One CPA explains

What should you do when you are caught in a downsizing?

Revitalizing a Career

By   Anita Dennis

ANITA DENNIS is a Journal contributing editor.

  • ONE CPA WORKED for a company for nearly six years, only to be told abruptly that his job had been eliminated. Mark Roths successful efforts to find a new position taught him the importance of maintaining professional momentum, renegotiating his severance package, considering all possible job sources and emphasizing unique aspects of his experience with prospects.
  • CAREER MANAGEMENT is important even for professionals in seemingly secure jobs. Professional affiliations with CPAs and others can help in networking and in keeping current on other disciplines. Remaining visible and maintaining a professional image are other steps that shouldnt be forgotten.
  • TECHNOLOGY EXPERTISE helped Roth update his new employers antiquated systems. His goal is to deliver data that not only are timely but also valuable and accessible to top management.

A n executive spends years focusing his attention on his companys business only to be told one day with no notice that his job is gone and his services no longer needed. When one CPA faced this depressingly familiar scenario, he was forced to reexamine and reconsider his management of his own professional life. As a result, he has found a dynamic new position and revitalized his approach to his career.

Mark Roth began a job as the corporate controller for a large New Jersey-based food broker in 1990. When he was hired, it appeared likely that he would ultimately succeed the chief financial officer. Over the years, however, it became increasingly apparent that the CFO was not planning to retire. But Roth did receive regular increases in responsibility, as well as raises and favorable performance reviews. Then, Roth remembers, "quite suddenly at 2 oclock on a Friday afternoon in April 1996, I was called into the office of my boss, the CFO, and told the company had decided to restructure and my position was to be eliminated." He was given two hours to gather his belongings and leave.

Roth embarked on a short but highly educational job search; within eight weeks, he was working as vice-president of finance and CFO at New York Cruise Lines, which provides pleasure boat excursions in the waters around New York City. Despite the stress of his abrupt job loss, he sees only the positive side. "In hindsight, I can say that in terms of my career it was the greatest thing that ever happened to me. For all those years, I was entirely dedicated to my company, which was proper. But I was paying no attention to my own career or to the outside world." Roths experience offers clues for other professionals on how to keep their sights on the world outside their own offices. Here are some of the things he learned.

  • Maintain professional momentum. By conducting a diligent search, Roth managed to arrange an interview with New York Cruise Lines within three weeks of losing his previous job. One extremely valuable resource to him at that point was the New Jersey Society of CPAs. Roth, a trustee of the society and former chairman of its members in management, business and industry committee, was given an office at the society and use of the phone and fax. "I have three young children and it would have been impossible to conduct a job search from home." He recommends having a workplace to get dressed for and go to each day.
  • Dont be afraid to try to renegotiate your severance package. Roth received no outplacement or counseling and he believed at first that if he asked for more than the two months severance hed been given, the company would rescind the package. On the advice of a friend, however, he asked his former employer for one years salary, arguing it might require that amount of time to find a job at his level. The company finally gave him five months pay. Although he found a job quickly, the knowledge that he had those added resources during the first stressful weeks "gave me a chance to breathe," Roth says.
  • Consider everyone a possible job source. Roth heard about his current position from a friend whose brother had been a vice-president at the cruise line. "You never know where a lead will come from," the CPA says. He also advises professionals to keep an open mind about the kinds of jobs or companies in which their skills might be needed.
  • Emphasize unique aspects of your experience. Roth secured his new job by mentioning an effort that isnt even included on his resume. Right after college, he started a real estate development business with his father while holding down a full-time job in public accounting. "New York Cruise Lines is a very entrepreneurial company and I just happened to mention this business." He was later told that it had clinched the position for him. "No matter how tempting it may be, never denigrate your former or current employer. This can only reflect badly on you as a job candidate," Roth says.

