A United Profession, Takin’ Care of Business




Editor’s note: The following is a condensed version of AICPA Chair Jimmy Williamson's acceptance speech at the October 2006 fall council meeting.

’m from a midsize firm in Alabama. There are fewer than 100 of us in our firm, spread across five offices. But long ago when I joined the AICPA—and before that the Alabama Society of CPAs—I came to realize that we CPAs are a vast family of strong, skilled and very able professionals.

Being a member of this team of 330,000 professionals has benefited me in countless ways. In fact, I belong to our great profession largely because of the help I received from others. Neither of my parents finished high school, and yet I’ve had the incredible opportunity to be part of the Governing Council of one of the greatest professions. And now, I’m deeply honored to assume the role of chairman of this 100-year-old institution.

Following my high school graduation back in the ’60s, I floundered around until two major events centered me. First, I met the wonderful woman I would later marry. Second, I got drafted—which turned out to be a blessing because once the military discovered I was blind in my left eye, they offered me financial assistance to return to college. One of my friends, who majored in accounting, told me I should do the same and give up my earlier dreams of racing fast cars or fronting a hard rock band in Madison Square Garden. Although I followed his advice, music is still very important to me, and one of my favorite songs is Bachman-Turner Overdrive’s “Takin’ Care of Business.” In fact, CPAs and BTO have something in common: We both take care of business every day. To me, that means working together, and focusing on our core values and mission of serving the public interest. When we do that together, we achieve something great.

As CPAs, we have enormous responsibilities to the employers, clients, individuals and communities we serve. Because this duty is foremost in our minds, it’s essential that we harness our collective power and pull together with the combined strength of the AICPA and the state CPA societies.

I rose up through the ranks of the Alabama Society of CPAs. I’ve been an active member for more than 30 years. At the society and in my firm, we’ve accomplished a lot through collaborative planning and joint action. I’m sure all of you have had similar experiences in your companies and businesses and are proud of the results. I am a strong believer that the best results come from serious teamwork.

Finally, takin’ care of business means one other thing to me also—it means taking action. We can’t afford the luxury of just talking about takin’ care of business. We have to make hard decisions and follow through with hard actions to ensure that our profession remains as vital and as relevant tomorrow as it was a century ago. We must have the courage to jump ahead, without any guarantee that we will land exactly where we intended.

There are several areas in which it’s critical for us, as a profession, to take action. But I’m also asking each of you to personally own a piece of that action. In your firm, your company, your university—wherever you are—I ask that you take bold steps to ensure that the profession is constantly moving ahead.

Let me get a little more specific. The actions the AICPA and the state societies will be working on together in the next year fall into four areas.

First, we will be ensuring that our profession is constantly responsive to business realities in our fast-moving world. A world in which technology reinvents the workplace each day; a world in which cross-border commerce grows at double-digit rates; a world in which CPAs deliver their valuable services across state lines without worrying about unnecessarily complex and conflicting state regulations.

Second, it means developing private company financial reporting standards that serve the needs of private companies, who form the backbone of the American economy, and of those who do business with them.

Third, it means opening the doors of our profession to all who aspire to meet its challenges and share its commitments and clearing the career ladder for anyone who has the ability and determination to climb it.

And fourth, but not least, it means promoting financial literacy among the American public, who need our help managing their personal finances.

Let’s get specific about what we’re going to do in each of the four target areas.

First, we’ll take care of business by working to make sure all states observe uniform licensure requirements. Here’s a real-life example of the unreasonable burden on practitioners who want to do business in more than one state. One CPA moved his practice from one state to another—only to find that because the two states’ rules vary so greatly, he had to change his legal name and, instead of setting up his own practice, had to work in someone else’s CPA firm for a year. That kind of regulation doesn’t protect the public interest. Instead, it prevents qualified professionals from providing services American businesses and individuals need.

To identify and promote solutions to this problem, former AICPA Chairman Scott Voynich is leading an Institute committee on mobility that will work toward making it easier for firms and CPAs to do business in multiple states. This isn’t merely about uniformity of accounting laws or practice convenience. It’s about enabling CPAs to better serve the public interest.

Second on our list of business to take care of is private company financial reporting. It’s time to develop financial reporting standards for private companies, most of which operate in a far different environment than public companies. My firm’s clients are a good example. They own private businesses whose stock isn’t held by outside investors. The banks and lenders know the owners of these businesses personally. Users of private company information have less complex needs than the users of public company information. As [former AICPA Board Chair] Leslie Murphy said last year at this time, “One size does not fit all.”

AICPA research confirmed this. Interviews of 3,700 private-company owners and financial managers, CPAs in public practice, lenders, investors and a former member of a standard-setting body all agreed that current GAAP does not always meet the needs of private company financial reporting constituents. So the AICPA and FASB are attempting to address this issue—most importantly through a committee that will make recommendations to FASB about potential changes in current and prospective accounting standards for private companies, based on user needs and cost-benefit considerations.

We have taken the first steps, but your support is crucial if we are to continue making progress. [AICPA President and CEO] Barry Melancon recently noted that while there are approximately 17,000 companies registered with the SEC, more than 20 million companies are privately held and play a critical role in expanding our nation’s economy and creating new jobs.

Our third goal, and a personal passion of mine, is improving the diversity of our profession. The face of America has changed, but that of our profession has not. We have to fix that—now. Promoting diversity is something we all should take an active and personal interest in. This is a challenge not to our material wealth, but rather to our core values and the reasons why we entered a career dedicated to public service. The issue is one of equal access to what should be available to everyone who aspires to be—and demonstrates the ability to be—a CPA.

