Virtue After Hillsdale
Spotlight on Gregg Coughlin, ’15
Written by Finn Cleary
It’s 5:45 in the morning, and along the Detroit river, the waters are calm as they flow past Belle Isle where the Detroit Yacht Club is housed. The night and the cool breeze off the river water make the island chilly.
Gregg Coughlin wakes up, reads for half an hour, and then drives to the DYC to work out before getting dressed for work. Once ready, he gets into his 1997 Jeep Wrangler and drives to One Detroit Center, the building where he works.
PricewaterhouseCoopers, better known as PwC, is the largest of the “big four” accounting firms in the world, providing accounting and auditing services to clients internationally and in the United States. Gregg works as a transfer pricing associate in a field that is concerned with the transactions between large, multinational countries.
“Transfer pricing is an odd niche in the tax side of things. We make sure those transactions occur at the same price as if those transactions would happen with a third party. All over the world, countries are adjusting their tax rates slightly, and if you have a company based in a lower-tax country, they’ll get a better end of the bargain, so you have to adjust for that.”
The drive to One Detroit Center takes Gregg past the old mansions in his neighborhood, the new apartment developments along Jefferson Avenue, and the crumbling infrastructure that Detroit is often defined by.
In his interview process for PwC, the applicants were put on teams to work on a problem-solving exercise. Three teams were tasked with petitioning a judge for funding in underprivileged schools, one team asking for funding for math, one for science, and one for arts. Gregg’s team was assigned arts.
“My argument was that looking at upward mobility, looking at socioeconomic trends, the important thing was not to emphasize the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), but to fund the things that uplift the soul, and arts was the best thing to do that. To understand what is beautiful and to live the good life is the best thing to give money to.”
His group was the first, the interviewer explained, to secure funding for the arts over math and science.
Gregg graduated from Hillsdale in 2015 with a finance degree and almost enough politics credits for a minor. His time at Hillsdale was heavily influenced by the combination of the hard practicality of his finance education and the study of the good, true, and beautiful that the politics department stresses.
“I loved the course I took with Dr. Craig on regimes or classical political philosophy. We read Plato’s Republic, and the central thesis of that class was that we live the way we do, not because we believe some supernatural force dictates these things to us. It’s because when we ascribe to the virtuous life and live out those virtues, we are fulfilling our nature as human beings.”
Now Gregg works to adapt the liberal arts mentality to his work in transfer pricing at PwC. His work with a variety of clients, including the automotive industry, other Michigan-based companies, and international clients requires a rigorous understanding of each client’s background.
“It’s all about lateral thinking now. You have to ask questions that challenge presumptions of how things work, and why, and so on. In what I do, I need to be able to understand how an industry works, how it operates, how it creates value, and the method of thinking about those things is very unique because of my background in the liberal arts.”
There’s also a creative aspect to his work. In a consulting role, Gregg looks at how supply chains and distribution work, and then develops strategies that take advantage of tax laws, manufacturing, and value-chain transformation to maximize operational efficiency with a company.
Gregg’s time at Hillsdale helped prepare him for a job at PwC, but he says it wasn’t just his work in Hillsdale’s business department that prepared him for the financial sector.
“There’s a baseline level of knowledge, which is important, but to do what I do, you have to be able to write well and concisely, a Hemingway in your professional communication and technical writing. You have to tell a story, be logical and persuasive in it, and explain it to someone.”
Gregg, who is from Massachusetts, has grown exponentially in Detroit. He enjoys frequent trips to the Detroit Institute of Art, of which he is a member, taking in the food culture in Detroit, of which he is a consummate guide, and the Detroit Yacht Club.
We’re standing at the end of the dock now, watching the few boats there bob in the water. It’s late, and the water is sparkling with the light of the General Motors building.
“The worldview that you get at Hillsdale—that we aren’t all just clumps of atoms, and that there is this higher order—makes our thinking different, and that is not only helpful in the business world in analyzing problems or strategies, but it’s essential to being virtuous in life.”
Finn Cleary, ’18, is from the cultural hub of America, Columbus, Ohio. He plans on majoring in History and working in the public policy field.