Michelle M. Aurich is a senior associate with WithumSmith+Brown P.C. in Princeton, New Jersey. Her experience includes traditional accounting, audit and tax services for closely held businesses, forensic accounting for insolvent and bankrupt business entities and individuals, auditing employee benefit plans for publicly traded companies, and a variety of other financial matters.
Aurich holds a bachelor’s degree in accounting from Rutgers University and is a member of the TMA New Jersey Chapter, the International Women’s Insolvency and Restructuring Confederation (IWIRC), the American Bankruptcy Institute, the New Jersey Society of Certified Public Accountants, and the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants. For the past seven years, she also has been a member of the Philadelphia Eagles’ Cheerleaders.
Q: How did you gravitate into turnaround and restructuring work?
Aurich: I think it was just a matter of being in the right place at the right time. I had interned at WithumSmith+Brown, where I currently work, the spring before I was hired to work full time. There was an opportunity involving a bankruptcy client of the firm and they needed some more hands on deck, so they pulled me in a couple of months before I was supposed to start. That was my first real case and my first real-world experience after being an intern.
For the first couple of years at Withum, I did mostly traditional accounting work—tax and audit—and then I ended up diving in 100 percent into the litigation support group. That meant I could spend more time on turnaround work and also some other litigation cases like marital disputes, business valuation, partner disputes—so I kind of had the whole gamut.
Q: How long have you been doing this work?
Aurich: I just celebrated my fifth work anniversary, and I also did a couple of internships at Withum before I started full-time. I really enjoyed it. I was very thankful for the opportunity and stuck with it.
Q: If you could start over, would you do anything differently?
Aurich: I still have not passed the CPA exam. I’ve just passed two parts so far this summer. If I could do anything differently, I would definitely recommend to people who want to be in the accounting profession to get their CPA before they even start work. I wish I had been a little bit more diligent and was able to be certified before the whole busy-ness of life got in the way.
Q: It’s always much harder when you’re working full-time.
Aurich: Obviously, everyone wants you to get your CPA done as quickly as possible, and it’s really beneficial to pass it right after college—you’re still in the study mindset, and they say life doesn’t really get in the way. Work isn’t quite as busy. You don’t have that many responsibilities. When I was starting to study for the CPA, I was pretty much just as busy then as I am now. Sure, my work responsibilities are a little bit more involved now, but I’ve always been doing the Eagles so I’ve always had time constraints.
I’ve found for me, at least, now that I am married, it’s a little more helpful because now I have someone who can share in the responsibilities of our home. When I wasn’t around or when I was busy studying, he could come in and help out in those roles where before I didn’t really have that much help.
Q: It comes in very handy to have someone pick up the dry cleaning and run to the grocery store.
Aurich: Absolutely. I’m much more motivated than I was in the past and have a lot more experience, so I think that’s really helped at least get those two parts passed. Now, I only have two left, so I’m going to jump back on the study wagon after the football season because it’s really hard to get anything done during the fall.
Q: I think probably a lot of people are interested in what TMA members like to do outside the office and particularly in your case because it’s so unusual. I’d pretty much be willing to bet that you’re the only NFL cheerleader among our membership. You got involved with the Eagles seven years ago?
Aurich: Yes. My senior year in college was my first football season with the Eagles.
Q: How did that come about?
Aurich: I grew up as a dancer. Since the age of 3, I’ve been dancing and I really love it. I couldn’t imagine my life without it. It gave me so many different opportunities and taught me so much about time management from a young age, even in high school.
After high school, my goal was to try out for the Rutgers Dance Team. I did that for three years in college. The Rutgers Dance Team performed at football games. We performed at men’s and women’s basketball games. We also competed nationally every year. So, it gave me the best of both worlds—I was able to compete, and I was also able to perform and really cheer on my team.
That’s where I first learned a lot about cheerleading. I’d never been much of a cheerleader in a traditional sense, so that was my introduction into the cheerleading world. After my junior year in college, I decided I wanted to give the NFL scene a try because I really love football. It’s a huge passion of mine.
