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Martha Sullivan of Provenance Hill Consulting: “Be careful what you wish for”

Be careful what you wish for. Owning your own company brings a high level of freedom! How many times do we think “Man, if only I had my own company? I wouldn’t have to put up with this and I could do what I want!” There’s freedom alright. The freedom to do your own marketing, handle […]

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Be careful what you wish for. Owning your own company brings a high level of freedom! How many times do we think “Man, if only I had my own company? I wouldn’t have to put up with this and I could do what I want!”

There’s freedom alright. The freedom to do your own marketing, handle your own accounting, manage your own systems, and clean your own office. Working in a corporate environment may feel soul sucking if you are in the wrong place, but grass is grass. Sometimes it’s green and sometimes it’s brown. It still has to be mowed. Buckle in for the ride.


Many successful people reinvented themselves in a later period in their life. Jeff Bezos worked in Wall Street before he reinvented himself and started Amazon. Sara Blakely sold office supplies before she started Spanx. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson was a WWE wrestler before he became a successful actor and filmmaker. Arnold Schwarzenegger went from a bodybuilder, to an actor to a Governor. McDonald’s founder Ray Croc was a milkshake-device salesman before starting the McDonalds franchise in his 50’s.

How does one reinvent themselves? What hurdles have to be overcome to take life in a new direction? How do you overcome those challenges? How do you ignore the naysayers? How do you push through the paralyzing fear?

In this series called “Second Chapters; How I Reinvented Myself In The Second Chapter Of My Life “ we are interviewing successful people who reinvented themselves in a second chapter in life, to share their story and help empower others.

As a part of this interview series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Martha Sullivan.

Martha Sullivan is the founder and president of Provenance Hill Consulting, LLC, a boutique consulting firm dedicated to helping owners of established businesses build, buy, grow, and sell their company. Provenance Hill Consulting is the culmination of her journey from an information-systems professional to rebellious CPA to exit planning and value growth expert. Her work includes business turnarounds, mergers and acquisitions and assisting owners, and family businesses in particular, build vibrant, valuable, and transferable businesses.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we start, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

I had a fairly routine childhood growing up in a middle-class neighborhood in Madison, WI with my parents and siblings. I never went without, with one significant exception. I entered this world missing a part — an esophagus. (That’s the connection between our mouths and stomachs.) It’s rare. The current statistics suggest this occurs in one in about every 4,150 pregnancies. I have no idea what the prevalence was in the 1960’s timeframe, but I was blessed to be cared for some phenomenal physicians that put me back together.

This led to obvious limitations. I was filled with childhood messages that I was “special” and, because of that and other challenges at birth, I “can’t do” the things other kids could. To my young child brain, I had gotten past those issues. That message frustrated and angered me. I was out to prove them wrong and to prove myself even more.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

What Good Shall I Do Today” — Ben Franklin

From early on, I was taught to be of service. I knew sooner than most that I had much to be grateful for and not to take life for granted. It formed what I wanted to be when I grew up. With all my heart, until meeting college chemistry, I wanted to be a pediatrician so I could give back in the way doctors had saved me. When it was clear that wasn’t going to happen, I turned to other service-based careers — business information systems and possibly law.

This quote resonates outside my work life too. My first “job” was volunteering at a hospital as what was known then as a “candy striper.” I try to give back and be of service in numerous ways, ranging from community projects with my Rotary club to being involved with the Alzheimer’s Association to sewing and giving away about 800 masks in 2020.

You have been blessed with much success. In your opinion, what are the top three qualities that you possess that have helped you accomplish so much? If you can, please share a story or example for each.

  • Acceptance

There are those challenges and circumstances in our lives we can change and those we can’t. At one point, I worked for an organization that had a lot of leadership change. Over the course of my time there, I had five different bosses, each of which had their own style and way of running our business. My role was impacted by these changes more than anyone else in the company. With any change, we have one of three choices — we can stay and lean into it, stay, resist it and be miserable, or move on. I chose to accept what it was, reinvent myself and move on.

  • Determination

It was clear from how I gripped my father’s pinky as a newborn that I was determined. It’s core to who I am. When I’m told “You can’t do that,” my reaction is “Oh yeah? Watch me!”

