate crash, he built it back up from the ground by, once again, knocking on doors until his client base grew larger and more diversified than ever before. Although he modestly demurs that he doesn’t know if he considers himself a great salesman, he’s built a career betting on himself and selling others on that bet. From his first foray into the professional world, to his leap into entrepreneurship, Paul has sold potential employers and clients alike on himself, day-to-day and door-to-door.

Paul comes by his professional ambition honestly. His grandfather, uncle, and father, local entrepreneurs in Terre Haute, Indiana, established their business, which still operates today, back in 1922. Paul credits his influence as key, recalling, “I remember my dad going in, shaking hands, always in a crowd of people. I watched him. He could talk to anyone.” Of his parents’ three children, Paul was far more interested in his father’s business than his older and younger brother were. While his brothers enrolled in summer camps, Paul stayed at home to help his father and his team recondition steel drums. From a young age, he expected to someday take over the family business, and set to work learning everything he could about daily operations.

Armed with this ambition, Paul became a jack-of-all-trades around the warehouse. “My father and uncle drove a truck around to bring the drums back, and they had a crew that would clean them out, repaint them, take the dents out, and make sure they were sealed,” Paul remembers. “It was tough work. From the time I was eight years old, I was cleaning the toilets, sweeping out the warehouse, and doing anything that needed to be done. By the time I was 16, I knew how to do everything.”

Although Paul worked hard for his father, he didn’t bring the same commitment to academics. He didn’t take his classes seriously and often argued with his parents over his poor grades. After spending high school summers apprenticed to his father, Paul headed off to a junior college nearby, fully expecting to receive his degree and return to run the business in a few short years.

After a year at the small junior college, Paul transferred to Indiana University (IU) in Indianapolis in 1968. His plans changed, however, when he was drafted to serve in the U.S. Army in 1969. After two years of service, Paul returned home more anxious than ever to begin running his father’s business, only to be told that he would not be put in charge until he went back to school and finished his degree. Unsure what he wanted to pursue, Paul spoke with his older brother, who encouraged him to consider accounting, as it would help him understand business and would really open doors for him. Paul followed his advice and enrolled in the accounting program at IU, where, for the first time, he found himself fascinated with his studies, compelled to apply himself fully to academics. Once so eager to return home, Paul graduated from IU in December of 1974 and immediately took a position with a CPA firm in Indianapolis.

With a few weeks of vacation before his employment began, Paul took a trip to Washington, D.C., where he began to entertain the wild notion of never returning to Indiana. “I didn’t really know anybody, but I liked the area,” he remembers. “I thought I’d just knock on some doors and see if I could get a job. I made a few calls and got a couple of interviews. Then one guy called me and said, ‘Hey, we’re going to take a chance on you.’” Paul called the firm at home where he already had a good offer and told them he had to decline the position. And with that, in 1975, Paul’s professional career began in Washington.

For the next seven years, Paul worked for CPA firms in the District of Columbia and maintained his characteristic commitment to personal and professional growth and challenge. After three years, he left one large international CPA firm to join another, and two years later, he moved on to a large local firm, expecting to stay on and ultimately become a partner there. The firm offered opportunity for growth, but Paul quickly realized he sought a higher career pinnacle. “I had worked as an auditor for large international firms, and I had mastered that skill set,” he reflects. “At the local firm, I worked in their audit department with the understanding that they would teach me the tax side of things, which I knew nothing about. But I realized after about three months that it wasn’t a good fit for me.”

Despite this concern, Paul stayed through two tax seasons, eager to benefit as much as possible from the educational aspect of the position before deciding it was time to strike out on his own. Unmarried and with a mortgage of $1,000 a month, Paul remembers thinking, “If I can’t make $1,000 a month, then I wasn’t meant to be an entrepreneur.” In 1981, he left the stability of his desk job to find out.

Gurman & Company got off to a slow start. Paul didn’t have any useful contacts, and his business was brand new. Bearing in mind the old axiom that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, he began the long slog toward success with a daily perusal of the Washington Post want ads. “I’d get up really early, about six o’clock, and I’d check for people looking for bookkeepers, accountants, auditors, treasurers, consultants—anything I felt I had the experience to do,” he remembers. Although most of the listings were for part-time and full-time positions, Paul followed up on every one, explaining to recruiters and potential clients that hiring him for an hourly rate would be more cost effective than adding full-time staff, who would require benefits and paid leave. Day after day, he pitched himself to anyone in need of financial services, and over time, his clients accumulated. Slowly but surely, business began to grow.