Of course, the AICPA has made and will continue to make substantial contributions to that goal. The AICPA Foundation recently doubled its annual financial support for the PhD Project, which is recognized as the most comprehensive and successful program to attract minorities to a doctoral program in business. The project has created a rich supply of students for the AICPA’s faculty development programs. Over the past 30 years, these fellowships have helped dozens of people earn PhDs in accounting. And in 2006, the AICPA Minority Scholarship Program awarded $423,000 to students at 98 universities. It was money well spent: These students’ overall grade point average was nearly 4.0. In the last 15 years, the Institute has awarded more than $8 million to 1,600 students.

These achievements are milestones on our path to being a greater and more inclusive profession—and it’s important for this work to continue and expand. But we still haven’t reached that goal. We will not—must not—rest until our profession reflects the changing face of America.

And there’s another area of diversity we have to address. I have a daughter, and I want her to have the same opportunities men do. Our profession offers incredible flexibility and opportunities that women are taking advantage of. But while women make up more than 50% of the college graduates in accounting and new employees in CPA positions, only 19% of public accounting partners are female. The glass ceiling has been cracked, but not shattered. So I am challenging all of us, as members of one of the best professions for women as well as for men, to continue working to find the right mix of flexibility in our companies and to ensure continued upward mobility for women.

We also need to improve our overall recruitment and retention policies. During her tenure, Leslie Murphy announced an AICPA initiative, called the Young CPA Network, that offers valuable resources, including a new Web site and a dedicated monthly newsletter. The network ensures that young professionals understand the choices and opportunities awaiting them as they move forward in their careers as CPAs. It will help build a new generation of leaders, inspiring the next cadre of students to join our profession and benefit from its rewards. I haven’t the slightest doubt that we all recognize these important issues. But we must rededicate ourselves and our firms and companies to doing the right thing.

There’s one final area where we have to take care of business, and that’s increasing the average American’s financial literacy. It’s our professional responsibility to show Americans how to take charge of their financial destiny, fulfill their dreams and secure the bright future their children deserve.

Financial illiteracy threatens our nation’s future—and CPAs are the right people—the right profession—to tackle this important mission. Two million people declared bankruptcy last year as a result of making poor decisions about their personal finances. They’re filing for bankruptcy because they’re spending $1.22 for every dollar they earn. In fact, Americans’ savings rates now are as low as they were during the Great Depression.

So in 2004 the AICPA and the state societies launched 360 Degrees of Financial Literacy, a nationwide effort to advance Americans’ financial understanding. For nearly three years there’s been great news about this program. Thousands of CPAs are donating their time and expertise, benefiting hundreds of thousands of Americans. For leading us to these achievements, we are indebted to Carl George and each member of the Financial Literacy Commission.

The campaign’s Web site has had more than 15 million hits and we’ve achieved 500 million media impressions. These numbers are great, but now we’re striving to extend the program’s reach. The AICPA has joined forces with the Ad Council to launch Feed the Pig (www.feedthepig.org), a national public service campaign focused on financial literacy for younger Americans.

The Ad Council—the premier national voice for public service messages—is renowned for its ability to create campaigns that not only raise awareness about significant public issues, but also promote action. Its record is one of repeated success. From Smokey Bear to “Friends don’t let friends drive drunk” and “A mind is a terrible thing to waste,” its icons and taglines have become part of popular culture.

Another key benefit of working with the Ad Council is that—unlike with paid media—there is no charge for placing these messages in any kind of publication, broadcast or other medium. Last year, the Ad Council was able to secure $1.86 billion in donated media. In view of its extraordinary success, the Ad Council clearly was the right choice to help us tackle the complex challenges of financial illiteracy.

While we know that all Americans need our help, this campaign specifically targets 25- to 34-year-old working men and women—known as “career builders.” Their need is particularly great. On average, they leave college with more than $20,000 in combined student loan and credit card debt. Research indicates that if they’re given the right motivation, they are likely to change their saving and spending behaviors. And because their retirement is further off, their current financial decisions have a great impact—positive or negative—on their long-term financial security.

Finally, career builders often are grappling with monumental new life stages, such as marriage and parenthood, and therefore are beginning to think about their own retirement or their parents’ future health. These are all critical life stages requiring specific financial knowledge and actions.

The Ad Council and the AICPA intend for this campaign to begin a new movement within our country—a movement that will revitalize individual accountability for saving and improve Americans’ long-term financial security. The campaign uses a traditional image of savings—the piggy bank—to remind young Americans that it is time to make saving a habit.

The campaign’s message is clear: Young working Americans cannot afford destructive financial behaviors. They must take steps to improve their finances and prepare for their future.

Focus groups have shown that this message resonates with our target audience, but we need your help to carry it into your communities. You’ll see Feed the Pig public service announcements in magazines, on billboards and on television, and you’ll hear them on the radio. Let’s unite on financial literacy and help Americans develop the skills they need to change their own financial destiny.

We all joined this profession because we wanted to provide public service—and here’s an opportunity for every member of the AICPA and of every state society to work together to achieve our common public service goals and leverage the power of volunteerism. It’s hard to beat 330,000 CPAs working as a team. That’s the real power of our profession. It will enable us to help the nation win a great victory by giving our fellow citizens the financial know-how they need to realize their dreams.

If we confidently step forward on the right path, we’ll empower our fellow citizens to chart their own financial destiny. And the future will be bright for the next generation of CPAs and for men, women and children in communities across America.That’s what our united profession can accomplish when we make up our minds to take care of business every day, every way.


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