UNCW alumni logo full color

Hawk's Eye View: Zach Shelton '06, '07M

Zach Shelton and husband Eric on the beach

May 25, 2023 | Sarah Fetters

Get a marketable skill, and trust your gut. 

It’s advice Zach Shelton '06, '07M heard repeatedly from his dad. In the lookback, the suggestion has guided many impactful decisions in his life. 

“Sometimes you go against your gut and go outside your comfort zone, but sometimes you just trust your gut,” Shelton said. “Thinking back now, I’m really lucky because I don’t think I’d be where I am today without UNCW.”  

His gut has guided Shelton to UNCW, through a pair of degrees from the Cameron School of Business and into a career with FORVIS. But it didn’t always look like Shelton would be an Advisory Principal in Raleigh with one of the nation’s 10 largest public accounting firms.  

The Jacksonville, N.C., area native began his Seahawk career as a biology major before changing course. Shelton’s love of computers and technology pushed him into computer science, which was fitting for somebody who programmed the family VCR at age five. 

But he didn’t remain in computer science for long.  

An invitation to dinner with a friend one evening included attending an extra-credit presentation beforehand. Shelton said sure and heard a public accounting firm’s IT risk compliance presentation.  

“They were saying all these great things,” Shelton said of the speakers. “It was doing IT with a business perspective and consulting. I thought, ‘Holy moly, this is what I want to do.’ Literally, that session changed my life.” 

A new major, and its accompanying career path, was launched.  

Within days Shelton had a new academic advisor, picked up information systems and accounting and departed computer science. He found his passion, received his bachelor’s in business administration and followed with a master’s in accountancy (MSA).  

His gut led him to the opportune program, which laid the foundation for success. The MSA program was small enough for Shelton to connect with professors and other cohort members but big enough to draw heavy interest from top-tier accounting firms. These have been invaluable networking connections in his professional life, which started in a full-circle moment following graduation. Shelton received a job offer from the firm whose presentation he had initially heard. 

This was when the gut came in again.  

In addition to the offer to join the group that had initially inspired Shelton, he had an opportunity with FORVIS. He felt so comfortable and confident with the people at FORVIS, he joined them.  

Sixteen years in with the firm, he has no regrets.  

Zach and team members

However, his focus within those 16 years has shifted from self to others.  

“Something switched for me about five years ago,” Shelton said. “My career was all about me. That was fine because, as a young professional, you do need to focus on yourself and growing your career. But I came to the point where I realized my career and purpose at the firm was about seeing other people on my team grow and helping them succeed. That’s what makes me most happy about my career. That, and being able to be in a position to help people.” 

This shift was steeping over the years and traced back to a lesson he learned as a Seahawk.  

Just like studying requires a genuine desire to learn in order to retain, so do relationships.  

“Over time, I started to realize it was like my freshman year all over again,” Shelton said. “I recognized that if I really wanted to be good at this, I needed to truly pay attention.”  

The people focus for Shelton opened a new avenue for him to make an impact at the firm. For the past two years, he had the opportunity to serve as the Executive Sponsor for FORVIS’ LGBTQ+ inclusion network, which supports nearly 300 individuals. He has since passed the torch but is still involved in the efforts the network is fostering at FORVIS. 

“The amount of support I have received from our C-suite, including both our CEO and chairman has been incredible,” Shelton said. “I have felt cared for and invested in. Our chairman, Matt Snow, asks about my life and my husband, Eric, regularly. It’s humbling to know inclusion isn’t just a corporate buzzword. It shows to have someone at the very, very top of the organization who truly cares about their people.” 

Creating community within the inclusion network has been important to Shelton, who has urged his staff members simply to be themselves each day. 

“It’s great to work with a company with a forward vision that breaks the old-school views of what being a professional in business looks like,” Shelton said. 

“I had a mentee tell me she loved that I let her be who she is, and not having to put on a persona to ‘fit in’ has helped her succeed,” he continued. “She has been promoted faster than normal because she is amazing at her job, but part of that reason is she is allowed to be herself. I cannot say that enough. We cannot tamp people down, or they will not perform as well.”  

This approach for Shelton has fostered a productive and trusting team. He has also been able to help add hundreds of Seahawks to FORVIS, as he loves recruiting, especially on UNCW’s campus.  

“I always tell students, ‘I really want you to be where it makes the most sense for you,’” Shelton said. “I want to tell students about our company and our firm and hope they want to join the team. But at the end of the day, my recommendation is to get a marketable skill, and if you trust your gut, you will find your path.” 

His gut may kick in again and point out a new path, but until then, Shelton is enjoying his team members, their success, and the opportunities he can help them create.