Managing Change

Interview with incoming AICPA chairman.
BY ROBERT TIE

Robert L. Bunting, chairman and CEO of Moss Adams LLP in Seattle, assumed the AICPA chairmanship at the Institute’s annual meeting. His acceptance speech will appear verbatim in a future issue of the JofA .

oss Adams is in the vanguard of midsize firms skilled at serving an international clientele. It’s also recognized for its progressive approach to practice management in the 21st century and for bringing women and members of minority groups closer to proportionate representation in the profession’s ranks. After guiding the firm’s evolution in these areas over more than two decades, Bunting is eager to apply his experience to the various challenges the profession and the Institute face on a national—and even global—level. He shared his thoughts on these issues during a recent interview with the JofA .

CAREER DEVELOPMENT
JofA: What were your best and worst career moves?

Bunting: They occurred within a few weeks of each other in 1981, when I was one of three candidates the Moss Adams board of directors was considering for CEO. As the youngest and least experienced, I didn’t expect to receive serious consideration and therefore made little effort to distinguish myself. But my wisest adviser—my wife—did not share my doubts and inspired me to convince the board I was indeed a viable candidate. Now, 23 years after being chosen to lead my firm, I continue to believe that my decision to persevere—against what then seemed like long odds—changed the course of my life for the better.

JofA: Did you have mentors? If so, what advice did they offer when you entered the profession?

Bunting: Early in my career, I was fortunate enough to be “adopted” by seasoned people who saw in me something worth nurturing. Later I developed the courage to approach people who could teach me how to improve myself. Eventually, the number of people I saw as potential mentors grew and I routinely sought their advice and counsel; I don’t recall anyone ever refusing to take an interest. More than one of them instilled in me the confidence to do more than I had thought possible. As a result I believe that personal and professional growth often depends on being comfortable with taking calculated risks and allowing your reach to exceed your grasp.

JofA: Does your firm have a formal mentoring program?

Bunting: Yes. It focuses on professionals who’ve demonstrated a passion for excellence, which is one of the professional attributes on which our firm places a high value. To each employee with this fervor we assign a mentor who sustains and focuses that motivation. The mentors report to a leadership development group that also tracks the individuals’ progress and schedules them for appropriate leadership training and challenging, instructive assignments.

PRACTICE MANAGEMENT
JofA: What is the biggest issue facing your firm, and what are you doing to address it?

Bunting: Our greatest challenge is attracting and retaining outstanding employees. We’ve been fairly successful at recruiting them, but the rise in Sarbanes-Oxley compliance work and the economic recovery have intensified competition for the best people. Because we recruit entry-level staff directly from college, we have about three years to persuade them to spend their entire career with us. At the same time, though, our clients and others are vigorously competing with us for these talented people, so we can’t take anything for granted.

JofA: What are the most important skills you seek among job candidates?

Bunting: As a midsize firm, we can impart valuable skills to anyone with the right attitude and a history of achievement, such as earning above-average grades in their discipline. We greatly prefer such candidates because we’re confident they can develop any necessary skills they don’t already possess. Our focus is on whether they subscribe to the values most important to our firm: integrity, passion for excellence, lifelong learning, leading by example, a balance between work and personal life and respect for others. These values guide us throughout our careers; professionals who share them are likely to do well in our firm.

JofA: How does your firm foster the advancement of women and minorities? What will you do to help the profession focus on these issues?

Bunting: It’s not easy to maintain a sufficient number of role models whose success inspires others who feel any form of kinship with them, but we’ve made considerable progress in this area. For example, those of our firm’s partners who are women manage offices, lead industry groups and have served on our board of directors. They help shape our policies and attract other women who are interested in a public accounting career. Over the past several years, roughly half of our entry-level hires have been women; so have an average of more than 40% of the new partners we’ve appointed during the past three years. While there’s more progress to be made, I believe our achievements in this area encourage women to view a career with us as a sound strategy.

Although our partners include several minority group members, we do not consider this a great success for our firm or the profession, and we need to do even more. We have been successful in attracting minority group members to our California practice because that state’s accounting student population is ethnically diverse, and our hiring record reflects that.

Elsewhere in the nation, though, this is a serious challenge best met at its source—by attracting more minorities to college accounting programs. In my view the AICPA student recruitment program—along with the AICPA’s and state societies’ support for minority scholarship programs—is the most effective long-term response to this challenge.

JofA: How does workplace flexibility allow your firm to maximize its productivity?

Bunting: Our flexible-working-arrangement program is improving our overall efficiency and helping us find a proper balance between work and personal time, which is one of our core values. Much of our success in this regard is based on our belief that flextime can’t succeed unless every employee is sensitive to his or her colleagues’ needs and rights. If we place a high value on having a work/life balance in our own lives, we must have the same consideration for others.

JofA: How do you maintain your firm’s position as one of the more progressive in the profession?

Bunting: Although everyone in our profession has access to the same information about trends and developments, each firm has its own tolerance level for embracing change and its attendant risks. Every year my firm considers new strategies to capitalize on opportunities and attract talented professionals and desirable clients. When we make a move, we aren’t always the quickest or the most nimble, but we are very persistent. Change is difficult, especially when you’re already successful, and of course, there’s always the chance of making a misstep or encountering a blind spot. But those who persevere find each successive change easier, more interesting and less threatening than its predecessor.

INTERNATIONAL
JofA: What opportunities and challenges does the convergence of international accounting standards provide for U.S. firms and their clients?

Bunting: Because we’re on the West Coast and focus on small and midsize businesses, we have hundreds of international clients. Most have limited funding for in-house accounting expertise, so they often turn to us for help with international accounting issues, most often for converting foreign financial statements to U.S. GAAP. We expect our focus to gradually shift to consolidations under international standards. Because small and midsize U.S. companies are doing more and more international business, smaller firms will have to improve their capacity to support the needs of their growing international clientele. AICPA members, especially small practices, can rely on the Institute’s nationwide resources for the education, technical publications and other resources they need.

JofA: What should U.S. and foreign companies and their accountants and auditors have learned from financial reporting failures in the United States and Europe?

Bunting: In the aftermath of the Enron and WorldCom financial reporting failures, similar problems at Parmalat and other European companies made it clear that questionable auditing and weak corporate governance can occur anywhere. The entire world benefits from efficient capital markets, and when a few companies undermine confidence in them, everyone pays the price in the form of increased regulation and a higher cost of capital.

I believe that the worldwide auditing profession has recommitted itself to rebuilding trust in its essential service and in the professionals and firms that provide it. Corporate managers have squarely faced the legal, financial and reputational consequences of poor corporate governance and a lack of transparency. While greed and manipulation of results will not disappear, standards of performance, oversight and ethical behavior have risen in all quarters.

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