In a 1977 Globe profile that anointed him “the most important accountant in New England,” Eugene Freedman described his view of a profession he already was shaking up.
“An accountant is more than a green-shaded bookkeeper,” he said a year after being elected to the executive committee of Coopers & Lybrand. “He is an adviser, a consultant, a business doctor, an evaluator.”
As managing partner of the firm’s 600 New England employees, he aggressively went after his competitors’ clients, offering more comprehensive services than simply making sure the books balanced at the close of the fiscal year.
“Gene did not believe that the meek would inherit the earth. He was a brash, disruptive force in business,” said Brian Carty, who served as chief of staff when Mr. Freedman held the top post at Coopers & Lybrand.
“It was a gentleman’s club before he hit the scene and Gene changed all the rules,” added Carty, who is now chief marketing officer at Steward Health Care. “He made the profession what it is today and his counterparts in other firms soon fell into line. This was a ‘before Gene’ and ‘after Gene’ profession.”
Mr. Freedman, who joined the firm as a junior accountant and stepped down four decades later as chairman of Coopers & Lybrand, died Sept. 15 in Hebrew SeniorLife in Boston of complications from a fall. He was 83 and formerly lived in Weston and Boca Raton, Fla.
“He really transformed the accounting business from a backroom profession to a profession that had professional relationships with executives and clients,” said Frank Doyle, chief executive of Connell Limited Partnership, who formerly worked with Mr. Freedman at the firm which, through mergers, is now PricewaterhouseCoopers. “And he really used the audit as a foundation for developing deep insights.”
For Mr. Freedman, accounting was always more than just numbers on a ledger. “Figures are a language,” he told the Globe in 1977. “They express the stewardship of management. You have to understand the environment, the perceptions of every business.”
That approach attracted many Boston executives, including Jack Connors, a founder of the powerful advertising firm Hill Holliday. “Gene Freedman built a practice in Boston that was the envy of every other Coopers office around the world,” Connors said. “He was larger than life. He cared about his clients. He cared about building the best leadership team he possibly could.”
Mr. Freedman “was the catalyst in really separating Coopers from all the other firms in the city,” said William Teuber, a former Coopers & Lybrand partner who now is vice chairman of EMC Corp. “He was unrelenting in his efforts for the clients and the firm. He just drove a different business model that really caught on in the Boston business community.”
That relentlessness made Mr. Freedman someone who “was pretty tough to work for,” Teuber recalled. “He held people to an incredibly high standard, he demanded excellence from the people around him, and he could only accept excellence. He brought out the best in you as a person and the best in the firm. I had ultimate respect for him.”
An only child, Eugene Maynard Freedman grew up in Worcester. His father, Daniel, worked in insurance but was ill during much of Mr. Freedman’s childhood. His mother, the former Eva Kangiesser, worked in a clothing store, and Mr. Freedman attributed his success to her sacrifice and ambition on his behalf.
“When I was young she saw that I got a good education,’’ he told the Globe in 1977, adding that he was determined “to be respected in my community.” Nevertheless, “when I look back I never dreamed this would happen,’’ he said. “All I wanted to do was make a good living.”
Mr. Freedman attended Classical High School in Worcester, where he was voted most likely to succeed. He graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a bachelor’s degree in economics and received a master’s in economics from Columbia University’s Business School.
Hired for $300 a month in 1954, a few years before the merger that created Coopers & Lybrand, he nearly quit because he was assigned to sort checks for an insurance company audit, a task he considered “an absolute waste of time some clerk could handle.”
He was named vice chairman for the region in 1980 and was elected US chairman in 1991. “I believe I left a legacy, a highly focused organization on the move,” he told The New York Times when he stepped down three years later after reaching the firm’s mandatory retirement age of 62.
During his tenure, domestic revenues increased and Mr. Freedman trimmed the staff, replacing some 200 partners with younger, lower-paid accountants with MBAs. He also brought in high-profile clients, focusing on growing industries that included financial services, health care, and communications.
While Mr. Freedman was chairman of Coopers & Lybrand, Governor William Weld appointed him to chair the Governor’s Council on Economic Growth and Technology. In 1992, the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith honored Mr. Freedman with the Torch of Liberty Award.
After retiring from Coopers & Lybrand, he was an executive of a private equity firm, a senior adviser to a consulting firm, and at the time of his death, he chaired the senior advisory board of Kaufman & Co., an investment banking firm.
In 1962, Mr. Freedman married Myrna Herscot, whom he met on a blind date.
“He was a devoted husband to my mother, and a devoted father to me and my siblings, and a devoted grandfather to his grandchildren,” said their daughter Deborah Freedman Belt of Newton. “He was a loving, kind, gentle person.”
In addition to his wife and daughter, Mr. Freedman leaves a son, Richard of Needham; another daughter, Elizabeth of Washington, D.C.; and, six grandchildren.
In the 1977 interview, Mr. Freedman conceded that his aggressive approach to turning accounting into something akin to a competitive contact sport didn’t sit well with all competitors. “Some of them, especially the weaker firms, have said things that are not complimentary,” he said.
Those competitors might have been surprised to see a side of Mr. Freedman that contrasted sharply with his business image. He told the Globe that after his mother died, he “cried and cried for four days.”
In a eulogy during a memorial gathering in September, his daughter Deborah said that Mr. Freedman “was an emotional man and was never afraid to share his emotions in a good way – he cried when there where good things in his life or in my life.”
Bryan Marquard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.