By Liz Hackenmueller
COKATO, MN Gretchen O’Brien of Cokato received the 2015 CFO of the Year award, given to professionals for outstanding performance in their roles as corporate financial stewards, from Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal (MSPBJ) at an awards luncheon Nov. 19.
“I was a little surprised, because there are a lot of amazing accountants out there,” O’Brien said.
The CFO of the Year award is based on contributions to a recipient’s company and community service.
“It’s an honor to be nominated and humbling at the same time,” O’Brien said.
O’Brien is the chief financial officer for North Risk Partners, a 150-employee independent insurance brokerage comprised of four core divisions: St. Cloud-based Apollo, Rochester-based C.O. Brown, St. Paul-based Johnson McCann, and Thief River Falls-based Thune.
O’Brien started working in the Apollo division in St. Cloud five years ago as its only accountant.
“I did everything across the board the day-to-day stuff and the high-end stuff, as well,” O’Brien said.
When three agencies merged in January 2013, O’Brien was named CFO of the entire North Risk Partners organization.
O’Brien has led the company through two acquisitions and a 20 percent increase in revenue the last year through those acquisitions, in addition to organic growth.
O’Brien also led the company through a full-systems conversion and a transition to a new CEO, according to the MSPBJ article.
She is busy contributing outside of the office, too.
“I co-chair a United Way campaign in St. Cloud and we’ve raised $25,000,” she said.
O’Brien was recognized as one of four honorees in the small private company category.
She is a graduate from Watertown-Mayer High School, and went to St. Cloud State.
She has lived in Cokato Township for the past 12 years with her four children and husband.
O’Brien’s love of accounting started early.
“I took an accounting class in high school and I loved it,” she said. “I’ve always liked math and numbers, and there was always a solution to it.”
The career flexibility is another aspect of the field that appealed to her.
“Accounting is a wonderful career; you can work in any industry. It really creates opportunities for people,” she said.
Since O’Brien has worked her way up at North Risk Partners, she now spends more time in the strategic planning part of the role and continues to learn.
“I’ve grown a ton and continue to,” O’Brien said. “[The company] is constantly changing and there are always new challenges and opportunities. I enjoy being part of that."