matt birkelien

“Proud CFO at First Financial of Maryland Federal Credit Union” is the first thing you’ll see when you google “Matt Birkelien,” and the top search result is likely to take you to his LinkedIn profile.

So, if you are looking to do business with a financial institution, or access the expertise of a proud CFO and CPA, you may have found your answer – all within a 30 second search, courtesy of LinkedIn.

Now try typing “Credit Union Baltimore” in LinkedIn search:  although individual results vary based on connections to individuals and groups, there’s a good chance Matt Birkelien will be within your top search results. How did he get there, and what does this tell you about the power of LinkedIn for your career as a CPA, CFO and representative of your organization?

It’s not just about jobs

Birkelien says use of LinkedIn is still a relatively new concept at the credit union where he works – First Financial – and not everyone is comfortable with it, although they do have a company page on LinkedIn.

“I’ve tried to explain it’s not just about people looking for a job,” he says, although LinkedIn is viewed as a powerful job search tool for employers and job seekers.

And with Microsoft’s acquisition of LinkedIn earlier this year, many believe the benefits of having a profile on and using LinkedIn are about to skyrocket.

The power of connections

Birkelien’s LinkedIn profile says he has ‘over 500’ connections. Just how many does he actually have? “Over 1700 or 1800,” he says. Not bad, for a CFO of an almost $1 billion credit union which he describes as ‘relatively small’ and ‘pretty tiny compared to big banks.’

Why so many connections, and what value does he receive by using the LinkedIn platform?

“I love to learn, I love to meet people,” says Birkelien. “LinkedIn gives me the opportunity from a professional standpoint to meet people; there’s also an opportunity to read and learn, from a content standpoint.” In March, he was featured in How a CFO Rocks LinkedIn by Colleen McKenna.

Birkelien, a long-time MACPA member, recalls participating in training sessions led by MACPA CEO Tom Hood on behalf of the Business Learning Institute. McKenna’s article – which appeared in Hood’s LinkedIn newsfeed – renewed the connection.

Developing connections and sharing content serves a dual purpose for CPAs and CFOs, enhancing their professional reputation, and contributing to business development. These days, everyone is a digital emissary on behalf of their organization. See: Social Media for Accountants and Reputation Management, Social Media and the CFO, and Nine reasons to love LinkedIn.

In Birkelien’s case, “It’s about getting in front of people who need a place to invest their money or get a loan, so they’ll come to us.”

Top-of-Mind to Top-of-Wallet

“My goal with LinkedIn is that it’s free advertising and awareness,” says Birkelien. “The more you post, the more they see, and ‘top of wallet’ often comes from ‘top of mind.’

First Financial’s member-base is primarily in educational institutions such as the Baltimore and Carroll County public school systems, some Archdiocese schools, colleges and universities including Loyola University, Stevenson and Goucher, and certain healthcare services entities, businesses and federal agencies. “Our members/customers are students, parents, immediate family members, faculty and staff,” accounting for a very loyal membership base, says Birkelien.

What content appeals to his members/customers? “There is so much going on with school systems, it’s easy to put content out there that is really relevant to our membership base; the struggles we see our members experience can be easily understood and pushed out through platforms like LinkedIn,” he notes.

Has Birkelien seen a quantifiable return-on-investment for his time spent cultivating contacts, posting and reading content on LinkedIn?

“The return on investment from the corporate side is probably not measurable at this moment, but from my perspective, it’s well worth time I’ve put into it,” he says, adding over 400 connections in the past year, with many reaching out to congratulate him on his most recent career move.

Work-Life Balance and Social Networks

Visitors to Birkelien’s LinkedIn profile will immediately see that he holds work-life balance as a high priority. “Finally found that balance where you’re able to add value to who you work with; [and] who you work for, combined with quality time with your children,” says the first sentence in his LinkedIn Summary.

Birkelien shares, on LinkedIn and in our telephone conversation, that he is a parent of a child with autism. In a recent LinkedIn post, he talks about the organization he remains active with on the Board of Directors, Pathfinders for Autism, and discusses lessons learned the hard way.

In a prior role with audit firm CliftonLarsonAllen LLP, although it was a job he relished, Birkelien faced significant challenges to his work-life balance, including pressure from travel required for the job.

“My autistic son was pretty much nonverbal, and one time when I called home from a business trip, he started crying, saying, “Daddy home, daddy plane.” It was the first time he expressed his dissatisfaction [verbally] with my not being home.”

Feeling crushed, Birkelien decided it was time to make a change. “The main reason I left public [accounting] – I was the leader of the financial institutions practice at CliftonLarsonAllen LLP, had many people reporting to me, directly and indirectly – I felt like I gave my family the backseat and let the firm take control.” Of that time, he says, “I feel like I lost many years with my family.

“Women are more open to sharing their emotions, men tend to hide it,” says Birkelien, adding, “I tried to sweep it under the rug.” Happy in his new position as CFO at First Financial, he leverages LinkedIn for his professional and personal development including the causes he cares for.

What people and opportunities are you missing out on, by not being more active on LinkedIn? Connect with people like Matt Birkelien; you’ll be glad you did.

Learn more: LinkedIn 101: The basics and beyond, Best practices for LinkedIn-Profesionals

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