In the NFL, the cheerleaders typically are actually more like dancers than cheerleaders in the traditional sense of the word. At the Philadelphia Eagles, we don’t do a lot of tumbling and stunting and that sort of thing. It’s more dance-based. I tried out at the end of my junior year, and I made the squad on the first try. I never looked back. I’ve been a captain for a couple of years and it’s taught me a lot about leadership and teamwork, and it’s just been such a blessing. I’m really fortunate in that my firm lets me pursue both my passions as well as my career. I get the best of both worlds.
Q: How much time does it require?
Aurich: We typically have rehearsals in Philadelphia two nights a week. Rehearsals typically are about 3 to 3½ hours for those two nights. We perform at all home games; we don’t travel. The only away game we would attend would be the Super Bowl, so we’re hoping for good things this year.
We also do a lot of appearances throughout the community. Some months are busier than others, but we love to get involved with the community, and we do so much as ambassadors for the Eagles.
Q: How far is Philadelphia from where you live?
Aurich: I live and work in Princeton, New Jersey. Most of the people in the Princeton area are probably on the Philadelphia Eagles side of the line. I think a little farther north, you’ll get a lot of Giants and Jets fans. On a good day without rush hour traffic, I can get to the stadium in about 50-60 minutes, so it’s not terribly far.
Q: You said you missed this year’s team calendar shoot because you got married. When was that?
Aurich: June 6. My husband, Andrew Aurich, is a football coach for Princeton University. Between his schedule in the fall and then spring recruiting, summer was really the only time we could get married and enjoy a honeymoon. Unfortunately, as a cheerleader, our season starts in April. Our down time is usually in the winter months. We start right away in April with meetings and then our calendar trip.
Unfortunately, this year I wasn’t able to join in the calendar trip, but I heard it was a great experience. I was very upset to miss it. It’s a voluntary opportunity. You’re not required to be in the calendar, but obviously everyone would like to be. It’s a great team bonding experience for the whole group.
Q: Where do they usually do the photo shoots for the calendar?
Aurich: The past couple of years, it’s been in Mexico, but they have shot in various locations internationally. One year, we shot at the Jersey Shore to raise funds after Hurricane Sandy, which was an awesome experience as well. That was a very interesting calendar and a great experience. A lot of people on the team live down in the Jersey Shore, so they were affected. It was nice to give back to that community.
Q: What have been some of your favorite or most gratifying engagements at WithumSmith+Brown?
Aurich: I was really excited to have the opportunity to go on two separate raids for two different bankruptcy clients. The first raid was a new experience, even for the partner on the job, Ken DeGraw. He said, “I’ve worked my whole career doing this, and I’ve never been on a raid.” So this was something very unique and interesting.
It was my first year on the job. I was still inexperienced. I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into. I was going on the raid with an attorney who was also on the case, and the partner and another staff person were heading to another location.
With a raid, you hit different locations at the same time. We met with the U.S. Marshal prior to going to the location. The first thing they said was that they wondered why I was wearing business clothes. They said, “You should probably be wearing sneakers.” They gave me a lesson on how to search clothing for items without getting pricked by a needle. With the location we were going to, there was potential drug use. They also gave me directions to the nearest hospital. So I was a little scared going into my first raid.
Obviously, none of that happened and it worked out just fine. The raid was a success, and we did another one a couple of years later. I would say those are probably the most fun that I’ve had on some of the cases I’ve worked on.
Q: When you raid a place, what are you doing?
Aurich: Each case was a little different. During the first raid, we were looking for specific documents we believed had been removed from the business location, and we were also looking for assets—cash, some jewelry, that kind of thing—because I believe in the petition they claimed there were none.
Q: Were these homes that you were raiding?
Aurich: Yes, I think there were three locations. One was in Florida; the other two were in New Jersey. I was at their adult child’s residence, and the partner on the job and the other staff member went to the actual residence of the people who filed for bankruptcy.
Q: Did you get what you were after?
