His first day on the job as finance director for the Village of Calumet Park, Illinois, Kent Oliven borrowed a pry bar from the public works department to look for records in a crawl space. “There I was in my suit, underground, realizing that the numbers didn’t add up,” Oliven recalls. He discovered that a law firm working on tax increment financing had overbilled the village by a whopping $3.2 million.
Oliven’s sleuthing made the front page of the Chicago Tribune and led to the recovery of the money for the cash-strapped municipality. “We discussed business ethics in the auditing class I took at Northwestern,” says Oliven, who earned a certificate in CPA Preparation at Northwestern University School of Professional Studies in 2009. “I knew what I had to do.”
Oliven enrolled in the post-baccalaureate program as a way to advance his career in municipal government, a calling he discovered after his family moved to Palos Park and his wife spotted an ad seeking a finance director for the village of 5,000. With bachelor’s and master’s degrees in economics from the University of Iowa and experience in investment banking, Oliven was well suited to the role. But after two years, he wanted to work in a larger municipality. “My dad always said to take more accounting courses, and he was right,” says Oliven. “I needed my CPA.” He determined that Northwestern would be the most efficient route to that goal.
“Deciding to leave my job and go back to school at age 39 with a wife and two kids was a tough decision,” says Oliven, “but it was an investment that paid off.” He completed the coursework in three quarters and spent every spare minute in the library preparing for the four rigorous exams that CPAs must pass to be licensed. Oliven passed all four exams on his first try — a rare feat. He was walking into the testing center for the first exam when he received the call inviting him to apply for the job in Calumet Park. In his three years there he became the village administrator, Calumet Park’s highest appointed official.
Today Oliven is the director of finance in Park Ridge, where he oversees a department of 12 and puts together the budget for the city of 37,000. He also chairs the Illinois CPA Society’s governmental accounting executive committee, where he sees more opportunities to make an impact. “I want to give people on boards, councils, and school districts better financial knowledge to oversee the people who are handling their accounts — the knowledge to ask the right questions.”