Two years later, Paul’s father called to invite him to come home and run the family business. It was the offer he had dreamed about as a boy, but after the experience of building his own success through skill and tenacity, his horizons had expanded. To his family’s surprise, he declined his father’s offer to take over the long-established business, suggesting his older brother, Bob, as the best candidate instead. Bob accepted the position and moved home to work with their father until he retired at age 90, and today, Bob’s daughter and her husband still run the business in Indiana.

Around the same time, in 1983, Paul married his wife Jean, who was working for McGraw-Hill in sales at the time. “She’s supportive, honest, and a hell of a saleswoman,” he laughs. “She could sell ice to Eskimos!” After getting married, Paul began renting office space, and, fortuitously, found his landlords in need of financial help. “The guys I was renting from were home builders,” he recounts. “They were just starting out, and their accounting practices were not good. They were using a bigger firm and weren’t happy with the advice they were getting, so after a few months, they began using me instead. At one point, they were about 75 percent of my billing. Things started out slow, and I think year one I billed $10,000, but every year it seemed to double and then triple. And they were a big shot in the arm for that.”

Professionally and personally, everything seemed to be going swimmingly for Paul. But his days of knocking on doors were far from over. In the late 1980s, his homebuilder clients, by then a significant percentage of Gurman & Company’s billing, hit hard times. Overconfident after years of runaway success, they moved into commercial real estate and gambled away the business on failed investments, leaving Gurman and Company in similarly dire straits.

As a result, in 1990, Paul’s income on his Social Security forms was $0. He had five employees but chose not to let any of them go as he struggled to regroup and rebuild the business. He resolved never to take on another client that would make up more than 15 percent of total billings, and has remained true to this commitment of diversification. Steadily, Paul acquired clients, and the business has grown each year since.

This growth was so steady that, in 2000, Paul took on a partner. In 2002, another CPA by the name of John Kelly joined the firm as a partner, and today Gurman & Co. has a staff of around 15. It’s a business he built from nothing, not once, but twice. “I’m not afraid to walk in and ask for something,” he says, reflecting on his intentional and hard-earned success. “Every client that I have is from our ability to sell ourselves—our ability to show it’s a good idea to give us a chance.”

The Gurmans’ salesmanship and unwillingness to take no for an answer have served them well in their personal lives as well. Paul and Jean married in their mid-thirties and were unable to have children, but they were committed to the idea of building a loving family and instead adopted three wonderful daughters. “We were already approaching age 40 at a time when adoption at 40 and above was next to impossible, but we weren’t deterred,” Paul affirms. “My wife wrote to pediatricians all over the country, saying we had the will and resources to adopt. Finally we were put on one list, and then another. One day we got a call from an agency. Long story short, we were beyond thrilled to adopt our first daughter, a child with special needs.” The baby was born in November and placed with the Gurmans at the end of December. Because of poor prenatal care, she was born with low muscle tone, to the point that a doctor told Paul he didn’t think she would ever walk. Thankfully, she was raised in a family where steadfast tenacity is sacred.

Seventeen months after their first adoption, the Gurmans were blessed with two more children—twin girls who Paul says inspired their older sister to begin pulling herself onto her feet, and ultimately, to walk. “My first daughter is now in her late twenties, and we’re very close,” he says. “She has incredible strength of will. She walks, bowls, and has played basketball, and now she’s living independently, learning to drive and taking classes to become a veterinarian’s assistant.” Today, Paul and Jean work with several charities, none dearer to their hearts than those that assist people who have disabilities as they watch their own daughter triumph over similar obstacles.

Beyond this philanthropic work, the Gurmans are actively involved with the Northern Virginia Jewish Community Center, where Jean has been a board member for eight years. Paul also runs a foundation endowed by a wealthy elderly client who passed away, leaving her $3.5 million fortune to be managed by him. As President, CEO and Chairman of the Board for the charity, which provides funding to programs focused on children and education, Paul and his two other board members consider potential allocation for the money every six months, and are able to support a whole portfolio of worthwhile causes in the process.

To young people preparing to enter the professional world today, Paul condenses his wisdom into a single directive. “Don’t be afraid to ask questions,” he stresses. “Learn, work hard, and stay out of trouble. It’s the simplest but best recipe for achievement. It’s not glamorous and it’s not easy. It’s slow and steady progress built on slow and steady effort. I started with nothing but a good sense of myself and a good work ethic instilled by my parents, and I built success one day, and one door, at a time.”

Paul Gurman

Gordon J Bernhardt


President and founder of Bernhardt Wealth Management and author of Profiles in Success: Inspiration from Executive Leaders in the Washington D.C. Area. Gordon provides financial planning and wealth management services to affluent individuals, families and business owners throughout the Washington, DC area. Since establishing his firm in 1994, he and his team have been focused on providing high quality service and independent financial advice to help clients make informed decisions about their money.

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