Steve Nelson of Dillard’s Inc., UCA (Lifetime Achievement Award in Accounting)

By Arkansas Business Staff on Monday, Oct. 23, 2017  (“Ecoark”) (OTCQX: EARK)-

Hanging on the wall of Steve Nelson’s home office in Little Rock is the associate degree in accounting his father earned in 1952.

Nelson said his father, Arnie, always encouraged him to enter the accounting field and become a CPA.

But, curiously, Nelson, 59, doesn’t remember his father ever talking about having the degree or working as an accountant. He first learned about it when he discovered the degree in a chest in his father’s home after he died in 2015. “If I knew about it, I don’t remember it.”

Nelson did follow his father’s advice and worked in various accounting positions in central Arkansas for 35 years, including 27 as vice president and controller for Dillard’s Inc.

He retired in 2015 and now teaches in the Accounting Department at the University of Central Arkansas.

“I’ve lived a charmed life,” he said, adding that he enjoys teaching and providing the next generation of accountants with valuable lessons that he learned, often the hard way.

“I teach a lot of ethics in the leadership class, and I tell them you will be confronted with things that may not be right. And the advice I always give the young ones is be true to yourself,” he said.

Born in Nebraska, Nelson and his family moved to Murfreesboro when he was a boy. His father was manager of a plant there.

In high school he took a bookkeeping class and loved it. “My father said, ‘You can be a CPA and do well,’” he recalled. His father also taught him and his brother the importance of a good work ethic.

Although he entered the University of Arkansas with the idea of studying business, Nelson fell in love with accounting when he took a principles of accounting class taught by Nolan Williams, who himself had a distinguished career as an accountant before entering teaching.

“Taking that class really sealed the deal because [Williams] would tell stories on how he would use this accounting in real situations. … He really made accounting fun. The hook was set after that, and that is what I try to do today.”

Another teacher, James Modisette, also had a major impact on his early career. “He motivated me to study hard and take the CPA right away,” Nelson said. “He said, ‘You are not going to be more prepared to take the CPA exam than you are right now.’”

Nelson passed on his first try.

After graduation, Nelson took a job as an audit associate with Ernst & Whinney in Little Rock. “Since we had a small office, I served a variety of clients. However, I mostly audited financial institutions and Dillard’s Department Stores.”

Tiring of the travel, and following the birth of his first child, Nelson took a job as vice president and controller with First Federal of Arkansas. In 1986 he converted First Federal from a mutual ownership form to a stock form and executed an initial public offering of stock. “This was an exciting time for me as I learned a new set of rules associated with SEC reporting.”

It was also in 1986 that he was named controller of First American Bank, which later changed its name to One Bank. He worked there for 18 months before being hired as controller at Dillard’s, at the age of 30. “I got to see it grow, and I grew along with it,” he said.

Nelson, who earned an MBA from the University of Texas in 2007, has served on a number of boards and commissions over the years. He is currently on the board of directors and chair of the audit committee of Ecoark Holdings Inc.

Following the Golden Rule was his management style, he said, adding that the best advice he can give to students is to be true to themselves.

“I try to impress upon them the importance of the accounting system, paying your taxes and being responsible.”