The Last Word: David Berger

A closer look at some of the intriguing, inspiring and imaginative folks who are the heart of the AICPA.

Corporate controller
New York, New York

My brother and I were born the same year and were in the same grade in school. He wanted to be a lawyer and I wanted to be something different. I was always good with numbers, and I saw accounting as an entre into the business world, and a CPA certification as something that could take me down many different paths. So I went to Wharton undergrad, worked at Touche Ross, got my CPA certificate and married the girl who had lived next door to me in the freshman dorm. Then I went back to school for my MBA at the University of Chicago.

In the course of my career, the companies I worked for were sold six times—and yet each turned out to be an opportunity. After grad school I started in manufacturing at American Can, which at one point gave us all two months to relocate to Chicago. Instead I decided to move to a new industry, publishing, at Simon and Schuster. I started as head of planning and then took over the controllership function as well, plus I worked on a number of acquisitions and sales. When I left there I joined VNU, a global corporation with dual headquarters in Amsterdam and New York, as CFO of its U.S.-based businesses. In August I was named senior vice president and corporate controller, with continued oversight of real estate and purchasing.

VNU has 38,000 employees in more than 100 countries. Our business is primarily business-to-business marketing and media information; among many things, we own Nielsen Media Research, the company that does the television ratings.

We’re currently planning to do a listing on the New York Stock Exchange, probably in the summer of 2006, so we’re undergoing a dual transformation of our financial reporting. We were under Dutch GAAP through 2004. Starting in 2005 European-listed companies were required to report under IFRS, so that is our primary standard, and now with the U.S. listing we’ll also be reporting in U.S. GAAP. We’ve tried to harmonize our IFRS policies with U.S. GAAP, but the rules differ in many areas, including how you account for pensions, stock options, business combinations and restructurings. With two GAAPs, we have two different bottom-line-reported results. In addition, with the New York listing, we’ll come under Sarbanes-Oxley, where in the Netherlands we have Tabaksblat. That’s similar to Sarbanes-Oxley, but it addresses all entity controls, not just financial reporting.

When I’m hiring in the financial area, I look for someone with experience in both public and private accounting, as I had. And having a CPA and MBA on their rsums always helps. If I had it to do over, the only thing I might do differently would be to work for a period of time in investment banking or consulting after grad school.

My best mentor was my boss at Simon and Schuster. He taught me when to be tough, how to use aggressive performance targets as a means of getting results and how to value information. My father was a mentor too; he was the CFO of a think tank. He taught me fiscal responsibility. My mom used to joke that they had my brother and me just 11 months apart because he wanted the two tax deductions that year.

To be a good accountant you have to go beyond just understanding the numbers. To advance up the financial corporate ladder you need a solid technical foundation plus a strong analytic ability and the focus to work independently. You have to provide creative solutions to problems, contribute as a business partner to senior management, have a strong work ethic and the ability to manage and motivate people. Plus a good sense of humor never hurts. You can’t be afraid to tell a superior that he can’t do something and stick to your principles when challenged. When you do that, I think, they respect you for standing up for what you believe is right.

—As told to Cheryl Rosen


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