Competitive advantage

Bill Balhoff brings a family approach to his term as the AICPA's 101st chairman.

BY NEIL AMATO
November 1, 2013

When reflecting on his life and career, Bill Balhoff can see the tremendous impact his parents’ guidance and work ethic has had. He comes from a big family—nine boys and two girls—all with a healthy drive for success.

Balhoff feels fortunate to have been surrounded by supportive family members who take pride in each other’s success. Throughout his career, he has also come to realize that a sense of family goes beyond the bonds formed with siblings. When people share in traditions and similar values—whether at home or at work—they build a sense of family.

Balhoff, CPA/CFF, CGMA, views the accounting profession as a large group of high achievers with strong values. He believes that with continued collaboration and consistent, high-quality work, the profession can take the necessary steps to remain relevant in a business environment characterized by complexity and digital-fast change.

In October, he became the 101st chairman of the AICPA, launching his term with a speech focused on quality as a hallmark of the profession.

A FOUNDATION OF QUALITY

Balhoff’s focus on quality goes back to the beginning of his career at Postlethwaite & Netterville (P&N), where he began as a staff accountant in 1976 after graduating from Louisiana State University. As the firm’s current managing director, he leads according to the same principles stressed by firm founder Alex Postlethwaite all those years ago: Start with quality service for the client. Everything else follows.

Postlethwaite’s unwavering emphasis on quality service led firm leadership to formally define its core values in 2011. The values form the acronym QUALITY — Q: Quality. U: United with the community. A: Accountability. L: Lifelong learning. I: Innovation and integrity. T: Teamwork. Y: Your coworkers.

Although these values are specific to P&N, Balhoff believes that many of them are relevant to the broader CPA profession. During his one-year term as AICPA chairman, he will focus on quality, leadership, mentoring, and growth.

SHARED VALUES

Strong values were inherent in Balhoff’s upbringing. His parents, John and Catherine Balhoff, provided a solid foundation of faith, a clear set of values, and an appreciation for family and tradition.

“My parents had a strong influence on us and a very deep faith. Church and family were at the center of our lives,” he said. Five siblings following John Balhoff into chemical engineering shows the great respect they had for their father, Bill Balhoff said. Bill, sixth in birth order, is one of three CPAs.

At home, there was always someone to play a game with, either on the nearby baseball field or the dirt pad and basketball goal in their yard. Growing up with so many brothers and sisters, Balhoff learned to appreciate others’ perspectives and to work in teams. He also honed his debate skills.

“A lot of what we do as accounting professionals is negotiation and problem-solving. We have to help our clients understand what is right for them,” he said. “Growing up, I had to learn to develop those communication skills, because we debated a lot. And to win, we had to be very persuasive.”

Balhoff lived at home during college, working at a furniture store and taking an interest in an LSU student named Sandra Guidry. He also took an interest in accounting. Although he was good at math, that wasn’t what drew him.

“Accounting isn’t exactly a math field. It is more about problem-solving and working with others,” he said. “I liked problem-solving, and I liked working with people.”

INSTILLING LEADERSHIP

That passion for working with people has stayed with Balhoff throughout his career, which has been heavily affected by various leadership roles he has held at the firm and in the profession.

Balhoff said he wouldn’t have gained the leadership experience he has without a push from several mentors, including the firm’s Alex Postlethwaite and Jake Netterville. “They encouraged me not only to provide the highest quality of service, but to also get involved in the profession,” Balhoff said. This involvement provided him with a different perspective and a wider network.

Balhoff admires Netterville, who was the AICPA’s chairman from 1992 to 1993, for his “passion for giving back to the community and the profession.”

“I don’t believe I would be CEO of our firm had I not been involved in the AICPA and the Louisiana Society of CPAs. You work among different types of leaders in the profession, and you’re able to see how other people practice outside the four walls of your own building, which to me is very important.”

Balhoff believes that looking across the profession for ideas and best practices has made P&N a much stronger firm. “The services we provide, the way we provide those services—our focus on quality is much more defined because of our interaction with leaders throughout the profession,” he said.

AICPA President and CEO Barry Melancon, CPA, CGMA, said he looks forward to Balhoff’s leadership.

“His relentless focus on the profession’s core values and his understanding of smaller firm issues give him a broad view of the opportunities and challenges facing the profession,” Melancon said. “In addition, he is fully committed to our added support for the business and industry segment and the CGMA designation. Bill will take our profession on an exciting journey that positions our profession for future growth.”

RESPONSIBILITY AND REWARDS OF MENTORING

Helping position the profession for future growth is something Balhoff takes personally. While the Balhoff engineers still outnumber the Balhoff CPAs, it’s safe to say the accounting gene has been passed down. Two of Balhoff’s three daughters are accountants, one a CPA and the other studying for the CPA exam. And many nieces and nephews, including the daughter of P&N director George Balhoff, CPA/CITP, also went into accounting. He even has high hopes that his two young grandsons—Owen and Hayes—will become CPAs one day.

Having young family members in the profession also provides him with candid feedback that helps him better understand the challenges being faced by young CPAs. He believes that the leaders of today have a responsibility to mentor the next generation of CPAs.

In his acceptance speech last month, Balhoff announced the AICPA’s creation of a resource center specifically to help Private Companies Practice Section (PCPS) members address issues in auditing and accounting, doing so in easy-to-understand language.

