After temporarily leaving the workforce to care for his terminally ill wife, Thomas Rhine, CPA, CGMA, went back to work—for himself.
Rhine was in his mid-50s in 2005 when his wife, Barbara, became ill. He quit his job as CFO at Wilmington College (now Wilmington University) in Delaware to be her full-time caregiver. She died in 2008, and after a period of mourning, he was ready to return to work.
He decided that in the final act of his career, he would open his own consulting business. Thus, Thomas E. Rhine Inc. was born, giving him a platform to offer interim CFO and consulting controllership work for small companies. He capitalizes on his experience in the not-for-profit and educational sector to generate business. He has greatly enjoyed using his skills and experience to help his clients succeed, and doesn’t take on more work than he can handle.
“The transition, for me, it felt like a custom-made glove,” Rhine said.
Late-career consulting work is a popular choice for CPAs as members of the Baby Boomer generation continue to reach retirement age. Three-fourths of more than 2,100 U.S. CFOs find the prospect of consulting when they approach retirement years at least somewhat attractive, according to a recent survey by staffing services firm Robert Half. Meanwhile, CPAs at accounting firms with mandatory retirement ages frequently find themselves feeling they have much more to offer as they reach the age when they have to leave jobs or partnerships they have held for many years. And after the financial crisis destroyed much household wealth in the United States, some late-career individuals may want or need to continue generating money for longer than they had anticipated.
Consulting can provide them a path to extra wealth and the ability to work at whatever pace they desire.
“I’ve worked for the past 40, 45 years in demanding jobs,” said Ken Kelly, CPA, CGMA, who retired in December from his senior vice president and controller position at global flavor company McCormick and formed KK Advisory LLC in Florida to do consulting, which includes work for the AICPA. “I don’t want to do monthly closes anymore as an accountant. So right now the speed is pretty good for me. Everybody is going to be slightly different.”
The way a CPA fashions consulting arrangements may vary depending on what stage of life he or she is in. Some CPAs get into consulting eager to match or exceed the income they were earning beforehand. Others want to be financially secure before going into consulting and not depend on their consulting income for their livelihood. Jim Metzler, CPA/CITP, CGMA, has seen it both ways after retiring and going into consulting twice. He spent 32 years in public accounting before co-founding ConvergenceCoaching with partner Jennifer Wilson in 2000.
After three years of consulting, Metzler went to work for the AICPA, where he served as vice president of small firm interests for 11 years. He retired again in February and formed Metzler Advisory Group LLC in East Amherst, N.Y., near Buffalo, where he once again provides coaching to firms.
At this stage in his life, consulting is much different for Metzler than it was the first time. When he was with ConvergenceCoaching, he didn’t have as much flexibility because he had a greater need for income. Now, after spending years traveling extensively for business, he can spend more time at home with his family while still doing what he enjoys—consulting with firms and helping them capitalize on their strengths—on a less demanding schedule.
“Self-employment isn’t a panacea,” Metzler said. “But it can be [worthwhile] if you can concentrate solely upon doing great work for great people.”
8 TIPS FOR SUCCESSFUL LATE-CAREER CONSULTING
CPAs who have already started late-career consulting practices offer the following tips for how to go about establishing one:
1. Prepare and network. The good news is that CPAs with many years of experience typically have knowledge that businesses want to tap into. But you don’t want to wait until you’re retired to start figuring out how you’re going to use that knowledge as a consultant, said Kelly. He said it’s good to notify your professional contacts a couple of years ahead of time as you begin to plan to work in consulting. That way, they may think of you when they encounter work that fits your expertise. Becoming more active in professional associations also can help you build your network to facilitate late-career consulting, he said.
2. Find your niche. “You have to spend time to know what you’re really good at and how you’re going to be different,” said Metzler. He said consultants can generate business by using their strengths to differentiate themselves. When Metzler first went into consulting, he used his knowledge of how to build an IT practice at firms to help clients. Now he focuses on strength-based coaching for firms. “A lot of consultants fix the weaknesses, and they do a great job of that, far better than me,” he said. “My consulting and working with firms is really to capitalize on and leverage the strengths.”
3. Make sure there’s a good fit. Rhine said it’s important to make an objective assessment of whether a job fits your skills and interests, and whether you believe you can comfortably work with your client. “You’re not doing it just because you need a couple bucks in the bank,” he said. “Do it because it fits your skill set, it’s what turns you on and makes you happy.”
4. Listen. “When you start consulting with people, you listen to their problems,” said Bernie Leone, CPA/CITP, CGMA, who consults for WithumSmith+Brown PC in New York City and Morristown, N.J. “That’s the most important thing, is that you define what the real need is, and if you listen and you understand what the need is and you have good experience, you can usually help craft a solution.”
5. Stay current with your CPE. Maintaining your professional education and staying current on the trends and issues taking place in your specialty area help a consultant continue to give timely, relevant advice to clients. For example, a consultant in a highly regulated industry who is not well-versed in the newest legal developments won’t keep an engagement for long. “Keep current with what you have a reputation for, most definitely,” Rhine said.
6. Be patient and confident. Metzler tells practitioners that work finds great CPAs. Many of them have come back to tell him that he is right—they have so many opportunities, they have to turn down some of them. But recruiting prospective clients also is partly a sales job, and it’s important to highlight your qualifications. “You’ve got to sell yourself and your skill set,” Rhine said.
7. Beware of gunslinger work. Rhine has been told by prospective clients that one condition of starting a job is to fire certain employees. “I say, ‘No, I don’t do that. I’ll evaluate that person, and I’ll let you know if they should be fired or not. But I’m not doing it as a condition of walking in the door.’ Most of the time, it turns out, it’s a leadership problem. It’s not that specific employee. It might be his or her leader.”
8. Get help to get established. If you’re starting up a business or an LLC for your consulting, Kelly advises talking to a lawyer and perhaps a tax accountant to describe what you want to do, so you know how best to set it up. “It’s not terribly complicated,” he said. “But you do need some professional help.”
Many CPAs are finding that working as a consultant is an ideal late-career opportunity for them because of the skills and business experience they have developed over many years in the profession.
Working as a consultant can give CPAs the ability to work at their own pace. They can arrange to work full time or part time, and consulting may give them extra latitude to choose the types of assignments they truly want to pursue.
Networking and discovering what niche you can fill are two of the most important keys to successful late-career consulting. CPA consultants also will want to stay current with their CPE credits—particularly in their area of expertise—and get advice from appropriate legal and tax experts if they are considering going into business on their own.
Ken Tysiac is a JofA editorial director. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 919-402-2112.
- “Professional Liability Spotlight: Is This Client the Right Fit for Your Firm?” July 2013, page 18
- “From Practice to the Classroom,” Oct. 2012, page 40
- “Gaining (From) Your Clients’ Trust,” May 2012, page 38
- Becoming a Contract Controller: Tips for a Thriving Career (#091097, paperback; #091098PDF, online access)
- Litigation Services and Applicable Professional Standards—Consulting Services Special Report 03-1 (#055297PDF, online access)
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