From Arthur Andersen to Scott Paper Company to K’Nex construction toys to the Kimmel Center — one of the centerpieces of culture and arts in Philadelphia — the professional path of CFO and financial management executive Rick Perkins was as varied and unpredictable as it was satisfying. His service in the Army’s Signal Corps and years spent playing Division I basketball were highlights, but the 76-year-old says his MBA experience still stands out among his many achievements: “Everyplace I went in my career, it was special when I said I was from the Wharton School.” Today, the married father of two splits his time between Florida and New Jersey. He stepped back to reflect on mentorship, working with difficult people, and knowing when it was time to retire.
Success is having a good career, enough money to live the way you want, good family relationships, taking care of your health, and doing things that you enjoy.
Every time I changed jobs, I studied the company thoroughly to make sure I was making the right move. But things happen: The business was acquired, or it was merged, or the CEO left. You have to be well-rounded, resilient, and learn to work for different types of bosses.
I play the piano every day. It gives me great satisfaction and joy. I was never formally trained. People say to me, “How can you play piano by ear?” I say, “It’s not so much that I’m playing by ear. I’m humming with my fingers.”
The Army assigned me to a project for the Pentagon looking at using computers to teach soldiers basic electronics. That may sound like everyday stuff in 2023, but it was revolutionary then. It got me interested in computers. It opened my eyes to the future.
My mentor was my father, but he was really a mentor of life. I worked for CEOs I learned from, but I didn’t have a business mentor. I feel like I missed something. Mentorship just wasn’t something that happened formally back then. I asked one of my sons, who’s in business in Atlanta, if he had any mentors. He said he’s had five. That’s a wonderful thing.
Throughout my life, I have worked hard to stay in shape. I work out six days a week.
I was in my 50s and working for a boss I didn’t respect. A friend of mine said I should think about the nonprofit world. The CFO position at the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts came up. It was the best job that I had. It gave me the chance to help save this important Philadelphia cultural institution that was in financial trouble.
Everyone should spend time learning technology, especially older people. It’s so important for understanding the world today and how it’s changing life, which is not all for the good.
Quit sports before you get hurt, not after. I gave up basketball when I was 30 because I could tell I was going to get hurt. It’s bound to happen.
Someone said to me, “If your life were to end today, would you feel you had done everything you wanted to do?” I had to say no. I was still working hard, rarely taking vacation. It was an easy decision. I was 67. I didn’t have any doubts. It was time.
Learn to deal with difficult people — bosses, co-workers. Growing up in our family, we didn’t have many difficult people to deal with. Spend some time learning about, learning from, and learning to deal with difficult people.
I don’t remember my father ever sitting me down and saying, “Here are the rules of life,” or, “Here are the rules of business.” But I learned from him in seeing the way he was. I hope that my sons would say the same thing.
Published as “Rick Perkins WG70” in the Spring/Summer 2023 issue of Wharton Magazine.