Off the Beaten Path

CPAs’ skills and contacts are a flexible foundation for many enterprises.

CPAs CAN USE THEIR UNDERSTANDING of business structures, familiarity with financial reports and disciplined, analytic thinking to succeed at other endeavors. Those who have launched alternative or auxiliary careers emphasize the resources being a CPA can offer.

A SELDOM-TOUTED ASSET OF BEING A CPA, particularly in public practice, is that accountants have a window into diverse client companies. They’re aware of the most profitable ones, those that are interesting and those whose owners want to sell.

DUE DILIGENCE FOR CONSIDERING a new enterprise should include not only looking at the financials but also within yourself. Professionals who are considering a big change should consult advisers, family and perhaps a business coach and carefully think through their goals before making a decision.

CPAs CAN USE THEIR SKILLS as a foundation for preparing a company’s business plan, streamlining management, organizing finances more effectively, ramping up marketing efforts and initiating other steps that will optimize productivity and profitability.

PRACTITIONERS SHOULDN’T UNDERTAKE a big change without researching the market, having capital for the long haul, having a network of professional and personal support and caring about what they propose to do.

CPAs WHO ARE SATISFIED doing what they do can relax and enjoy the fact that they have an even wider range of professional options than they thought.

ELIZABETH DANZIGER is president of WorkTalk, a Los Angeles-based company offering writing training and consulting services to financial professionals. She writes frequently on communication skills. Her e-mail address is .

n this faster, leaner, meaner modern world, many professionals—by choice or necessity—will have more than one career before they reach retirement (and perhaps even another one after). Fortunately, the skills that make for being a successful CPA are an excellent foundation for a segue into another enterprise if the economic winds or your heart changes. Young practitioners can capitalize on the field’s broad-based financial knowledge to seize an entrepreneurial opportunity, and all CPAs can use their understanding of business structures, familiarity with financial reports, exposure to management styles and disciplined, analytical thinking to succeed at other endeavors. This article will help you answer key questions such as: What are my goals? What are my choices? Should I buy a business or start a new one? What pitfalls should I be aware of? It also profiles a few practitioners who have launched alternative or auxiliary careers. Their experiences show some of the opportunities available to CPAs and point out skills they found useful.

Job Satisfaction
Almost three-quarters of entrepreneurial America—those who classify themselves as self-employed or as the owners of small businesses—say that being self-employed is their dream job.

Source: Monthly Hudson Employment Index, .

One seldom-touted asset of being a CPA, particularly in public practice, is that you have a window into diverse client companies. You’re aware of the most profitable ones, those that interest you and those whose owners want to sell. Sometimes a good opportunity just comes your way—perhaps a client asks you to work for or buy into his or her company or a spin-off, a former colleague mentions an interesting business is for sale or you hear about a lead at a chamber of commerce meeting. Due diligence should include looking not only at the financials but also at yourself. Consult your advisers, family and perhaps a business coach and think through your goals. Answer questions such as

What would I accomplish by making a career change? If your aim is to broaden your professional scope, starting your own firm or adding a business valuation, technology consulting or personal financial planning niche may bring new depth to your career (see AICPA Resources ). If it’s to pursue deferred dreams, another kind of change may be right for you.

Is my job likely to be downsized? If the answer is yes, develop a fallback plan.

What would I enjoy doing—and where? When you visualize the answer to this, pay attention to what you’re most excited about. Is it spending more time with people, earning more money, working in a new occupation, serving the public good, seeing direct results from your work, having more time to pursue special interests or something else?

What would I like to be doing in five years? Imagine yourself five years after a career change and five years after you retire.

Do I want an entrepreneurial retirement? If you think work will keep you alert, active and engaged, it is possible you do.

How can I use my strengths as a CPA to create success in a new field? List all your professional assets and strengths, both intangible (what you know) and tangible (your credentials and contacts). What skills prepare you to be a manager or owner? Analyze the full set of aptitudes you can bring to a new business.

A business opportunity already may be present for you within your network of associates. Answering questions such as those above will help you to evaluate possibilities as they come your way. As the French philosopher Blaise Pascal said, “Chance favors the prepared mind.”