I owe my career to an act of this type of rebellion. I was working as a systems consultant in a large CPA firm back when CPA firms were first getting into consulting. Time after time, I was told “You can’t do that. You’re not an accountant.” After about five years of that, I took a leave of absence (during a busy season when consulting work was low) and took the four classes I needed to be able to sit for the CPA exam. I got through the classes, passed the exam, and instantly became one of the guys. It forever changed the trajectory of my career.

  • Curiosity

Curious people have the most interesting lives. Whether it’s exploring a new idea or throwing yourself into learning a new skill, it brings depth and perspective to our lives. Every one of my accomplishments came about when I was willing to take a risk, be curious, try something new or learn a new skill.

My business card is a good example of this. It’s somewhat embarrassing because I have a slew of alphabet soup behind my name — being a CPA and certified to perform valuations, mergers and acquisitions, exit planning and value growth advisory services. While the CPA was an act of rebellion, the rest of these credentials came about because I wanted to learn about the subject matter and deepen my understanding of the business of business. Curiosity opened up door after door for me.

Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about ‘Second Chapters’. Can you tell our readers about your career experience before your Second Chapter?

To give a bit of perspective, I started my career when #MeToo moments were the daily diet. Professional women were not commonplace in information systems, CPA firms, or business management. In that context, one learns the value of patient perseverance and rolling with the waves that come at you.

My “can do” attitude was key as I moved from the consulting role at the CPA firm to being a controller for my first family business. Working for that company set the stage for me to go to another family business. There, as its CFO, I led a financial turnaround.

After that reinvention, I went to a national CPA firm in their mergers and acquisitions practice. The pace and travel of the job was exhilarating for me but not sustainable for the good of my family. Pivoting again, I became the Chief Operating Officer for a large local CPA firm, and spent 75% of my time running the firm and the other 25% consulting with family businesses. Most recently I was a co-leader and partner in a Top 100 CPA firm’s Business Transition Strategies practice helping business owners buy, build, grow, and sell their companies.

And how did you “reinvent yourself” in your Second Chapter?

In some ways, I’ve always subconsciously known that this particular reinvention — launching Provenance Hill Consulting — would always happen. 2020 presented challenges to all of us. The other key partner in our practice announced his retirement, which prompted many strategic conversations. I had a choice to make. I chose to fly and create this next chapter.

All the experiences I have had are all coming together. It’s meant to be. The reinvention part is tapping into my entrepreneurial instincts and vigorously embracing the new independence to bring my clients the best experience possible.

Can you tell us about the specific trigger that made you decide that you were going to “take the plunge” and make your huge transition?

As noted, my partner was retiring early, and I was assessing options. Myself, I hate the word “retire.” If you look up the definition, it means “to withdraw, or go away or apart.” That sounds like something I’ll be happy to do at the end of my life, not now.

Just one exploratory call with a recruiter did it for me. I got off the phone and knew. I was confident I could command a great position within another firm. The fact was, I didn’t want to. I could feel it with every single ounce of my body. It was time to jump in with both feet. Start a new firm in the middle of a pandemic? Why the heck not?!

What did you do to discover that you had a new skillset inside of you that you haven’t been maximizing? How did you find that and how did you ultimately overcome the barriers to help manifest those powers?

I’m a fairly social person and know how to network. In corporate, I had marketing resources available. Now, it’s me, myself, and I. I’m the daughter of a sales and marketing guy but I’ve never seen sales and marketing as my strength. I’ve discovered that mindset is my inner imposter whining. I wouldn’t have made it this far without an ability to market and sell my ideas, talents, and services.

I put the imposter in her place by becoming a part of a several of amazing communities, many through digital friendships made these last twelve months. These folks are cheering me on, kicking me in the tail when I need it, and I’m doing it. It’s a work in progress, but I’m showing up and doing it — with success.

How are things going with this new initiative? We would love to hear some specific examples or stories.

I’ve been fortunate throughout this transition. I had the honor of helping a client company form an ESOP before I left the CPA firm. This led to an invitation to serve on their corporate board, which is a wonderful compliment.

Between webinars, workshops and other marketing, its generating results at a great pace. I’m helping owners plan for their next great adventure. One project is helping a woman assess what her exit options are and at what potential price. Another is helping a family business do strategic and succession planning. They want to simultaneously develop the next generation of owners, an updated corporate strategy, and an organizational plan for what the company looks like after the now generation retires. It’s such an honor to help owners sort through their options and set the stage for a transition that meets their goals.

Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

When I first started working in CPA firms, I reported to a partner that was a gem to work with. Tom was a leader that was firm and pushed his people to achieve. At one particular performance review, he said he expected me to think and behave as if I too was an owner of the firm. As a female 20-something at the time, ownership in a large CPA firm was only a wild dream. (Fortunately, this has changed!) There were no female partners, and I was one of less than a handful of female managers. Tom helped me get the right mindset for breaking barriers in the firm and growing as a professional. His words forever changed how I think.

It’s funny. Now I offer workshops for business and next generation leaders on how to look at their company as if they were its future owner.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started in this new direction?

Leaving the CPA firm has opened up so many new avenues for me. Without the confines of being aligned with one firm, I can collaborate with other professional advisors in ways I couldn’t before such as other accountants and wealth management professionals — even other people that do the same thing I do. There is power in “co-opetition.” On the surface, there is no reason another direct competitor and I should team up. Yet I am doing just that. I recently won a significant project because the other consultant has skills and expertise I don’t have and vice versa. By opening my mind up to collaboration rather than hyper competition, I’m bringing more value to the clients.

Further, I’ve had more than one person in my circle of professional friends counsel me to let go of the corporate mindset and how things get done in a company. What made me a rock star in a corporate environment is different from what will make me a rock star in this new chapter. I’m sorting through what that even means, but that’s the beauty of a new chapter — you get to write it as it comes.

Did you ever struggle with believing in yourself? If so, how did you overcome that limiting belief about yourself? Can you share a story or example?

Who hasn’t? It’s called being “human.”

I remember back in high school, I was on the diving team and surprised everyone, even my coach, that I had qualified for Sectionals. My dad kindly listened to me as I told him how frightened and nervous I was. What if I wiped out or messed up?? (I did indeed miss a dive — badly — but the world didn’t end as I feared.) Before the meet, he told me “Never forget that you are the one up on that board, doing things hardly anyone else is willing or capable of doing. You are doing it. They’re just sitting in the stands.”

Busting through self-doubt is all about “doing it” anyway — despite the fear. His counsel rang true as I got comfortable with public speaking and when I went boldly for the CFO job. I had no idea how or if we’d turn it around. But we did. I try to channel the fear into good, productive vibes rather than allowing myself to wallow in it or chickening out. Dad’s advice is the angels’ wings that still carry me forward today.

In my own work I usually encourage my clients to ask for support before they embark on something new. How did you create your support system before you moved to your new chapter?

The first part of my support system is internal. I did my homework and determined what I needed to have in place before I launched and put out the word. I’m very process oriented. I want to figure out, at some level, how’s this going to work? What’s my plan? This mental investment grounds and supports me in moments of challenge and struggle.

The second part is tapping into my network. I seek out people I know I can trust with my ideas and vision. They help me think things through and call me out when I deserve it. They point me toward new avenues and connections to explore.

I recently learned a technique from a bootcamp that harnesses the power of our personal networks. I made a “top twenty list” of people I knew who could help me achieve what I want, directly or through some connection they might have. The challenge is to list anyone and everyone that can possibly help you, without listening to that inner voice of doubt. Just make the list. Then go back to score the strength of the person’s ability to help and the likelihood that they will help you. Based on the score, prioritize how to work the list. I had done this in my head as I was getting started on this new venture. Now I’m more intentional about it.

Starting a new chapter usually means getting out of your comfort zone, how did you do that? Can you share a story or example of that?

I’m getting used to being very uncomfortable and pushing and stretching myself to do new things. This interview, right here, right now, is an example of stretching for me.

Provenance Hill is a professional services company. I consult with business owners and leaders. If I sit in my office and wait for clients and prospects to find me, this will be a one-paragraph chapter in the book of my life. I have to put myself out there — do more podcasts, speak on more stages, post blogs, write more articles and deliver meaningful value to these audiences. I’ve done all of those things in the past, but the stage has been very local and small.

I’m on a new path to get the message out about how to build a company that’s able to survive ups and downs. For example, the owners of the company I helped turnaround didn’t understand what made a company strong and have meaningful value when it’s sold. They aren’t unique. Many owners don’t understand how they can have income but not have a company that will sell for what they think it should. It’s a mystery and it shouldn’t be.

