Gary Birkenbeuel ’80 brings illustrious accounting career to the classroom

Gary Birkenbeuel teaching a class.

Photos by Isaiah Tulanda '20

Gary Birkenbeuel ’80 counts his decision to attend Claremont McKenna College as one of the best he has ever made.

“It has worked out to have been pretty phenomenal,” said the former CMS baseball pitcher, who now draws upon his illustrious accounting career to teach financial statement analysis, international accounting, as well as a personal finance course as a Senior Lecturer in the Robert Day School of Economics and Finance.

Growing up in the San Gabriel Valley, Birkenbeuel chose to attend CMC because he was offered the opportunity to pitch on the CMS Baseball team. The southpaw pitched all four years with  such distinction — he was known as the “crafty lefty”— that he was honored with the 1980 William Dickinson Athletic Award.

“It was an unbelievable experience for me,” said Birkenbeuel who described the team as “gutty,” and their coach, Bill Arce, as one of his heroes.

“Coach Arce really helped me when I was struggling both academically and financially,” Birkenbeuel recalled. “And he took it upon himself to take an interest in me and champion things for me. He’s a legend.”

Off the playing field and in the classroom, Birkenbeuel described how he “learned about intellectual curiosity, to be curious about things, ask questions, and continue learning. Because it doesn’t just stop in your four years in college … I think it served me well in my business career because I certainly wasn’t the best accountant out there. But I learned how to motivate people. I learned that asking good questions was an important part of the business, as well.”

Birkenbeuel graduated CMC with a bachelor’s in Economics-Accounting, and joined Ernst & Young, where he worked for nearly four decades before retiring in 2017. Along the way, Birkenbeuel earned a Koury Outstanding Accounting Alumni Award from CMC, honored for excelling in professional endeavors, exhibiting personal integrity, and demonstrating a deep commitment to the Economics-Accounting program.

When asked how he would describe his career at Ernst & Young, Birkenbeuel said he was “lucky.”

“I had one employer, but I had, maybe 10 different jobs while I was there. And it was an unbelievably rich environment that kept me learning and growing,” Birkenbeuel said. “I saw the world, probably traveling close to 3 million miles. It exceeded my wildest expectations.”

Professor Gary Birkenbeuel in  front of a class.

Now he guides CMC students, advising them to consider accounting as a profession. “It is such a phenomenal place to start your career,” he said. “It’s the foundation for business, … and an unbelievable launching pad for so many successful executives who go on to do great things.”

In 2016, Birkenbeuel joined CMC  in a part-time role, at the behest of Professor Marc Massoud P’89, who wanted a professional  “immersed in that practice” to teach an auditing course. Initially he taught in the evenings, while working at Ernst & Young, but once he retired, Massoud asked Birkenbeuel to expand his teaching responsibilities.

He considers himself a “Jack of all trades,” who bridges the gap between theory and practice. Teaching allows him to share his zest for learning, and he is particularly proud of the personal finance course, which he developed, and has nicknamed “Adulting 101.”

“I teach it every semester primarily to seniors, who when they graduate, then have to rent an apartment, buy a car, or pay off their student loans,” he said. The popular half-credit, pass/fail course answers questions such as, “How do I create a budget?” “What is a 401K, or a medical insurance premium?”

Preparing his students for the “real world” is among Birkenbeuel’s goals both in the classroom and when he meets with students during his office hours, where he encourages them to focus on the skillsets they’ll bring into their future workplaces, and welcomes questions “about  job interviewing,  job offers, and courses they should consider.”

Birkenbeuel believes the personal connection encouraged at the College between students and their “fabulous professors who are experts in their fields” is “one of the secret sauces of CMC,” he said, while noting that the benefits are reciprocal.

“What I have enjoyed an awful lot is being around young people, and the energy that they give me. I think I learn more from them than they learn from me,” he said.

Read more about Gary Birkenbeuel ’80 and the CMS Baseball’s legendary 1979 post-season here

Anne Bergman


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