You can use your CPA skills for preparing a company’s business plan, streamlining management, organizing finances more effectively, ramping up marketing efforts and optimizing productivity. Here’s what being a CPA has equipped you with:

You can analyze financial statements. This mainstay of CPA work lets you review and understand the financial health of any enterprise that interests you.

You know how to structure a business. While some would-be entrepreneurs are dithering over C corporations, S corporations and limited partnerships, you already know the business model that will serve you best.

You know how to market your skills. Every successful CPA is an adept self-promoter.

You know how to manage the financial side of a business. Whether you have hands-on experience in financial management or vicarious experience through clients, your CPA skills are a strength in any enterprise.

You have helped businesses grow. If you have worked in finance or consulting, you can apply such knowledge to your own business.

Experience has shown you the risky side of business, too, so proceed cautiously. The basic choices are to buy a company, buy a franchise or start a new business. Buying an existing company often has the advantage of offering a guaranteed income stream from day one, a physical plant and—if you’re satisfied with the way the business is run—trustworthy management. But a potential drawback of buying an entity is that it may have entrenched problems. Still, sources say it is easier to work with an existing business.

While starting a business gives you maximum control over the structure and focus of the enterprise, it is riskier than buying an existing one. If you think you might want to make the leap into something new, organize an approach:

Make a plan. If you have an idea for a business, start writing a business plan. The process will make your ideas more concrete.

Look for new possibilities. Watch for opportunities in and out of the field. Do you have a client who is looking to sell his or her business? Do you see a market for a spin-off business? Perhaps your client will want to be part of the new enterprise.

Tell friends and colleagues you are looking for a business to invest in. Go to chamber of commerce meetings and other places where you will meet businesspeople. The best opportunities often come from friends and their circle of acquaintances.

Research carefully. For example, if you are interested in purchasing a franchise, research the market and the company carefully. Study the financial statements of the target company. Speak to several current franchise owners, and get a solid estimate of how much the franchise will cost you.

Work with a business broker. A good one can match you up with a business that won’t break your budget and will fit your interests. For instance, one of the largest national brokerage services is Sunbelt Business Advisors at .

Don’t undertake a big change without analyzing the market, having capital for the long haul, having a network of professional and personal support and caring about what you propose to do. The choice to reinvent yourself involves trade-offs. For some, the risk-taking element of starting a business can be exhilarating, while others will find it terrifying. Here are some people who are finding pleasure and success in using their CPA knowledge as the underpinning of other careers.

Kick-Starting a New Trade
Brian Cardozo, CPA, was a partner at BDO Seidman where he specialized in helping midsize companies grow. When he decided to buy a Harley-Davidson dealership in San Jose, California, he was able to apply all he had learned about effective business practices to gearing up his franchise. By focusing on customer satisfaction, offering excellent repair service and expanding the sales of ancillary Harley-Davidson products, Cardozo increased the business by 50% in two years, transforming a small local shop into a leading dealership in the San Francisco Bay area. “We applied the lessons of the ’90s to a business that hadn’t changed since the ’60s,” Cardozo says. “I wrote a business plan, which I update every year. I’ve also established a marketing plan and set specific goals for our return on investment. My ability to analyze the company’s financial data has been enormously helpful. The emphasis on customer service also has yielded big results.”

From Accountant to High School Teacher
Greg DeVito, CPA, always loved coaching soccer and working with kids. After seven years at an accounting firm in West Hartford, Connecticut, he decided to reduce his hours as a CPA so he could take a second job teaching accounting at a local high school. His firm was flexible enough to allow him to work evenings and weekends on tax returns while he spent his daytime hours teaching and coaching. As his teaching position increased from part-time to full-time, he gave up his accounting firm position.

DeVito went to night school to get his teaching certificate and got his first job through a client when the firm audited the school district. He mentioned his plans to a clerk in the superintendent’s office, and she told him there was an opening in business education coming up soon. “Through the audit work, I knew the superintendent and principal at E.O. Smith high school in Storrs, Connecticut, so they felt comfortable hiring me,” he says. He now is in his fifth year. When he began teaching, there were 15 accounting students in the school. Today there are 75. Besides bringing in an FBI agent guest lecturer to talk to his class about financial fraud, terrorism and forensic accounting, here is what else he does to generate excitement:

To teach students about the power of money, one class project is a variation on the game of Monopoly. Students play for four periods, each of which represents a fiscal quarter. They manually record entries in a general journal on the cash basis every time cash changes hands, with the option to record receivables if they choose to extend credit. They make entries for depreciation and interest on any loans and closing entries at the end of the game.

