For First Choice Dental’s Klagos, being a top CFO is not just a numbers game

Most business professionals long for the day when they might be recognized with a lifetime achievement award. For First Choice Dental CFO Kevin Klagos, that day has arrived — and he’s not quite sure how to react.

“I’m humbled and I’m honored, but I sure don’t feel like I’m worthy of a lifetime achievement award yet,” said Klagos, who was recognized during the CFO Awards presentation at the In Business Expo & Conference in October. “I think I mentioned when I was up in front of the crowd that I feel like I have a lot of work yet to do, and the lifetime achievement award hopefully is a little premature.”

“When you find the areas that people are very, very good at and they have passion for it, and you steer them toward those areas and focus as much of their attention in those areas as you can, really good things happen.” — Kevin Klagos

At 53, Klagos may not be eager to look back on his career just yet, but he’s already been an integral part of enough winning organizations — both on a professional and volunteer level — to satisfy any retiree.

In 1993, after starting his career with a Milwaukee accounting firm and then spending 12 years with Grant Thornton in Madison, Klagos landed a job with the National W Club, a nonprofit booster organization for UW athletics. As any cardinal-blooded Wisconsin Badger knows, that year marked the beginning of not just a turnaround but a full-fledged golden age for UW athletics.

“Growing up in Madison — I was born in 1960 — and the previous time that Wisconsin had been to the Rose Bowl was 1963 with Pat Richter,” said Klagos. “All of a sudden, Pat Richter’s the leader of the athletic department at the time, and so the world was totally changing. And no one in Madison believed we were going to get back to the Rose Bowl. It’s become commonplace now, but at that time it was a big-time deal.”

Of course, that’s not the only turnaround story Klagos has been a part of. Now entering his 17th season as an assistant coach for the Madison Memorial High School basketball team, Klagos has been an eyewitness to that program’s ascendency as well. Since joining the team, Klagos has watched Madison Memorial capture three state championships — in 2005, 2009, and 2011 — and helped nurture the talents of eventual NBA standout Wesley Matthews and Marquette star Vander Blue.

But while a more ego-driven man might be quick to note his contributions to the successful program he helped steer in the right direction, Klagos is more interested in talking about what the team gave him — and how that dovetails with his role as a CFO.

“As a CFO, you don’t do it by yourself; you’ve got to get buy-in,” said Klagos. “I think 17 years ago, when I started this, I approached business more like there’s one way to do things, and I’ve certainly learned in the last 17 years working with my staff at work and working in a coaching environment that when you can take what people are really good at and let them excel in those areas and find ways to cover up their weaknesses with other people’s skills, all of a sudden things get very productive and really good things happen.

“That’s how we won three state championships at Memorial. We stopped fighting the instincts of kids and we let athletes be athletes, and we found out how to build a system around them and get people to complement each other. And I’ve taken the same thing to these office environments that I’ve been in. If you’ve got someone who just isn’t very good at something, it doesn’t do any good to force them that way.”

A people profession

While Klagos has been part of several winning streaks, thanks to his tenures with the National W Club and Madison Memorial, he’s seen his share of rough patches as well.

In 2001, he entered into a partnership with three other individuals in order to purchase Middleton’s Design Structures. The firm eventually expanded, opening an office in The Dalles, Ore., where the company helped build Google’s new campus.

The company enjoyed healthy growth until the onset of the Great Recession, which reversed the fortunes of most area construction firms. The company survived, but Klagos decided to move on, joining First Choice Dental in 2009.

Since then, his curriculum vitae has thickened. He has increased the company’s revenue by 20% during his tenure; substantially increased profitability; oversaw the expansion of the firm’s endodontic and orthodontics departments, as well as the addition of in-house periodontics and oral surgery capabilities; and is currently directing the capital project for the company’s new Waunakee office.

But while those accomplishments speak to his proficiency as a manager and a numbers guy, Klagos notes that it’s the ability to forge lasting relationships that can predict the success of any CFO. And that’s part of the reason why he’s happy to be where he is.



“I’m a relationship person, and Madison’s a relationship town,” said Klagos, who contends that success in his profession relies on “90% people skills and 10% smarts.” “You hear the CFOs that want 10 bids on everything they buy; and I certainly want to pay attention to what things cost and value and those things, but I also think it’s important to have relationships that you can leverage when you need things.”

Of course, part of his role as a CFO involves getting the most out of the people he works with and leveraging each employee’s unique abilities — a lesson he’s learned through both his job and his mentorship of high school athletes. That behind-the-scenes role is part of what inspired IB to create an award to recognize the “unsung hero” status of Madison’s many CFOs.

“I attended a program called Strategic Coach, which is a coaching program for entrepreneurs that helps them grow the organizations that they’re in,” said Klagos. “And they talk a lot about your unique ability, and your unique ability is something that you’re very, very good at but that you also have to have passion for. And you can be very good at something and have it not be your unique ability because you don’t have passion. So when you find the areas that people are very, very good at and they have passion for it, and you steer them toward those areas and focus as much of their attention in those areas as you can, really good things happen.”

While Klagos’ lifetime achievement award gave him an opportunity to look back, he’s focused as much as ever on the future of his employer — and on the relationships he has yet to build in the community.

“I’d really like to see First Choice Dental grow, and that’s my short- to medium-term focus here,” said Klagos. “And my philosophy is that wherever we are, whatever we’re doing, it’s all part of a team effort, and you’ve just got to find ways to slide people around and utilize them to maximize their natural talents.”

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