Community relationships guide Kelly Ward

Photo courtesy of Kelly Ward.
Kelly Ward, recipient of the 2024 William R. Cashen Service Award from the UAF Alumni Association, gives a presentation in October 2022.

By Felicia Burud

Small towns, small businesses: It’s a thread that runs through Kelly Ward’s life and career.

She grew up in a small town in Mississippi, where her parents owned a small business. Her first job as a freshman in high school was at a family-owned drugstore and pharmacy in her hometown. Today she owns a small accounting firm.

Through those experiences, Ward has learned the importance of building relationships and what it meant to be an active participant in her community.

“It comes from being a child of two small business owners,” she said. “Really the relationship approach to working with small businesses is the most important foundational pillar. Unless you have those relationships with those clients, you’re cutting out the ability to know, like and trust those people.”

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Photo courtesy of Kelly Ward.
Kelly Ward enjoys a moment at an outdoor cafe in Great Britain.

Ward’s first accounting job was while she was a student at Mississippi State University.

“I worked at a small firm in the town where I went to school. I was the receptionist and helped with making copies and things like that,” she said. “It was literally dad, daughter and son. Three people and me.”

The atmosphere appealed to Ward. She had been told in college that going to work for one of the big four accounting firms was pretty much expected. She had a different approach. 

“Once I started working with small businesses, I realized that you can make an impact,” she said. “You’re having conversations with people that will directly influence their decisions, and your advice will affect their bottom line.”

Ward graduated from college in 2005 with a bachelor’s degree in accounting. By 2006, she was living in Memphis and working on her master’s degree in taxation when the military moved her and her husband to Fairbanks. She picked up her education with the MBA program at UAF, while going to work for Robinson & Robinson, a local accounting firm, in 2007. 

Shortly after joining the firm, she earned a management role, which helped her build relationships with clients and the chance to bring new accounting technology to the practice. At the same time, she continued taking classes at UAF, helped by the evening course schedule tailored to working professionals. She earned her MBA in 2009. 

After three years with Robinson & Robinson, she became a part owner. Four years later, and before she turned 30, she owned 100% of the business.

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Photo courtesy of Kelly Ward.
Kelly Ward, center, gathers with her team at Robinson & Ward.

Now the sole owner of Robinson & Ward, P.C., Ward employs more than 20 people. Some are UAF alumni, and many of them work remotely in the Lower 48. The firm has offices in both Fairbanks and Mississippi. It maintains its focus on small businesses. 

“Fairbanks, in particular, is made of so many small businesses,” she said. “So giving back doesn't seem like giving back. Really you’re just supporting your neighbor.”

That philosophy carries on outside the workplace. 

Ward has a passion for teaching the next generation about accounting.

“I love my profession,” she said. “I love what I do. I think in general there's a certain stigma around accountants, around tax preparation and there’s not always a pretty view. As an industry, we have a lot less people graduating and getting their CPA license. I can bring those conversations forward so that we can maintain that strong industry that we’ve had for so long.”

One way she does that is as an adjunct professor at the UAF Community and Technical College. She encourages freshmen to be broad in their choice of courses. “There is so much opportunity out there. Unless you're immersed with the different aspects of what’s available, you might miss out.”

She also has advice for students who are pursuing an MBA. 

“Don’t underestimate the value of relationships that you will build while in the program,” she said. “The connections that will be available to you will multiply tenfold over the next decade as you are in business in the community.”

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Photo courtesy of Kelly Ward.
Kelly Ward holds her certified tax coach plaque from the American Institute of Certified Tax Planners.

Ward has also taught money camps for UAF Summer Sessions. The camp for older kids in middle school included creating a business on paper and learning the basics of budgeting. She appreciated getting feedback from parents about what their kids were learning. She liked helping them make the connection that not everything is free. 

It’s not always easy for families to talk about money, Ward said. “These camps were designed to bridge that gap in a way that kids can understand. They see their parents swipe a card and they magically have toys and groceries, but what does that actually mean when you swipe a card? What do you have to give up to have that money to buy that game?”

Ward currently serves as chair of the Greater Fairbanks Chamber of Commerce board and as the local representative to the Alaska Chamber board. She’s been selected four times for the Top 40 Under 40 in the Accounting Profession by CPA Practice Advisor.

For the past decade, she has also served on the board of directors for the Alaska Society of CPAs and is currently on the life insurance committee for American Institute of Certified Public Accountants. 

She’s also quick to credit the university for its role in fueling the economy. 

“Owning a small business in our community means you’re going to need new talent and continual talent,” she said. “Having the university that can feed potential employees or potential clients, those are the people you want to build the relationships with to be able to help and grow and help them in the direction that they are going to best serve our community as a whole.”

Kelly Ward will be presented with the 2024 William R. Cashen Service Award from the UAF Alumni Association at a ceremony during the Nanook Rendezvous alumni reunion on July 18, 2024.