Each quarter students update an Excel spreadsheet that organizes journal entries and serves as their general ledger, giving them balances and ensuring they remain in balance after each entry. They create financial statements (balance sheet, income statement and statement of changes) and track their return on investments by properly showing the amount they invested in land and houses vs. what they collected or earned in the trade or sale of each individual property.

They also perform simple ratio analysis—current, debt to equity, working capital and return on sales—and summarize this information in relation to their business and to other businesses in the industry (their classmates). Finally, they prepare a simple “annual report”; summarize their strategies, successes, difficulties and results of operations; and look at the future based on where they leave off in the game.

DeVito, who also coaches two boys’ club teams, year-round and one of the school’s girls’ varsity teams, says, “I earn less than I would have as an accountant but I love going to work every day and that makes it worthwhile.” His advice: “Decide what is really important to you. Life’s too short not to do something you want to do.”

Auto Racing Is Lucrative Fun
Before he became the owner of a car-racing track, Patrick Joffrion, CPA, of Belle Rose, Louisiana, was in a family-run accounting firm for 25 years. He ultimately became sole owner of the firm and also was financial officer for the local government. Although he needed to spend more time on administering the business rather than on day-to-day accounting, Joffrion found his clients valued his input and kept asking for his help with their businesses. “I was stressed,” he says. He decided to sell the firm to his employees but chose not to leave abruptly. “It’s about an eight-year transition to get out of your own firm.”

During his years as an accountant, Joffrion had traveled throughout the South, learning about his clients’ companies and analyzing ways to make them more successful. He also bought and sold a variety of businesses and used his imagination in developing some new ones. Although he enjoys starting new enterprises, he does not recommend it for all practitioners. “If you’ve been displaced because of downsizing, starting your own business is kind of tough. It’s easier to buy an existing business,” he says. “A CPA can analyze a business to see how it can make more money. I’ve seen accountants go into service stations, convenience stores and other fields.”

Understanding the financial side is easier for trained accountants than for non-CPAs, but “if you don’t get out with your customers, see how their businesses work and find out what they’re doing right, you just know how to add one and one.” Joffrion feels an entrepreneur has to bring more than financial skills to the table; he or she has to know how to “get the business in the door.” He says, “The best thing I can recommend is to be observant. Leave town and see what’s happening in other places. Open your eyes, take notes, then go back to your own area, identify the need and try to fill it.”

When Joffrion left his accounting firm, he took his own advice. A motor-sports enthusiast, he knew people had to travel to northern Louisiana or as far as Texas to find a place to race their cars. “There was no top-notch racing strip in Louisiana,” he says. With the help of a few friends, he built a car-racing course and a road course. (A drag-racing strip is an oval such as the kind one would see in the Indy 500; a road course has 14 turns and requires a different kind of driving.) “We invested $6 million, but now we can gross as much as $300,000 in a single weekend,” he says with pride.

Joffrion keeps close watch on the financial side of the business. He still does his own general ledger and personally enters data for every paycheck, expense check and deposit. He now has 12 full-time employees; the staff increases to 40 or 50 helpers during weekends when there are races. “It was a big risk to take, but along with big risks often come big rewards,” he says. The appraised value of the racing business is up $2 million from its actual cost in the past two years. He already has received several overtures from people who want to buy it.

“I might just accept an offer and head to the Caribbean with my lovely wife,” Joffrion says.

Personal Passion Into “Healthy” Profits
Heather Johnson-Moreno, CPA, who in 1996 founded PeopleFit USA, a California-based telephone-coaching fitness company, developed her business from an activity she loved. A former manager at KPMG, Johnson-Moreno gave it all up to devote herself to helping busy professionals include exercise and good dietary practices in their lives (see “ To Your Health, JofA , Sep.03, page 65). She uses her accounting experience to help organize and market her services to corporations that want to provide fitness coaching to their employees.

