It wasn’t his first full-time job, but to Ken Jackson it sure felt like it.
“I had the opportunity to take a tax research class from Earl Davis, and let me tell you, that one class was a 40-hour-a-week job,” he says, remembering the beloved Terry College accounting professor. “I loved it. He gave you a hypothetical, and you had to research the answers and write your conclusions up. Many times there would be 10-, 15-, 20-page answers to the question. It was fascinating.”
Through the “Earl Davis method of teaching tax research,” where students defended speculative problems from both sides, often during the same class, Jackson found an uncompromising professor who pushed his students in class while lobbying on their behalf outside it.
“Every kid in that master’s program got out of there with a job, and it’s because of Earl Davis,” Jackson says. “He was your advocate, and I think that was a rare thing. He took a personal interest in making sure, maybe it was a point of pride for him, to say he never had a student leave the master of tax program without a job.”
Ken Jackson certainly did, and through decades of work proved to be one of Davis’s finest students.
He started his career at accounting giant Arthur Andersen, where within a decade he made partner. For the past 22 years Jackson has set up in Dalton as chief financial officer and executive vice president of Shaw Industries, helping to lead the global flooring manufacturing company with $5.6 billion in global revenues that employs more than 22,000 associates.
A member of the UGA Foundation Board of Trustees since 2006, serving as its chair in 2016 and 2017, Jackson has been a stalwart supporter of the university for decades. At Terry, he’s served on the J.M. Tull School of Accounting Advisory Board and led the charge to endow the Earl Davis Chair in Taxation.
But if it weren’t for a car — a 1975 Chevrolet Camaro LT, burnt orange, to be exact — he might have never crossed paths with UGA.
“I found my way to the University of Georgia based on where a car was going to be,” Jackson says, laughing. “My brother and I were sharing this car, and when I was a senior in high school my brother was a freshman at the University of Georgia. Back then as a freshman I wasn’t even sure you could have a car on campus. My senior year it was with me, but my dad, as I’m about to make this big decision about Georgia or Georgia Tech, reminds me we share the car and next year it was going to be in Athens. Based upon that I decided the University of Georgia would be the best choice for me and not Georgia Tech. That’s the God’s honest truth.”
When Jackson graduated from UGA, the job for him was at Arthur Andersen, “the most successful firm in Atlanta, with the biggest client base,” Jackson remembers. His first day as a tax staff assistant was Jan. 5, 1981 (accountants recall numbers easily). Within a week he’d start work on the account of a lifetime.
Don Waters, who served as a fellow UGA Foundation trustee with Jackson and is now on the Board of Regents, was his first office mate at Arthur Andersen, and asked him if he wanted to work on the June 30, 1980, tax returns for Shaw Industries. He did, not knowing his first assignment would forever stay with him. As Jackson progressed through the ranks — from senior consultant, to manager, to partner — Shaw Industries was a constant.
“We had clients and then we had clients, if you asked who were my anchors — Shaw was my anchor at Arthur Andersen,” Jackson says.
He was right where he wanted to be.
“You could tell Ken exhibited the confidence and leadership, you looked up to that,” says Steve Joiner (BBA ’86), chief financial officer at Treatment Management Company LLC and one of Jackson’s closest friends. “I do remember seeing him in that environment and thinking this is somebody that’s going to be very successful.”
He was, so much so that one day in 1995 the phone rang — it was Bob Shaw, chairman of Shaw Industries. At first Jackson was worried — was something wrong with the Shaw account?
Far from it.
“I get on the phone and he says to me ‘I want you to come up here and talk to me about being our CFO,’ ” Jackson says. “I had such high regard for this company and its executive team. I admired the company’s performance. I hung up that phone and my first reaction was ‘Gosh dang it, I wish he wouldn’t have called me,’ because I knew at that moment I was going to do it.”
He joined Shaw in 1996, and the company remained public until 2001 when it was bought by Berkshire Hathaway, the company led by Warren Buffett. Berkshire’s interest in Shaw made sense for a lot of reasons. The soundest, according to Buffett, was “he’s never walked into a building that didn’t have floors,” Jackson says.
“He tells you manage the business as though it was a car given to you when you were 16 years old but you knew would be the only car you ever got,” Jackson says of Buffett’s guidance. “What kind of care and maintenance would you protect that car with? That’s the mental picture you get when you run a company owned by Berkshire Hathaway.”
Jackson’s job has changed dramatically over the years.
“I was so thankful I got to see what it was like to be CFO of a public company, dealing with banks, dealing with Wall Street, dealing with shareholders, dealing with investor calls, because it was a great experience, but I wouldn’t trade our ownership structure today,” Jackson says. “Being part of Berkshire Hathaway and the ability you are provided to think about planning, do things on a long-term basis, not trying to meet someone’s unrealistic expectations, is an invaluable thing to have.”
Jackson also became more involved with UGA. In the early 2000s he implored fellow Tull School alums to help raise $2 million to fund the Earl Davis Chair in Taxation. “I gave to it, but the other thing I did was get on the phone and call everybody I knew and said, ‘This is our shot. This is our time. This is our chance to honor a guy that we all know. He loved us, and we loved him.’ ”
In 2006 he joined the UGA Foundation as a trustee, and saw his work for the Davis Chair come to fruition in 2008. Davis attended the ceremony in his honor not long before he died, a moment Jackson remembers with bittersweet fondness. “He was a beloved figure. He gave us all more than we ever gave him and here’s the coolest thing — the current holder of the Earl Davis Chair in Taxation is Dean Ben Ayers. To me, that’s going full circle.”
Jackson’s career is accomplished, but he knows there’s more to do. As he ends his term as UGA Foundation chair, he continues his push to endow more professorships throughout the university, increase scholarship opportunities, while eying the chance to talk with more Terry students as they begin careers.
Finishing as strong as he started is one of most important things he learned. He tells the story of an evaluation he was given early in his career at Arthur Andersen. The reviewer told him he did great in the first 95 percent of the job, but faltered at the last 5 percent — not getting the information back to the client quick enough, delivering returns without adequate time for review.
It left him stunned, but would make him stronger.
“It’s how you finish, and if you finish badly, it’s all people remember. I never forgot that lesson,” says Jackson. “In life people remember the last experiences they had with you, you learn that and you will never let it happen again.”