Uploaded: Friday, May 1, 2009, 9:34 AM
Don Seiler: Competition and compassion
He built a CPA business and finds joy in crunching numbers for the community
|People sometimes tell Don Seiler how clever he was to start his CPA business in the heart of Silicon Valley, just as the technology boom was beginning.
But honestly, smarts didn't have that much to do with it, he said.
"My wife Ruth was raised in San Jose and I'm from San Francisco," Seiler explained. "We chose the Peninsula for a very scientific reason -- it was in the middle. I'd never heard of Silicon Valley; it was just simply that we wanted to live halfway."
A numbers guy, Seiler devoted decades to building his CPA business from a one-man show into a regional accounting powerhouse, Seiler & Company, LLP. Though semi-retired at 80, he still rises at 5:30 a.m. in his Atherton home, avidly follows the financial markets and gets a huge charge when somebody calls his office to say: "We need a new CPA firm and we want to do business with you."
"It means somebody's choosing us compared to somebody else, and that's ego gratification," said Seiler, who admits he's a "competitive kind of guy."
Competitive and compassionate.
Over the decades when he was laboriously building his business and raising a family, Seiler also was crunching the numbers for one community nonprofit after another.
"The main thing in any organization, but particularly in a charitable organization, is that before you do it you've got to pay for it. A person with accounting experience is always needed," he said.
An early project, in the 1960s, was Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills. The Seilers, who lived in Menlo Park at the time, were members and Seiler pitched in when the congregation needed a sanctuary and social hall.
"The congregation passed it, we built it and I was asked to be on the board," he said. "I was president when it was opened and dedicated. That kind of launched me."
There were smaller involvements along the way -- March of Dimes, the Jewish Center in Belmont -- but Seiler's next big project was the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco, the Peninsula, Marin and Sonoma Counties, where he ultimately became president and chairman of the federation's endowment.
Then he spent the entire 1990s on the board of the Peninsula Community Foundation.
After Ruth Seiler underwent heart bypass surgery at the age of 51, the couple established Friends of Cardiovascular Medicine at Stanford.
Seiler, a University of California at Berkeley grad, ultimately served as vice-chairman of the board of trustees of Stanford Hospital.
His latest passion is the Taube Koret Campus for Jewish Life, now rising on 8 acres at U.S. Highway 101 and San Antonio Road. The campus will offer recreational, educational, pre-school and after-school programs as well as senior residences to create a multi-generational community. Seiler is a board member and has helped to raise $140 million.
"The idea of our campus is to allow older people to have the availability of all these facilities," he said. "We're just about at our goal, but we're still looking for contributions."
Seiler also serves on the boards of publicly traded Ross Stores and the Greater Bay Bancorp.
Seiler has his pride but knows better than to believe his tremendous work ethic accounts for all his success.
"Part of what I achieved I'd like to think is because of our efforts, but part of it was the fact that this area grew so much. I had the advantage of being in the right place at the right time. Our business would grow 30 or 40 percent a year in the beginning and it wasn't all because we were so great."
He takes great joy in his philanthropy and puzzles over why more people don't participate.
"It's really important because there are an awful lot of people who, for whatever reason, are not as fortunate or didn't make the right choice, or have needs. It troubles me that there's so much ability out there to do things and yet a great percentage of people don't do it.
"If you've done well, there's an obligation to give back. It does good things, makes you feel good about yourself, gives you self-confidence. And it also helped build my business -- although I can honestly say that's not the reason I've done it."
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