Johnson-Moreno recommends that potential entrepreneurs get advice from the Small Business Administration about starting and funding a business and that they join a support group with whom they can brainstorm ideas. Informal groups and business groups such as the National Association of Women Business Owners (NAWBO), chambers of commerce and other professional organizations are important sources of information, she says. Entrepreneurship seminars and motivational audiotapes also can help you keep your eye on the goal.

Renaissance Entrepreneur
Terry Nolan, CPA, owner of Standard Printing Co. in Canton, Ohio, has bought 10 different companies over the past 20 years. “Each time I was able to step into the business and learn about it as I went along,” he says. Nolan had his CPA credential and an MBA by the time he was 23. He was working for a regional CPA firm when an auto-dealership client who admired his expertise offered him a job. He agreed on the condition that he be able to invest in the company. It was a family-owned enterprise so they became business partners in an auto franchise instead. Since then he has manufactured large signs (including a life-size neon car) for companies, constructed aircraft hangars, made brick molds and developed a start-up company that manufactures church-collection envelopes. His training as a CPA helped him every step of the way.

“Business is about people and taking care of them and knowing how to use money. Every business has people and money,” he says. “A CPA learns to manage money, which helps in becoming an entrepreneur.” What’s so great about being an accountant is that you can take the CPA designation and use it to make a transition into almost any industry. “Take chances while you’re young,” Nolan says. “If you’re a hard worker, there’s always another opportunity around the corner.”

Leveraging a Switch
Randy Lane, CPA, served as an investment officer with Ford Motor Credit Co./U.S. Leasing and then as a partner at Arthur Andersen, specializing in utilities and capital leasing. He says: “When Andersen laid off most of its employees, I decided not to go back into accounting. I grew up in the firm and I wasn’t ready to switch cultures or loyalties.” Instead, he applied his knowledge of identifying, evaluating, structuring and executing leveraged lease investments to become head of a company that provides finance solutions for capital equipment, facilities and real estate assets.

His knowledge of lease accounting has helped him to structure a company, understand business controls and market to customers according to their tax position. This financial expertise enabled him to become president and CEO of Fort Street Capital in Detroit. “I went into accounting to understand how successful businesses are organized and run,” he says. It worked.

Transcription Benefits
John Langley, CPA, of Med-Scribe in Jacksonville, Florida, developed his medical transcribing company by following up on opportunities that presented themselves in his accounting practice. As a CPA he worked with many physicians. He began his transition to the medical transcription business when the wife of a client developed a service that helped physicians put the correct diagnostic codes on their insurance claims. Langley advised her in the start-up process, and she ultimately offered him a 20% interest in return for his help in expanding the business. Soon he saw the need for a medical transcription service and they started his present business, of which he was 50% owner and CEO. Eventually he bought her out by “trading up” until it was his own enterprise. “I was always looking for opportunities,” he says. His Internet-based business currently has 350 employees worldwide, most of whom work from home. Med-Scribe serves physicians throughout the United States. Its outside auditor is his CPA firm from his first job after college—and he still is a practicing CPA.

Family Time…Priceless
Some CPAs look beyond traditional accounting because they seek more family time or an opportunity to work in a more relaxed environment. Scott Riley, CPA, of Easy Way Electronics in Elizabeth, New Jersey, gave up his career as a high-ranking finance executive for the independence and flexibility of owning a small business. After years as a practicing CPA, he became controller of a $500 million division of a large conglomerate and, subsequently, an assistant vice-president of finance for a top pharmaceutical company. Riley found his electronics repair business through personal networking. When he heard about it being for sale, “I recognized I had the knowledge to build a client base,” he says.

Riley earns less than he would have if he’d stayed in the corporate world, but the benefits of having more time with his family far outweigh the costs. “I didn’t want to be a stranger in my own home,” he says. Although owning your own business doesn’t always mean you’ll have more time with family, his wife says she has never seen him “work so hard or be home so much.” In fact, he now works about 50 hours a week vs. 60 but is able to take five or six weeks of vacation each year and a couple of days “here and there” to fish and play golf.

Riley says his CPA training has helped him “view the business as a business, not a mom-and-pop operation.” It helps him to be cognizant of current and future costs and to evaluate changes in the market that affect development. He has quadrupled the number of employees and quintupled the size of his company by buying and merging with two more businesses of the same type.