This is important to him because he believes knowledge and inspiration should be shared across the profession—not just within CPA firms and businesses. And this has been his experience. In addition to the mentors Balhoff had within P&N, he enjoyed working with mentors outside of his firm. One who was particularly influential was Mason Andres, a CPA he met while performing a peer review of a Texas firm.

“Mason urged me to get involved,” Balhoff said. “He felt like I could add something, but he also understood how much it would benefit me. I’ll always be indebted to Mason for the confidence he had in me.”

Balhoff does his best to instill that same confidence in those he mentors. He passes on the knowledge that was impressed upon him: The more you give, the more you get. He also encourages them to regularly push beyond their comfort zones so that they are constantly growing. He regularly interacts with accounting students at Louisiana universities, including his alma mater LSU, and he’s passionate when talking about the flexibility CPAs have to chart their own course in the profession.

VISION OF GROWTH

Balhoff acknowledges it’s that flexibility that also presents challenges, as clients become more complex and demand more knowledge and expertise. After all, client needs are different now from what they were in 1976, when Balhoff went to work at Postlethwaite, Netterville, Evans and Major. At the time, it was a firm of 22 accountants in Baton Rouge. Today, P&N is a major firm with about 600 employees.

Being responsive to clients’ changing needs is among the reasons the firm has been so successful. “When I started, we did audit, tax, and bookkeeping work,” he said. “That is certainly not the case today.”

A similar evolution is evident in Balhoff’s own career. Although he has worked at one firm his entire career, he feels as though he’s been able to reinvent himself through outside service and a variety of P&N roles. He has worked in technical audit and consulting, moving up to partner in 1986 and into his current role in 2008. He has extensive experience in peer review and PCPS issues. He testified before a Senate committee in 2002 on behalf of PCPS members, speaking about the trickle-down effect that legislation, in the wake of the Enron scandal, would have on small and midsize firms.

Balhoff served previously as chairman of the PCPS Executive Committee, and his firm has been a PCPS member since the section’s inception. He is also a past member of the Financial Accounting Standards Advisory Council and has experience across a broad range of industries.

Balhoff believes the Institute should continue to focus on increasing diversity and inclusion, encouraging young CPAs to serve on volunteer committees, advancing the dialogue on audit enhancements, and promoting an entrepreneurial spirit.

“Technical knowledge is critical in the profession, especially as it relates to ever-changing regulations,” he said. “But developing leaders is just as critical to our future and the futures of our clients.”

“As CPAs, we’re very good technicians,” he said. “But I believe that we need to continue to develop our skill sets as leaders and as critical decision-makers. Our challenge is to keep developing those skills in ourselves and in the people around us.”

That’s why Balhoff enjoys talking to college students and new hires at his firm. He likes the questions he hears from the next generation of the accounting family. He hears excitement in their voices, the same sort of excitement he felt more than three decades ago when he joined P&N.

“As a CPA, your potential is limitless. You can go anywhere and do anything because you have a widely transferable and adaptable skill set,” he said. “But at the end of the day, no matter where you take your career, it should be fueled by passion. My passion is to help others reach their goals, through both innovation and a focus on quality. It’s how the profession—and all of our professionals—are going to continue to grow.”

Neil Amato is a JofA senior editor. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact him at namato@aicpa.org or 919-402-2187.

Bill Balhoff, CPA/CFF, CGMA

Title: Managing director and CEO, Postlethwaite & Netterville

City: Baton Rouge, La.

Education: B.S. in accounting, Louisiana State University

Date of birth: April 26, 1954

Family: Wife, Sandra; daughters, Bridget Leitner, Stephanie Ferguson, and Gretchen Balhoff; sons-in-law, Beau Leitner and Jeff Ferguson; grandsons, Hayes Leitner and Owen Ferguson

Must-have device: iPad

Good read: Inferno by Dan Brown

Caf or decaf: Decaf. “I don’t drink coffee. I don’t do caffeine.”

Favorite food: Any dessert

The Year Ahead

During Bill Balhoff’s term as chairman, the AICPA will work to advance a number of key initiatives, including:

Resource center for PCPS members. Balhoff has envisioned the Institute as a “national office” for sole practitioners and other smaller firms. If they have questions, the resource center can supply answers on emerging accounting and auditing issues.

Private company financial reporting. The Institute this year issued the Financial Reporting Framework for Small- and Medium-Sized Entities. The framework is for use by private, owner-managed businesses when GAAP financial statements are not required. Meanwhile FASB and the Private Company Council (PCC) are developing potential alternatives for private companies within GAAP.

Audit quality. Supporting the work of the AICPA’s audit quality centers and the Center for Audit Quality, including the efforts to enhance auditors’ professional skepticism, objectivity, and independence.

Not-for-profit. Exploration of a resource center for CPAs in the not-for-profit sector.

Peer review. Seeking feedback for the creation of “next-generation” peer review practices, in collaboration with state CPA societies. “Peer review has to keep up with the times,” Balhoff said.

CGMA. Building on the growth of the Chartered Global Management Accountant designation, the joint venture with the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants, and preparing for testing to be part of the process to obtain the designation starting in 2015.

Education. Collaboration with other stakeholders to continue developing an Advanced Placement high school course in accounting, which was among the recommendations of the Pathways Commission.

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