Measuring Progress

Is the vision process working? Three CPAs explain what it's done for them.

With the National Future Forum, held in Phoenix in mid-January, phase one of the CPA Vision Process came to a close. Practitioners in both public practice and business and industry are now deep into tax season. Daydreaming about possible future scenarios has been eye-opening, but now it's back to business as usual. Or is it?

The Journal of Accountancy recently contacted National Future Forum delegates and attendees at the fall forums to get an inkling of whether the seeds the Vision Process has sewn have begun to sprout at the grass-roots level. Following are signs that the seeds are taking root.

"If there is no struggle, there is no progress."
—Frederick Douglass

Before Lenore Clemenson joined Anderson ZurMuehlen & Co., PC, three years ago, her 11-year career had taken her from a Big 6 firm's audit practice to employment at several small concerns in the business and industry sector and back to public accounting in a new area: litigation consulting and business valuation. She chose the Helena-based accounting and consulting firm not only because it was the leading provider of litigation and business valuation services in Montana but also because it was forward thinking.

"Among our peers in Montana, we are the outside-the-box firm," says Clemenson. "Consulting—information technology, litigation services, business valuation, pension and employee benefits—is at least half our business and growing. Our long-term goal has been to get clients to view us more as advisers than compliance people."

Anderson ZurMuehlen's senior shareholders were already attuned to the CPA Vision Process when Clemenson attended a Future Forum last September with a colleague from the tax department. The firm's own visioning process began a month later, at the outset of its 1998 fiscal year, with a special day-long brainstorming session at the annual shareholder retreat.

The National Future Forum: A Snapshot
On January 12-13, delegates representing the U.S. states and constituencies and six AICPA committees met in Phoenix to review a summary of the results of the Future Forums and to draft a core purpose and vision statement for the profession. Following is a demographic portrait of the forum delegates.

9 - under 40
23 - 40-45
17 - 46-50
10 - over 50
Ethnic Minorities
7 - Asian, Hispanic or African-American
23 - female
36 - male
Practice Sector
18 - business and industry
2 - education
1 - government
37 - public practice
1 - retired

"We're applying the visioning process internally to see where we can be in 10 years or more," she says. "The idea is to begin focusing on the types of services clients will want, need and value in the future, along with ways to get them to come to us first with their business issues and problems. In looking at services that would draw on our strengths and skills but go beyond what we're doing today, it's been difficult to avoid getting hung up on 'Can we really do this and how?' It takes effort to leave the office brain behind."

One idea that surfaced at the initial brainstorming session was for the firm to own and operate a corporate retreat center where it could facilitate creative thinking sessions to help other groups work out their business problems. "We believe there's a need, and we have both the skills and the location," Clemenson says. "Montana in the summertime would be perfect. So why not?"

To bring more of its 100 or so staff members into the visioning process, Anderson ZurMuehlen began holding monthly creative-thinking sessions. Cross-functional teams representing all disciplines and practice areas discuss a different topic each month—with all four of the firm's offices addressing the same topic. One of the first topics the teams tackled was client service.

"We looked at how to provide what we call A-level service, including what it means to clients and how to differentiate ourselves from other practitioners," says Clemenson. "Then we turned it around the next month to look at how we could become an A-level organization in terms of how we treat employees and conduct our business. What's great is that the composition of the teams lets you see each issue from differing perspectives."

At the end of a brainstorming session, each team submits a formal write-up to the firm's executive committee, which reviews the reports—looking for consensus and convergence—and reports on findings and resultant actions at monthly staff meetings. Occasionally, the committee will assign a very focused follow-up topic to elicit more in-depth discussion and input.

"We believe the people at the top are now hearing everyone's voice instead of making unilateral decisions about the firm's future," says Clemenson. "And they're following up with us. When you're involved in effecting change, you're more accepting of it. It's the same concept as the CPA Vision Process."

The profession's efforts have inspired some other changes at the Montana firm. "Every business needs to sit down and do what our firm and profession are doing if it wants to be around in 10 or 20 years," Clemenson observes. "We've begun to look for issues that will have a long-term impact on our clients. And we're using them to make clients take the longer view as well." To help in identifying such issues, and improving client service in general, the firm is considering forming industry-specialization teams. This will require focused CPE training to broaden expertise in agriculture, construction, health care and other core industries.

For Clemenson, the most important impact of the CPA Vision Process on her firm has been intangible. "The process has given us confidence that we're heading in the right direction. It's been a giant validator, motivator and energizer. It's shown us that we're not outcasts. In fact, we may be leaders."

According to shareholder Ray Ellison, Tanner + Co. is another firm that began looking toward the future earlier than most. The firm, based in Salt Lake City, has a strong tax and audit practice—with a focus on publicly held and international businesses—balanced by management, litigation services, employee benefits and information technology (IT) consulting practices. Membership in the Associated Regional Accounting Firms (ARAF), which he describes as very future-focused, has given the firm a leg up, particularly in the area of technology.

But Ellison admits that even the farsighted need to be nudged forward now and again. In this case, the nudge came from the CPA Vision Process. The firm's four shareholders were already deeply involved in the initiative by the time Ellison attended his first Future Forum. He went on to serve as the Utah delegate to the National Future Forum.

