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Held accountable

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  • | 8:42 a.m. February 21, 2014
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Who turns down an accountant for a business loan?

Barnett Bank did just that to Gail Markham when she founded her accounting firm 35 years ago. A banker refused to consider Markham's loan to fund the expenses of additional office space even though her business plan was solid and her client roster was growing fast.

Markham knew the reason she was turned down: She was a woman.

Markham had left her previous employer after hitting the glass ceiling. After four years, when she was denied a partnership with a Fort Myers accounting firm because she was a woman, Markham resigned. “You don't want to worry and make decisions,” the male partners told her when she asked why she hadn't earned a partnership. “I walked out the door feeling pretty bad,” she remembers.

Her first firm partner, Joni Norton, joined her a few years later. “I've never had that happen,” Norton says, listening to Markham's experience.

At a Christmas party before she resigned from the male-dominated accounting firm, the partners handed Markham a holiday card with the title “Firm Hustler.” That's because she had been given the task of crossing the bridge to Cape Coral to grow the practice. “Go to Cape Coral and hustle up a practice,” she remembers them telling her derisively.

Unbowed, Markham hustled up such a practice that about 100 clients followed her to her new firm after she resigned, launching what would become Markham Norton Mosteller Wright & Co. She never thought of applying to other accounting firms. “I didn't even try,” she says.

Today, Markham says she finds the firm has to work harder than male-dominated rivals. “Our fees are questioned more,” she says. “I find little subtleties.” Markham works on behalf of litigants and attorneys who sometimes refer to the partners as “you girls.”

Markham says those comments don't bother her now. “We have earned the respect,” she says. “We've worked very hard.” Her firm is well established with offices in Fort Myers and Naples and billings of “several million.”

The three women partners say they didn't intend to build the firm to be one owned mostly by women. “It was just by accident,” Norton says. Because they don't work on government contracts, they say they don't benefit from being woman-owned.

Chauvinistic remarks are less prevalent outside of law circles, say partners Norton and Karen Mosteller. They're quick to say that men make up a majority of their clients and most are professional. The firm's fourth partner, Randy Wright, is a man who joined the firm in 1986.

“If we send someone to a bank to get a loan, it doesn't matter if they're a man or a woman,” Norton says.

As Joni Norton, Gail Markham and Karen Mosteller celebrate their firm's 35th year in business, they lend the following advice to other women in business:

  • Be the best at what you do and exceed expectations.
  • “We go way beyond what's required,” Markham says.
  • Be a planner.
  • “You need to have your story down,” Norton says.
  • Be conservative.
  • “What about six months of losses?” Norton asks.
  • Don't grow too fast.
  • “You can go out of business being too successful,” Norton cautions.


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