Finance and Public Companies Reporter, Joe Rauch, wrote this piece on Dan Erling, which was featured in the People Section of the Atlanta Business Chronicle's May 1, 2009 Edition. Joe has been a great supporter of the Search for the South's Funniest Accountant.
For a brief moment, Dan Erling is the center of attention.
Erling is on stage at CW Midtown’s Center Stage Theatre on Nov. 6, 2008, wrapping up the 2008 Search for the South’s Funniest Accountant, an annual fundraiser for Junior Achievement of Georgia that attempts what its name indicates.
Standing in front of 600 attendees, becoming equal parts “aw shucks” and self-conscious, he tells his favorite accounting joke.
“How can you tell if an accountant is an extrovert? He’s the one looking at your shoes when he talks,” Erling said, who’s looking at his shoes while telling the joke, not coincidentally.
Erling professionally works at accountant placement and staffing firm Accountants One Inc., an Atlanta-based firm owned by his father, Bert, for the past 26 years.
Erling is the firm’s vice president, and will take over when his father retires.
Erling also is the founder of the now-annual Search for the South’s Funniest Accountant that attempts to dispel the notion accountants aren’t, well, funny.
Created initially on literally the back of a napkin, each year accountants or financial industry professionals, with professional comedian training and help, compete to see who is the funniest.
Most are new to stand-up comedy, and do it just to overcome their fear of public speaking.
Others are regular fixtures among the area’s improv groups and the Atlanta stand-up circuit, mixing balance sheets and jokes.
The event has grown in size each of the last three years — now needing several hundred seats in local theaters like CW Midtown’s Center Stage to fit supporters and, in some cases, yes, fans — raising $10,000 for Junior Achievement’s Georgia chapter last year.
And Erling is still ambitious about the event, despite the economy; the 2009 Funniest Accountant search is projected to earn $20,000 this year. (Disclosure: The reporter for this story has served as a judge in the event for the last two years.)
Erling describes himself as someone who can identify and appreciate humor, but he’s become noteworthy around the Accountants One offices for his unique management style.
“A few weeks ago, I told my employees I needed them to come into the conference room for an urgent meeting, and we had a very serious video to watch,” Erling said.
“The video was all about fighting all the negative economic perceptions and news we’re hearing right now, to show our employees from getting beaten up by the bad news,” Erling said.
The video was Erling mock wrestling with his children, dressed as professional wrestlers that represented negative economic news.
“It was touch-and-go for a while; negative economic news was overwhelming me,” Erling said, his tongue firmly planted in his cheek. “But at the last moment my dog came in and we were able to turn the tide, and defeat negative economic news. I figured that would be helpful for our employees in combating similar negative economic news.”
Erling’s humor, he said, stems from his family and upbringing.
While none of his family are professional performers — no actors, no stand-up comics in the bunch — Erling remembers the family moments.
Reunions, road trips, dinners and game nights. The interaction that breeds family stories that last for years, retold at gathering after gathering.
“We were never ‘sit in front of the TV’ people,” he said. “But we were always laughing at ourselves, always seeing the funnier side of life, and that’s something my parents instilled in my sister and I.”
But he’s also quick to dispel the notion, both personally and professionally, that he uses humor flippantly.
Erling’s been asked to regularly speak to companies about using humor to relieve stress in a workplace as a way to increase morale, productivity and reduce sick time.
“I’m not just about kicks and giggles,” Erling said. “But it’s not my goal to make this a monotonous world either.”
In an extended interview, Erling makes clear he’s not solely about jokes as a motivational tool.
“I don’t want to be silly for silly’s sake,” Erling said. “Its about using what tool is needed, as a leader, to motivate and engage your employees to achieve a business objective. There’s been times I’ve run and bought the ingredients for sundaes for my staff, just because I felt that’s what the team needed.”
He notes, as a point of some pride, that turnover amongst his employees has been essentially nonexistent since joining the firm in 1998.
“Part of a great career is a balance between fun and work,” Erling said. “I know it doesn’t always seem this way, but work can be fun.”
And Erling hasn’t plied his humor-as-motivation trade solely in corporate recruiting and staffing.
After graduating from Georgia State and Emory universities, Erling spent seven years teaching middle school math at Luther J. Price Middle School, near downtown.
“I think I just enjoy seeing people achieve something they didn’t think was possible,” he said. “My teaching job was all about urging people to work at achieving their dreams, while avoiding all the things that might drag them down as young adults.”
During his tenure, Erling was named Teacher of the Year for his work, in part for incorporating humor into his teaching.
Despite his success, Erling said he has no plans to try to pursue stand-up comedy.
But every comic hopeful, or fan, has an idol, and Erling has his.
Given his number-crunching background, it isn’t the biggest surprise.
“Bob Newhart, without a doubt,” Erling said. “He’s an accountant, and he’s funny. What more could you ask for?”