"One of the things that's unique about the Vision Process is its attempt to build consensus within the profession," the Utah CPA observes. "The same thing has happened in our firm. The initiative has caused us to redefine where we're headed—what will differentiate us, what types of services to offer."

One service the shareholders deliberated over was CPA WebTrust assurance—a new service designed to inform potential customers that a CPA has thoroughly evaluated a company's Web site to assure that it uses sound business practices and controls when engaging in electronic commerce.

"We'd kicked the idea around but weren't sure we wanted to jump on the bandwagon early," says Ellison, who manages the firm's audit department. "The Future Forum gave us the impetus to become one of the first firms to register. We've been up and really rolling along since January."

Participating in the CPA Vision Process also helped the firm's four shareholders gain consensus on technology investments. "Anyone will tell you, IT is one of those investments that may not come out of the chute making money," Ellison observes. "You can get it off the ground slowly, piece by piece, or you can move quickly. To do the latter, you have to be willing to make a major outlay up front. The Future Forum helped us decide to make that kind of commitment and spurred us to counsel clients to do the same."

On a personal level, Ellison—who has been a member of the profession for 22 years, in both public accounting and industry—came away from the forums with "the realization that what makes CPAs unique is the position of trust we hold with our clients and the public," a trust he attributes to the profession's independent voice.

"As we go down the road with products and services, we need to keep this in mind," he says. "This is a really big issue, and one the Big 6 are wrestling with now: If we're providing all these other services to a client, are we still truly independent? I'm not sure the audit definition of independence ultimately matters. What does matter, however, is public perception. As we go forward—as both a firm and a profession—we need to maintain the position of trust that makes us unique."

When Lynne Lehr-Buck became involved in the CPA Vision Process as cofacilitator of the Future Forums held in Colorado last fall, she was at a turning point in her life.

During a decade in public accounting, she'd worked her way up to shareholder in a small firm specializing in tax and planning. Although there were aspects of the profession she liked, it didn't suit her as a whole.

"I always felt like a round peg in a square hole," Lehr-Buck says. "I didn't want to go on helping clients report history. I think people are frustrated with the information they get from our profession. It's old and of little value. They're looking forward six or nine months and we're telling them where they were three months ago. We get so hung up on working through tax season, we forget to look forward and keep up with a world and client needs that are changing very fast."

A specialist in counseling business owners in health care and other service industries on planning, she jumped to the industry sector as regional director of operations at a large physician-practice management company. The new job required long hours, and Lehr-Buck—the mother of two young children—felt "stretched to the max." She recalls a Sunday afternoon when she offered her husband $300 to do a load of laundry—an offer she insists was serious.

Two years into her industry career, Lehr-Buck had dinner with Mary Medley, executive director of the Colorado Society of CPAs, after the first of the Colorado Future Forums. She recalls Medley asking, "If you could do anything in the world, what would it be?" and herself replying, "Not what I'm doing now!" That night, Lehr-Buck recognized it was time to figure out she what wanted to do with her future.

The result of this introspection was the decision to leave both her job and accounting to seek an entrepreneurial opportunity in another field. What changed her mind about leaving the profession was the vision of its future that began emerging from the Future Forums Lehr-Buck was cofacilitating. January found her unemployed but at the National Future Forum as the Colorado delegate. "I'm the one listed as retired," she laughs.

"The forums made me realize that my skills and new goal—I want to help companies build businesses, as a partner—are actually in line with where the profession is heading. I just have to figure out how to get there today instead of waiting for the profession to evolve. Being self-employed will make me more nimble and flexible."

Long before the year 2011 arrives, Lehr-Buck intends to be the head of her own consulting firm, providing strategic planning services to other entrepreneurs and small businesses. "In my experience, one area where entrepreneurs really fall short is planning: developing a realistic vision statement, goals and budgets," the Colorado CPA says. "They need help in thinking things through, developing priorities and allocating resources. Too many of them adopt the ready-shoot-aim approach. I want to help them aim before they shoot."

Like so many businesses in the age of information, Lehr-Buck's will be home based. "This is the wave of the future, and women are driving it because it's a way to keep personal and professional priorities in balance," she says with conviction. "Corporate life forces you to give up just about everything except work and family. Part- and flex-time schedules do not sit well with big companies, no matter what they say publicly. Before I quit, I realized I wasn't doing any of the things I really enjoy."

Although she relishes the idea of working on her own, Lehr-Buck has no illusions about the effort involved in building a business. "I'll start small, building the skills I need and creating a network of referral services and resources to deploy on behalf of clients," she says. "I'll probably have to create a market because people don't readily think of CPAs as strategic planners. It's a natural fit for us, and we can provide real value if we can convince business owners that we're an investment, not an expense. That'll take hard work, but I plan to have fun along the way. There's more to life than a 20-hour day."

Catherine L. Carlozzi , is a corporate communications consultant and freelance writer based in New Jersey. She formerly served as associate national director of publications at Laventhol & Horwath.


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