The Profession’s Roots.

Reestablishing integrity as CPAs’ primary focus is job no. 1 for the new AICPA chairman.
BY ROBERT TIE

or S. Scott Voynich, a CPA’s most important asset is his or her reputation for honesty and fairness. It’s not that the new chairman—who assumed his post in October at the Institute’s annual meeting—doesn’t recognize the value of competence. As managing partner for the last 15 years of Robinson, Grimes & Co., a 55-person CPA firm in Columbus, Georgia, that earns half its revenue by providing tax services, he’s well aware of the importance of technical proficiency. But Voynich is passionately committed to directing the profession’s, the regulators’ and the public’s attention to the professional characteristics that had earned CPAs much of the prestige they always have enjoyed. “Competence can be purchased anywhere,” he said while sitting for a recent interview with the JofA , “but without integrity and objectivity, you don’t have value.”

Armed with that conviction, Voynich sees emphasizing trust in the profession as a fully pragmatic response to the challenges—regulatory, legislative, perceptual and otherwise—now confronting individual CPAs of all types and the profession as a whole.

By doing so, he aims to ensure that the Institute continues to function as a trustworthy and informed adviser that provides regulators, standard setters, legislators and state boards of accountancy with the “front-lines” feedback they need to understand the practical impact of the restrictions and obligations they place on CPAs. And that, he believes, eventually will restore balance to the regulatory environment and forestall rules or laws with unintended negative consequences for the economy, public and private companies, investors and clients.

BELIEF IN THE PROFESSION
A recent Gallup poll showed that CPAs’ public image had regained some of the luster it lost during the last two years’ corporate accounting scandals. And while pessimists may wonder whether practitioners will ever again achieve the degree of public trust they once enjoyed, others see the profession’s current travails as a short-lived aberration.

Voynich places himself squarely in the latter camp. “The profession’s image problem in part was caused by CPAs who failed to follow the rules, not by a lack of regulatory oversight,” he said. “Consequently, we have to take action against those practitioners who violate the code of ethics. And we all should remain mindful of our core values of integrity, competence and objectivity and live by them on a daily basis.”

Being faithful to those values requires devotion to the profession—something Voynich first felt when he became a junior accountant. In February 1975, as a college senior majoring in accounting at the University of Georgia, Voynich drove three hours from his home in Athens to Columbus where, he had heard, an accounting position was available. It was a Saturday, but that didn’t deter Voynich from making the trip and knocking on the door of the firm’s seemingly closed offices. Eventually someone answered. A partner of the firm, though busy in the midst of tax season, took the time to discuss career prospects and ended up offering him a job after graduation. Thrilled, Voynich was on his way to becoming a CPA.

S. Scott Voynich says competence can be purchased anywhere, but without integrity and objectivity, you don’t have value.

When he started at that firm, where he still works today, another factor sparked Voynich’s enthusiasm for the profession in a way he hadn’t anticipated. “Until I began work, I didn’t fully appreciate how honorable our profession is. For instance, if nonclients called, wanting to change CPA firms, we tried to identify and resolve the problems they had with their existing CPAs; that’s how collegial the profession was. And there never was a doubt—you did the ethical thing, even if it was costly.” Refocusing on the present, Voynich was optimistic. “We haven’t abandoned those beliefs,” he said. “We just need to remind ourselves of them.” He realizes the profession’s scope of services and its business opportunities have expanded but is confident its values have remained constant.

And another thing hasn’t changed, he said. “My brothers and I all majored in accounting because it gave us the most career choices, and that’s still true today.” One also is a partner in Robinson, Grimes; the other is a tax specialist at a Fortune 100 company. And Voynich has two sons majoring in accounting. So whenever he speaks to college and high school students, he tells them that if they’re not sure exactly what career path to follow, but are interested in the business world, they should get a degree in accounting, gain some work experience and make an informed career choice from the many opportunities to which they’ll be exposed.

The AICPA student recruitment campaign echoes this theme and encourages accountants to obtain the additional education and experience they need to sit for the CPA examination. To encourage those daunted by the famously difficult test, Voynich described his initial experience with it. “Maybe this will give people some heart,” he said. “In May of my senior year, after preparing for about 30 minutes, I took the CPA exam and got exactly what I deserved when the grades came out in August—a rejection. At that point I understood what it took, committed myself fully, took the exam again in November 1975 and was fortunate enough to complete all four parts.” Then, after gaining the two years’ experience Georgia requires, Voynich became a CPA in 1977.

