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Karen Berman: Patron Saint of Financial Intelligence

Until her untimely death last month, Karen Berman led a movement to engage all employees in improving a company's finances.
Karen Berman

Karen Berman

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Sometimes entrepreneurial companies are spawning grounds for new ideas about how to run a business--ideas that then spread, in one form or another, to more established enterprises. In the resulting hothouse of experimentation and innovation, a person can find a life’s work--and in the process help hundreds of companies discover new ways to succeed. That’s what happened with Karen Berman, an entrepreneur whose untimely death at age 51 has saddened the Inc. community.

 The story begins 30 years ago, with Jack Stack and a handful of colleagues at what was then called Springfield ReManufacturing Corp., or SRC. (Based in Missouri, the company is now known as SRC Holdings.) Desperate to make the bank payments on a highly leveraged buyout, Stack and the others decided that everyone in the company needed to know SRC’s financial situation. Soon they realized that they were developing a wholly new idea: help all the employees understand the economics of the business and then watch them come up with ways to improve their own productivity and the company’s performance.

Inc. dubbed the approach “open-book management.” We began writing about SRC and many other companies that were marching--sometimes stumbling--down the open-book path.

 Karen, then a young graduate student in organizational psychology, read up on open-book management and attended a couple of conferences. Before long, she was a convert. She wrote her Ph.D. dissertation on whether companies whose employees understand the financials outperform similarly situated peers. (They do.) She set up a consulting and training firm, Los Angeles-based Business Literacy Institute (BLI), to help companies teach finance. Some of her early clients were open-book; most just wanted their nonfinancial managers to know more about how to track financial performance.

Open book was--and still is--a bold new idea for most businesses. One reason is that most employees, including most managers, have at best a rudimentary understanding of financial principles. Not long ago, BLI administered a financial-literacy test to a random sample of more than 300 U.S. managers, from top executives to supervisors. The questions weren’t hard: Any junior financial person would readily know the answers. But the average score was a measly 38%. Many of the respondents didn’t know the difference between an income statement and a balance sheet.

But there was more. Financial illteracy, Karen discovered, not only makes employees less effective on the job; it also increases the likelihood that they will make bad decisions in their personal finances. And financial stress is a major cause of illness, absenteeism and other problems that cost companies millions every year. 

In other words, the market was broad, and BLI began to grow. In 2004, Karen created a partnership with Joe Knight, co-owner of Setpoint, an open-book company that itself had been written about in Inc. Joe, who held an MBA in finance, was a gifted teacher, and he hit the road to deliver training to the clients. Karen stayed home, close to her husband and young daughter. She developed customized materials for each client, based on the adult-learning principles she had studied in school. (“Nothing academic or boring,” says Stephanie Wexler, who was a client before she joined BLI’s staff.) She ran the BLI office and did client-development work.

 Karen and Joe were in some ways an odd couple--she was California, Jewish, liberal--he was Utah, Mormon, conservative. But the partnership clicked. BLI added clients such as GE, Electronic Arts, and Visa International. Karen and Joe published a best-selling book called Financial Intelligence with Harvard Business Review Press, which opened the door to still more clients. The future looked bright.

 And then Karen got sick, with advanced pancreatic cancer. For the next 18 months she bravely soldiered on, talking to clients and running the business despite feeling lousy because of the cancer treatments. She and Joe even wrote up a revised and expanded edition of Financial Intelligence, published by Harvard earlier this year. But they both knew things couldn’t go on forever. On July 14, 2013, she passed away.

 Karen Berman left her husband, Young Riddle, and her daughter, 12-year-old Marie. She left a worldwide network of friends and business contacts, and a company that will undoubtedly continue to thrive under Joe’s leadership. Most of all, she left a legacy of passion-;a deep belief that people at every level of an organization can understand what the business is all about, that they can learn to track the numbers and help move those numbers in the right direction. Those people may never be finance experts. But they will be engaged, empowered employees who get the why as well as the how of their jobs.

 From Jack Stack on, everyone who has helped put these simple, powerful ideas on the agenda of American business will miss her.

John Case, a former senior writer at Inc. Magazine, has written two books and many articles on open-book management. He collaborated with Karen and Joe on their book Financial Intelligence.




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