Aurich: Absolutely. In the residence where I was, for the first hour we looked, we didn’t find too much. We did find some documents, but we really were looking for some cash. The marshals were too big to get to the attic, so I stood on a marshal’s shoulders and went up there. Under the insulation I found a couple thousand dollars in cash. So that was a good day for me.
Q: Who’s inspired you along the way, either professionally or personally?
Aurich: I have been really blessed at Withum to work with some great mentors who have really helped me to develop professionally. Ken DeGraw really pulled me into the turnaround work and the bankruptcy work. He got me involved in TMA and really has probably been the most influential person in my professional career. He’s really helped me and pushed me farther than I ever actually thought I could go. Professionally, he has to be my biggest mentor, and he’s also my biggest supporter in the firm.
There are plenty of women as well in the firm who I look up to on a personal and professional level. At Withum there is no shortage of mentors and career coaches, so they’ve been very inspirational to me and helped me out in a lot of ways.
Q: It’s great to work in a supportive environment like that.
Aurich: Absolutely. It really makes all the difference. When I talk to a lot of other women on the team and even when I’m at other networking events, I never take for granted what I have here. Everyone really is so welcoming, and the culture here is just so supportive that it would be really hard to pass it up.
Q: What advice do you have someone who’s new to the industry or is looking to get into it?
Aurich: I think getting involved in the different types of organizations like TMA and others really made the difference for me. Going to events in this industry and getting to know other people really helped me to feel a sense of community and that I belonged there, and it helped me get involved on a deeper level. I’m now on the committee for the TMA NextGen group in New Jersey. I’m also involved in another women’s turnaround organization called IWIRC.
TMA has helped open a lot of doors for me to get involved, especially when I was new to the industry. I got involved in TMA my first year working, so I’ve built a lot of relationships over the past five years, and it’s been very helpful for me in developing professionally as well as personally. Some of these women that I work with or speak with at the networking events can really shine a light and be very helpful. It’s such a great resource in the everyday, as well as in the professional, world.
Q: What might people who only know you in your professional capacity be most surprised to learn about you?
Aurich: Obviously, that I am a cheerleader. I’m not ashamed of being a cheerleader. I know there are stereotypes and some stigma attached to it, but I’m very proud of everything I’ve done with the Eagles. It is a professional organization, so it’s not something that I shy away from talking about, even when I’m in a professional setting or a networking event. I’ve learned some very valuable lessons from being a cheerleader—leadership, working with teams, and so many different things that really translate well into the professional world in the traditional sense.
People who know me professionally probably also know that I’m a cheerleader, but sometimes it comes as a surprise to people. I often hear, “Wait, that’s kind of an anomaly,” or “Really, you do both? That’s so odd.” They still find it hard to believe that someone who’s an accountant could also be a cheerleader.
To be a Philadelphia Eagles cheerleader, you have to be employed full-time or be a full-time college student. We’re all very well-rounded individuals. But it can be a difficult topic for some people who don’t know what to make of it. They don’t want to stereotype you in a certain way. When I first met my husband, someone had told him ahead of time that I was a cheerleader but was also an accountant. I really respected him because when he came over to talk to me, he brought up the accounting card and asked me to do his taxes or something as opposed to asking me about cheerleading. I thought that was pretty funny, actually.
Q: When I mentioned you to a couple of people in my office, they asked what you did professionally. One of them was an accountant, and she said, “See, we’re not all boring.”
Aurich: Exactly! I like to break that stereotype as well.
Q: What items are on your bucket list?
Aurich: I have a lot of items on my bucket list. On a personal level, obviously I’d love to cheer at a Super Bowl, and I’m hoping this is my year. As a cheerleader, we can also go to the Pro Bowl, so I’m hoping at some point I can be the cheerleader representative for the Eagles at the Pro Bowl. I just got married, so I sort of feel that the world is my oyster right now.
I think, first and foremost, on the professional side, I want to get the CPA exam done. Once I get that done, then I’ll really feel like I can be on top of the world.