Spreading a message requires visibility. Building visibility through media channels is something I knew less than nothing about. A friend told me about a bootcamp about how to Be on TV. My first reaction was “that’s not me.” Then I thought “Why not me?” I’m still out of my comfort zone, which is ok. It’s good, in fact, because that’s how I know I’m moving forward.

Fantastic. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my organization” and why? Please share a story or example for each.

Be careful what you wish for.

Owning your own company brings a high level of freedom! How many times do we think “Man, if only I had my own company? I wouldn’t have to put up with this and I could do what I want!”

There’s freedom alright. The freedom to do your own marketing, handle your own accounting, manage your own systems, and clean your own office. Working in a corporate environment may feel soul sucking if you are in the wrong place, but grass is grass. Sometimes it’s green and sometimes it’s brown. It still has to be mowed. Buckle in for the ride.

It’s not all about me.

Building a company means being of service. That means getting out of myself to do things I don’t like to do, feel I’ve mastered or am comfortable doing. It still has to be done. There’s no other way to succeed. I tell myself to “Suck it up, Buttercup,” and go figure it out.

Share the load.

When you start a new venture, you are chief, cook and bottle washer. But there’s only one of you. That’s where co-opetition comes in and helps expand opportunities. Tapping into other resources for support tasks also allows me to maximize my resources to their highest and best use.

You’ll need new glasses.

Work life balance has always been a challenge. The lines between them are even more blurry now. COVID and working from home has added to the fuzziness. It’s super easy to hang in the office and work. Balance is important. I need to be able to see and draw the lines more clearly.

Break the mold.

As mentioned earlier, I’ve had friends tell me to let go of the type of thinking that may have made me successful in corporate but may not serve me as an entrepreneur. I’m taking that to heart and allowing myself to be more open and willing to go with the flow, recognize opportunities that come my way, and experiment with ideas.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

Business financial literacy. Whether you are the owner, employee, supplier, or customer, understanding the basics of how a company makes money is vital to fulfilling your role and creating the win-win. I can’t tell you how many business owners, leaders and managers have confided in me over the years about how they wish they understood money, the financial statements and how to grow a valuable company better. It may seem basic, but the need is real, and they are embarrassed to admit it.

For example, when I was leading the turnaround, one of the salespeople begged me to accept a check that had been counter-signed over to us. The check originated in a foreign country and, to me, stunk like yesterday’s leftover fish. Yet the salesperson believed we needed the sale, and it would help both him and the company. He wasn’t alone. My colleagues were working with only their part of the picture.

I got creative and addressed our business financial literacy head-on. I dressed up for a company meeting as the Wicked Witch of the West, complete with Toto and the basket, to explain why we were making the tough calls we were. At another meeting, I placed the number of pennies that represented what fell to the bottom line for each dollar we sold. People had no idea. They had the misguided impression the company and the owners were rolling in dough. Once they understood, everyone started making better decisions — what to sell, who to sell, how to best ship, and so on. We turned it around together, saving jobs, supplier and deserving-customer relationships, and the company.

Literacy about how business works, how finances flow and how each stakeholder impacts the results matters. It makes us better employees and better customers. We build stronger and more resilient companies which ensures stronger economies and healthier communities.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them. 🙂

Barbara Corcoran and Lori Greiner would be my top choices. I have been known to secretly binge Shark Tank when I’m traveling for business. (I rarely watch TV at home as there’s lots going on.) Watching how the Sharks view business value and opportunity is fascinating for me.

Lori touts herself as the “warm-blooded shark” while achieving only what tough-minded investors and value-creators can. Her success in the marketplace is unparalleled. It would be such a delight to share a Spock-like Vulcan-Mind-Meld and learn how she propels her companies behind the scenes.

Barbara speaks to me from a number of perspectives. One, I identify with her determination and drive to prove herself despite the challenges her dyslexia presented. Two, we came of age swimming upstream in male-dominated industries and built our families through adoption. Lastly, I love her sense of humor. Who wouldn’t love to talk to someone who holds their own funeral for a special birthday?

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Readers can learn more about Provenance Hill Consulting and our work by visiting www.provenancehill.com, signing up for our newsletter, participating in our Finding True Value workshops, and reading the Exit Stage Right blog.

Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!

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