If Michael Tillett opens a door for you, walk through it. And then open the door for the next guy.
Politeness pays off—with value far beyond a balance sheet.
Trust Tillett on this: He knows his numbers.
He’s been an accounting and taxation professor at Palm Beach Atlantic University for 33 years and has an accounting firm with more than 4,000 clients. He’s put together countless tax returns, and his students have prepared the taxes of hundreds of local people—for free.
“The impressive stature of the PBAU accounting program — that is because of Mike Tillett,” says Joe Eassa, who started PBAU’s first graduate program, master’s in business administration, in 1989. is because of Mike Tillett.”
Andall That’s because Mike Tillett opened a door — literally.
Tillett was in his 20s, and studying for his master’s degree, when he worked as a security guard at a Lands of the President condominium in West Palm Beach.
The condo’s residents — doctors, lawyers, businessmen — became his career counselors.
Tillett often held the door for an affable gentleman named Riley Sims. It was the late 1980s, and Sims was in his late 80s, too.
The wise octogenarian gave Tillett a valuable gift: his attention.
Tillett told Sims about his life, how he grew up in Belize, and how his mother, Farita, had a little bakery. Tillett would walk around their “very tough” neighborhood, giving away any unsold baked goods to people who didn’t have enough to eat.
He came to Miami to get his bachelor’s degree at Biscayne College, then returned to Belize. He taught math at a junior college and was principal of an elementary school, then it was back to Florida to get his master’s in accounting at Florida Atlantic University. And to open doors to pay his way.
Perhaps Sims recognized himself in this earnest young man whose faith in Christ guided him and called him to be of service.
Sims’ own life was proof that big things could be accomplished with hard work and a handshake.
Born in East St. Louis in 1903, Sims quit school after the seventh grade to support his widowed mother and sister. He baled hay for 50 cents a day and shucked corn for 6 cents a bushel. In 1921, his family moved to Florida, the land of dreams.
When the Great Depression hit in 1929, Sims and his friend Russell Burnup were unemployed carpenters with nothing to lose. They pooled their cash—$30—and went into the construction business. Their company, Burnup & Sims, eventually became the nation’s largest cable television installer, and Sims became one of the first supporters of Palm Beach Atlantic College.
Why did Sims care so much about a friendly doorman? He lived by his motto: “We’re put on this earth to serve.”
He told Tillett: “If you’re ever interested in teaching, call me.”
Two years later, Tillett was a CPA rising through the ranks of the auditing department at Price Waterhouse, working 70 hours a week. He was on track to become a senior manager with a senior-level salary.
Yet, he knew: He wasn’t in the right place.
“I had to be obedient to God first,” Tillett recalls. “I was destined to teach.”
He called Sims, and Sims called Claude Rhea, then-president of PBAU, who told Tillett: “If Riley Sims believes in you, that’s good enough for me.”
Just like that, a door opened. In August 1990, Tillett became an accounting professor, and soon, he became one of the most beloved professors at PBAU.
Love first … and then teach
When Tillett started, PBAU was a young college shaped by old-school values.
Joe Eassa is from the old school, that hard-work-and-a-handshake school, and he’ll tell you so.
“I was born right here, at Good Samaritan Hospital, in 1936,” says Eassa, who owned a finance company before he came to PBAU full-time in 1977. He is now professor emeritus, and the scholarship bearing his name is Florida’s largest Scholarship for MBA students created in honor of a faculty member.
Eassa appreciates teachers like Tillett who are so dedicated “you get a dollar-fifty worth of value for every dollar you pay.”
Please don’t mark that extra 50 cents on a spreadsheet, though: the bonus Tillett offers is intangible, a connection nurtured by his faith.
Some professors teach first and then love, when it should be love first and then teach, says Tillett. “When you love your students first, you create the environment for them to learn.”
Here’s a tip from Tillett (by way of leadership guru John Maxwell): “Nobody will buy into your vision until they first buy into you. My students have to trust me. They have to know that I love them, and that I genuinely care.”
He starts by learning their names—on the first day of class.
Former student Eva Bracciali, who earned a double major in accounting and marketing from PBAU in 2020 and her MBA in 2021, remembers how Tillett would start each semester.
“He would go around the room and have every student give their name, year, major and where they came from, and then he would go around again and point to each one of us by name! Forty students! All semester, he called on us by name. He knew us, and he knew our strengths and what we might need extra help on. I don’t know how he does it.”