Both Voynich and Robinson, Grimes have come a long way since then. The firm performs audits for cities, counties and municipal authorities and provides a wide array of other services including accounting and technology consulting for nonprofit organizations, construction and real estate companies, medical practices, manufacturers, retail operations and wholesale distributorships. “Our clients include many family businesses,” he said. “We know the people and their issues. It’s our responsibility to keep an eye out for their best interests in everything we do.” Which brings Voynich back to the theme that has galvanized his resolve—“to reemphasize our core values of integrity, competence and objectivity” as CPAs’ primary focus.

As part of his firm’s orientation process, Voynich tells new employees that if they do their jobs right as their clients’ most trusted advisers, they’ll know those clients better than their doctors, lawyers, ministers or rabbis and sometimes spouses do. “We learn what they invest in, what they care about, what causes they contribute to, who will take over the family business when they pass away and who they have confidence in,” he says. “And if a client finds out he or she has a terminal illness, often we’re the first stop on the way home from the doctor. The client will say: ‘Here’s what happened. I need to finish that estate plan you’ve been after me about for so long. Give me a couple of weeks with my family to tell them about this before I sit down with you.’

“It would be a travesty of justice if that kind of relationship was restricted by legislation passed to address problems related to publicly held companies,” Voynich said. “It’s my favorite part of what we do. We have relationships with second- and third-generation clients, and it’s not because we’re the smartest. It’s because they trust us.”

COOPERATING TO MAKE PROGRESS
Having worked virtually his entire 28-year career—he spent a year helping a Robinson, Grimes client restructure itself in the early 1980s—with the same firm, Voynich is acutely aware of the specter of potential state legislation—modeled on the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002—that could overwhelm small practices under a cascade of regulations more suited to the larger firms that audit publicly held companies registered with the SEC.

But long ago he learned the advantages of collaborating with groups and bodies he respected and working toward a consensus with them to achieve results that met the needs of everyone involved.

Voynich believes Congress reacted in the best way possible at the time when it passed the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002. “Creating the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board (PCAOB) drew a very clear line in the sand, and that was essential to reassure the public that necessary reforms would take place for public companies,” he said. Similarly, he understands the motives of state legislators intent on protecting their citizens from additional financial failures.

“So we support the changes imposed by the Sarbanes-Oxley Act and we’ll work with them,” he said, “but we’re going to continue to stay attuned to the practical effect of these rules. Our goal is to work cooperatively with the PCAOB, the SEC and Congress as they look at the next iteration of this process and give them the quality professional feedback that we can. No one is doing the audits except CPAs. No one else in the financial community is performing the roles CPAs play. We’re the ones who have to give the feedback on what’s the right answer, what’s working and what isn’t.”

As far as discipline is concerned, Voynich said, the corporate accounting failures of the last two years have made it essential for the profession’s disciplinary process to become more transparent so the public can learn about ethics-related complaints and their resolution. “We have to reassure the public we’re disciplining CPAs who need it and our enforcement activities are fair, thorough and timely,” he said. He emphasized that due process, while time-consuming, must be observed. “We all want conclusions as soon as an allegation is made; that’s not possible, but the process is becoming more transparent.

“In addition, we’ve had great working relationships with the state boards of accountancy over the years and have provided resources not supplied by the state governments,” he said. “We did so in order for the state boards to carry out some of their roles and responsibilities, and we wish to continue that. Ultimately, it’s going to require more investment at the state level to give state boards—the true licensing authorities—the resources they need.

“But the states often redirect the boards’ funding to other organizations, preventing boards from carrying out all their responsibilities,” he said. “So, everywhere it’s possible and appropriate you’ll see state societies and CPAs volunteering time and talent to help the state boards fulfill their roles.”

THE POINT OF IT ALL
As Voynich sees it, people want and deserve trustworthy advisers to help them manage the present and prepare for the future. “The highest compliment,” he said, “is when someone seeks you out for advice—not because you’re the smartest—but because they believe in you, they trust you, they value your opinion and they know that what you’re going to give them is your best thinking. And that’s the joy of practicing as a CPA, no matter where you do it—in public or private practice, government or education.”

As the early days of Voynich’s term swiftly pass, he is continuing his practice—begun last year when he was vice-chairman—of meeting with regulators, members, legislators and others on Sarbanes-Oxley and other professional issues. And each day he’ll remind CPAs that their best growth strategy is to continue infusing everything they do with integrity and objectivity.

ROBERT TIE is a senior editor with the Journal of Accountancy. Mr. Tie is an employee of the American Institute of CPAs. His views, as expressed in this article, do not necessarily reflect the views of the AICPA. Official positions are determined through certain specific committee procedures, due process and deliberation.

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