The Last Word: Tonya Varner


Senior consultant, Anderson ZurMuehlen & Co.
Operation CPA volunteer
Billings, Mont.

I majored in accounting because I wanted to do something in business but didn’t know what—and I figured an accounting degree would give me more options in whatever I chose to do. The best thing about public accounting is the chance to communicate with and help a variety of people instead of just being behind a computer.

I started my public accounting career at a Big Four firm, but I wanted to be in town more than that position allowed. I was referred to Anderson ZurMuehlen & Co. PC (AZ), a regional firm located primarily in Montana, by a college acquaintance. Working at AZ allowed me to get involved with my community, in things such as Operation CPA, the Montana State Society’s Financial Literacy program for deployed soldiers and their families. My father has been in the National Guard all my life; he’s a command sergeant major. So I have a very personal tie. It’s not our parents’ war any more; it’s our brothers and sisters and loved ones who are on the battlefield. At one Operation CPA meeting we provided a briefing for 200 soldiers and their families: We gave them tax and financial information, a summary of financial issues to think about—such as getting a power of attorney—and lists of CPAs who are involved in the program and willing to give advice at reduced cost.

I sat for the CPA exam the day before I graduated and passed the first time. It would have been extremely difficult for me to study for it after I started working.

I enjoy working in public accounting. I’ve worked in various areas, but my primary specialty is construction—home and commercial builders. My previous experience was in banks and financial institutions, but AZ’s niche in the construction area provided a great opportunity for me to move into the industry.

I grew up in Terry, a town of 600 people, where my dad’s been the mayor for more than 20 years. My parents taught me the values of small-town America. I think it’s important to give back to the community that helped to raise me. And I enjoy volunteering. In addition to working with Operation CPA, I’m a senior high school youth adviser at my church; I work with Relay for Life, a fundraising program of the American Cancer Society; I serve on the boards of the Billings chapter of the Montana Society of CPAs and the MSU-Billings Campus Ministries. This month, I’ll be cutting my hair, which I’ve been growing for the past 18 months, and donating it to Locks of Love, a charity that makes wigs for children who have lost their hair.

I’ve had a lot of mentors. In public accounting you learn from the people ahead of you more than anything else; the practical application is very different from the theory you learn in school. My advice to new CPAs is not to get discouraged about how much you don’t know. Experience will help connect the academic knowledge with the real-life applications. And take time for yourself. Hold onto something you really, truly enjoy. I love running and being outdoors. So I make time to enjoy it, even just to take a break from work.


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