Roth believes that even CPAs in positions they perceive as stable must take some basic steps to ensure career longevity. For example, he considers professional affiliations very important not only for networking options but also to keep yourself abreast of issues outside your own sphere. "I allowed myself to become very knowledgeable only about my company and my field," he says in retrospect. "But you really have to learn from everyone out there." That means talking to other CPAs as well as professionals in other disciplines, such as marketing, law and human resources, to try to integrate a variety of skills with your own core abilities. He also has developed a greater awareness of his own potential career path, which includes knowing what other opportunities exist and what skills or contacts would be needed to take advantage of them. "Have an idea of where youre going and balance that with a focus on your current job and your company," he says. This strategy can include some creative approaches. For example, the company prepared announcements of Roths arrival at New York Cruise Lines, which he sent with a word of thanks to people who had helped him in his search. That gesture turned out to be an excellent marketing tool, because recipients called and inquired about having corporate functions on the companys boats.

While building greater visibility, its also important to make sure you make a good impression, Roth says. "Always be conscious of how you dress, how you speak, how you write. I know some very able professionals who cant write a business letter."

No matter how strong the personal marketing strategy, however, it is a professionals skills that get him or her hired. In Roths case, his technology expertise was very important. While the cruise companys vessels are guided by state-of-the-art navigational equipment, it had antiquated technology, with a variety of proprietary software systems running on an AS/400 system. It needed technology that would enable it to sell tickets more easily through a new ticket office in Times Square and, eventually, in other domestic locations and overseas. At the same time, it lacked good operating data to make decisions about its complicated market. The company has three separate types of cruise lines with three distinct lines of business for each: individual ticket buyers; tour or school groups; and charter or banquet customers. "They are very different businesses, but we needed to integrate all their information and the competing demands for certain dates," Roth says. For example, the company had already begun receiving inquiries about parties on its boats on New Years Eve in 1999. Management had to determine whether it would be more profitable to reserve a boat on that night for one charter group for a set fee, thereby locking in the revenue, or endeavor to sell tickets to, say, 500 individual partiers. Its existing systems were unable to make such analyses.

Company Profile

Name : New York Cruise Lines, Inc.
Locations : New York City; Hoboken and Jersey City, New Jersey.
Date founded : 1945.
Sales : Approximately $35 million.
Number of employees : 400.
Form of ownership : Private.
What we do : Provide sightseeing, dining and entertainment services in the New York Harbor to over 1 million passengers a year. Primary products include the Circle Line, Seaport Liberty Cruises and World Yacht.
Our main customers : Tourists, large businesses, social and private groups.

Roth is not an expert in management systems, but he appreciates their value, especially in his new company. So, he began by hiring a director of management information systems and laying plans to convert to a client server on a wide area network that would grow with the companys needs. The company is also examining the cost-benefit of outsourcing some of its technology functions. Roth expects it will take 18 months to implement the system fully.

He has worked closely with the president and board of directors to gain their endorsement of this project, a step he believes is crucial because new technologies are expensive and time-consuming to introduce and because it is not only systems that are being changed but internal company processes as well. "Support has to come from the top," he says. To gain their endorsement and involve top management in the process, he plans to introduce executive information systems that give the president and senior management direct and immediate access to financial data. This enhances their appreciation for the system and its possibilities and frees the accounting department from routine but time-consuming inquiries. Offering executives more valid data and ease of access "proves the value of the information," Roth says. "That gives senior management confidence in the system, which helps us in going forward." In delivering data, he advises that it is quality of information, not speed and certainly not quantity, thats important. "If you can process your payroll in six hours instead of eight, thats not a big deal. What you want is to get information that will affect the bottom line. For example, although youre profitable now, you could be even more profitable if you better understood certain costs by product line or by customer segment. Conversely, a yield management system would allow you to maximize revenue in your peak periods and shift overflow business to other times, particularly in a seasonal business such as ours."

As a final step in career management, Roth believes professionals should be mentors or contacts for colleagues when they can. Weathering his own professional crisis has given him a greater appreciation not only for ways to secure his own future but also for the importance of helping others in the same spot. He volunteers through his state society, a local vocational service board and his synagogue to counsel people on finding jobs and managing career paths and advises others to do the same.

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