Tillett likes that old-school conversation. He prefers meetings to phone calls and phone calls to texts.
Today’s world is so device-driven and impersonal, some students don’t even know their professors’ names, Bracciale says — “but everyone knows his name.”
That’s what happens when you give the gift of your attention.
“It was obvious early on that Mike is extraordinary,” Eassa says. “He’s got a great personality and a deep knowledge of accounting, and he knows precisely how to craft his lectures so students understand it … and don’t run from it.”
Let’s face it, accounting is easy to hate. “It’s not for the faint of heart,” says Bracciale. “I started with a cohort of 30 students, and just six of us graduated. Many students never want to see an accounting book ever again, but they love seeing Professor Tillett. That’s because of the interpersonal connection.”
Also, he brings Jupiter Donuts to class.
Again, don’t mark those donuts on your spreadsheet; they’re motivators, not bribes.
Here’s the thing about Tillett and motivation, Eassa says: “No single human being can motivate any other single human being, but a single human being can create a motivating environment or a de-motivating environment. Mike creates a motivating environment—a fair and strict structure elevated by kindness. The students know: ‘My professor wants me to succeed.'”
He also wants them well-fed. “I bought them chicken tenders from PDQ last week,” he laughs. “I kid around. I said, ‘Right now, we’re going to have a tender moment.'”
Is this guy an accounting professor? Who needs tax write-offs when you’ve got jokes like that?
“Students would stop Mike as we’d go around campus together,” recalls Leslie Turner, former dean of the Rinker School of Business at PBAU. “They just love to talk to him.”
What’s more, they rate him with their highest scores in student evaluations.
“Mike has one of those personalities — he’s just in the right profession, and he has all the right talents,” Turner says. “He’s passionate about teaching accounting, he loves young people and he has a deep, personal relationship with Christ.”
How does Christian faith manifest itself in these tricky and divisive political times?
Tillett has a simple answer: “If you took the Bible and translated it into one word, it would be ‘love.'”
Next stop: The King’s Academy
Professor Tillett is retiring from PBAU after this semester. His accounting practice, with headquarters in Palm Beach Gardens, keeps growing, and, as always, he listens to God’s call on timing.
“Thirty-three years seemed like a good number,” he says about his decision. “Jesus was on this earth for 33 years.”
Time is limited – like attention, energy and money.
“I tell students, life is like an ATM machine,” Tillett says. “You have to make deposits if you want to make withdrawals.”
During tax season, his students are banking goodwill. They’re at libraries all over Palm Beach County, doing tax returns for people who need them.
“They’re giving back,” Tillett says, echoing a message he learned long ago.We’re put on this Earth to serve.
The mission statement on the wall at Tillett’s accounting firm, Tillett, Alvarado & Prendergast, reflects that message, too. Half of Tillett’s 14 colleagues at his firm, including partner Daniel Alvarado, are his former accounting students.
Another former student, Randal Martin, has hired Tillett for his next teaching adventure.
Martin is president of The King’s Academy in West Palm Beach, a 53-year-old Christian school with eight “programs of distinction” that “allow our kids to try different careers, like law, business or pre-med,” Martin says.
Taking three years of accounting classes with Mike Tillett was Martin’s personal program of distinction—his education in how his choice of career would shape his life.
That’s why he asked Tillett to teach accounting at King’s, starting this fall.
Tillett and his wife, Noemi, have twin 11-year-old daughters who attend King’s, as well as four adult children in their blended family.
“What impressed me about Professor Tillett,” Martin recalls, “was that he was so good, he seemed like he should be out there making a ton of money, but he chose to be a teacher. He saw Palm Beach Atlantic and its students as a ministry. And because of him, I had a professional career (at Ernst & Young) and then saw King’s Academy as a ministry.”
Money is not the measure of success, Tillett says, though money comes if you’re good at what you do and you’re doing what’s right.
Do you love your work? Are you serving God? Are you serving others? That’s the measure.
“Being successful is not complicated,” Tillett says. “If you develop relationships through caring and service for your clients, then the referrals will keep coming.”
And just like the empathetic accountant he is, he gives credit where credit is due.
“God has blessed me with knowledge, skill and ability—and it was God who was guiding me,” Tillett says. “It was God who opened the doors.”