Inventory your strengths and weaknesses.

Assess your degree of comfort with taking risks. Decide what is really important to you.

Write up a business plan. Putting it in black and white will make your idea more concrete.

Look for new possibilities—for example, through your network you might hear about a client who wants to sell his or her business.

Go other places to see what’s happening—be observant, take notes, then go back to your area, identify the need and try to fill it.

Get advice from the Small Business Administration about starting and funding a small business.

Join a support group of entrepreneurial people with whom to brainstorm ideas. Informal groups and business groups are important sources of information and support.

Stop billing by the hour and restructure pricing for more job satisfaction and to discover more time to pursue other interests.

Maintain a part-time practice to stay current and to supplement your new enterprise.

Comedian “Debitman” Has Serious Ideas
Frank Page, CPA, who bills himself as “Florida’s Funniest CPA,” says, “Life is too short and you’re dead too long, so have fun right now.” A certified public accountant for more than 20 years, Page is president of his own firm, Business Development Partners Inc. in Orlando, Florida. For the past 13 years, he also has worked as a stand-up comic, spoofing the accounting profession in comedy clubs and business conventions nationwide. He recently wrote his first book, Exercise From a Lawn Chair. Page (his performance persona is “DebitMan”) is out to shatter the myth of the humorless accountant with his comedy routine. He takes the stage and proclaims himself the “Champion of the World Accounting Federation” and proceeds to poke fun at virtually all of the profession’s stereotypes.

Page reorganized his firm completely to create the time to pursue his passion for comedy. He is a champion of value pricing. He says: “I used to do hundreds of returns for individuals and corporations. Then I fired a bunch of customers and raised my rates.” The biggest change he made in his business was to stop billing by the hour. “We do not sell hours,” he says. “We sell deliverables.” He advises other practitioners to consider restructuring their pricing if they are looking for more job satisfaction and more time to pursue other interests. “You work fewer hours per week and earn more money,” he says. Because he has fewer, more profitable clients, he is able to nurture long-term business relationships with his most valuable ones (and that’s no joke).

From Practitioner to Professor
Joanie Sompayrac, CPA, spent a year as a tax accountant at Arthur Andersen before deciding to study law in Cincinnati. During law school and for two years after getting her JD she worked for Coopers & Lybrand. From there she moved to Ernst & Young and, after a brief stint, decided education was her passion. So she took the leap into academia.

“While I always enjoyed the work in tax, I felt I was using my skills for the wrong causes,” says Sompayrac, who admits to being an altruist by nature. “My clients gave little to charity, and that bothered me. So my first job at the university was working as director of planned giving.” She held this position for five years while teaching in the business college part-time. When a full-time job opened up, the dean of the college asked her to apply, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Sompayrac has been teaching accounting, tax and business law full-time for six years. “I love it,” she says. “I try to impress on my students that being a CPA will let them do anything. It has opened doors for me.” She still maintains a tax practice with about 30 clients to help her stay current and to supplement her university salary. “The transition has been challenging in many ways,” she says. “But I cannot imagine doing anything differently.”

These stories suggest how the range of analytical, financial and marketing skills CPA training and experience provide can be used to follow your dreams in many fields. Focusing on your personal values and passions may enable you to see how you can use your CPA training as a basis for new career opportunities if that’s what you want. But if it turns out you’re happy doing what you do—well, relax and enjoy the fact that you have options.


Specialty designations

For inquiries about the Accredited in Business Valuation (ABV) program, write to or call the accreditations and membership section hot line at 212-596-6211. To learn more go to .

The AICPA Certified Information Technology Professional designation (CITP) is designed specifically for CPAs who serve as their organization’s technology liaison. The CITP credential is available to CPAs from a wide range of skill levels and disciplines, including public practice, consulting, industry, government and education, .

CPAs and other professionals who provide, or would like to provide, personal financial planning services to individuals and families can join the personal financial planning (PFP) section. The AICPA credential for CPAs who specialize in PFP is the PFS credential; to learn more about it, see .

CPA Career Center

AICPA members can search job postings, locate candidates for open positions, assess personal strengths and development needs and access other career-related resources. To learn more go to .


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