Master Plumber TradesPractice for Accounting Career Path

Tradesman’s Unconventional Career Path Leads Him to Surety

Neal Lee was a master plumber and youth pastor before he followed an accounting career path that led him to surety.

Neal Lee standing with arms outstretched in front of a majestic waterfall.

By the time he finished high school, Neal Lee had attended 12 different schools. College wasn’t an option at that point, so he learned a trade.

Taking an unconventional career path, he’s pushed through barriers and found success as a tradesman, CPA, and now VP, Strategic Operations, for Argo Surety.

Master plumber and youth pastor

Since college wasn’t an option right after high school, Neal became a plumber, eventually earned his master plumber’s license and opened his own business.

“As a plumber, I learned customer service – being able to stick to what you say you’re going to do, rather than overpromise and underdeliver,” he says. “To be a person of integrity and character and stick to promises is something that’s really valuable to me.”

In addition to running his own plumbing company, Neal also served as a youth pastor, where he learned to manage volunteers as well as work with limited resources and people from all different backgrounds.

“I went through some challenging situations that made me want to reach back and help young people coming up behind me.”

Embarking on an accounting career path

After about five years in the ministry, Neal decided a career change could better help him support his wife and two kids. The family moved from Virginia Beach, Virginia, back to Texas, where he grew up.

Knowing he wanted to become a CPA, he attended Mays Business School at Texas A&M and earned a bachelor’s degree in accounting, then a master’s in management information systems.

“It’s difficult being a nontraditional student in college,” he says. “Nontraditional students have a much lower chance of success. If the statistics are stacked against me, that’s exactly where I want to be – trying to push past those barriers.”

After brief stints as an IT auditor with KPMG and then a CPA for a small firm, he went to work for a healthcare holding company. The company was in acquisition mode, growing from three to over 20 companies in his 10 years there.

“When you’re a small Texas company and you have large resources from Manhattan, you have to be able to adapt to other styles and ways of communicating,” he says.

Finding opportunity with Argo Surety

Neal met Josh Betz, President of Argo Surety, when they served together on the board of a summer camp they’d both attended as kids in Texas’ Piney Woods area.

Josh informed Neal about an opportunity to use his accounting and systems background at Argo Surety, and Neal started in 2020 – initially as a director of field underwriting.

“I feel like Argo Surety took a chance on me, because I didn’t have any surety experience,” Neal says.

After some changes to Argo Surety’s strategic operations team, Neal assumed the role of VP, Strategic Operations, reporting directly to Brendan Keating, SVP, Chief Operations Officer.

“Working in accounting information systems early in my career enabled me to speak to both the business side and the programmers’ side,” he says. “That’s what a lot of my systems-focused projects are right now – looking for ways to be more efficient using technology and explaining it to programmers so that they translate it correctly on the final product.”

For example, one recent project he managed involved transferring documentation from Argo Surety’s mining accounts into proprietary software so that it’s more easily accessible by others across the business.

In some ways, Neal says, he approaches each project the same way he did when he ran his own plumbing company.

“What needs to happen, and what are the key metrics of success?” he asks. “Not what I think of as success but what the customer thinks. And my customers are the Argo Surety staff.”

Helping others overcome their own barriers

For professionals just starting out or making a career change, Neal offers some advice:

  1. Follow your passion
    “Find out what gives you life, and pursue those things. For me, it’s my family. At the end of the day, I want to come home and hang out with them – enjoy who they are and who they’re becoming.”
  2. Don’t see barriers
    “No one chooses to go through challenging situations. If any of us had our way, we would choose the easy path. But we often put more limits on ourselves than other people put on us.”
  3. Figure out how to recharge
    “I like going backcountry hiking in search of waterfalls. Being in nature and not seeing anything man-made for three or four days is a way to disconnect, recharge and focus on the things that are important.”

Neal’s day-to-day routine is now quite different than it was when he was a plumber, but he likes to remember where he came from.

“If the statistics are stacked against me, that’s exactly where I want to be – trying to push past those barriers.”

Each fall, he helps a local ministry, SOS Ministries, teach plumbing skills at their vocational school for those whose lives have been impacted by drugs and crime.

“Some people have barriers because of mistakes they’ve made; others have barriers because of mistakes other people have made,” Neal says. “I just want everybody to have a chance to succeed.”

Read more about the unique paths Argo employees take to the insurance industry at argolimited.com/life-at-argo/behind-the-scenes/.

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