Oh, the Places You'll Go!

CPAs today have career options even they never envisioned 100 years ago.

‘‘If a census of business houses could be taken, it would probably be discovered that 90% of the business men of the United States have never employed a public accountant and have no idea that such a man could be of any service to them except possibly in case of liquidation or bankruptcy.” That was the rather grim view of opportunities for CPAs 95 years ago in a September 1910 Journal of Accountancy editorial. Yet, less than two years later, in April 1912, the profession’s prospects already had improved. “More and more as time goes on the accountant is being consulted, and his advice adopted in the general control of business undertakings,” the JofA editors wrote. “He is beginning to be looked upon as a business physician and his work is extending far and wide in fields which a few years ago would have been held outside his legitimate sphere of action.”

During the JofA ’s first century, the profession truly has advanced by leaps and bounds. Armed with college degrees, the CPA credential and myriad professional competencies, accountants have expanded their horizons into a wide variety of fields that reach well beyond the public accounting firms they worked in when this magazine began publishing. Here is a selection of profiles of CPAs who are using their accounting skills in ways never envisioned in the JofA ’s early days.

Today’s elected officials come from all walks of life—including the accounting profession. In the halls of Congress, colleagues in government regularly seek out Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) with accounting-related questions. “I have credibility on these issues because I’m a CPA,” says Peterson, who represents Minnesota’s 7th congressional district. He has found many ways to share his expertise, such as attending FASB meetings in an advisory capacity or helping fellow members of Congress in understanding the Sarbanes-Oxley Act and other issues with accounting implications. “Colleagues who are aware of my background seek me out to explain Sarbanes-Oxley, budget procedures, pension reserves and the like,” he says.

One of five CPAs in Congress, Peterson says having a CPA background also was a benefit in running for office: “It helped me understand numbers, finances and the business end of campaigning.” And working with local businesses gave him credibility with that important constituency.

Peterson kept his CPA practice in Detroit Lakes, Minn., going during his 10 years in the Minnesota state senate, where he was chair of the state pension commission. But he gave it up when he was elected to Congress in 1990. (Members of Congress cannot be partners in accounting firms that have fiduciary responsibilities.) He still belongs to the Minnesota Society of CPAs, although he is licensed as an inactive member. “I care about the profession and want to support it,” he says. “I believe in what it does.”

As executive director of internal audit for the Las Vegas Sands Corp., operator of the Venetian Casino Resort in Las Vegas and other properties, Patricia Bowen is on the front lines of the profession’s enhanced role in internal control. Her duties include interviewing and observing casino personnel to verify controls and procedures in gaming areas and count rooms, as well as auditing for compliance with the Minimum Internal Control Standards of the Nevada Gaming Control Board and her company’s own procedures. She also tests anti-money-laundering programs and reviews controls over sensitive gaming-related access keys, examines controls over cards and dice and verifies slot machine programs, meters and pay tables.

Bowen audited her first casino during her early years in public accounting. The industry’s dependence on internal controls, which she found interesting, led her to jobs with some of the most famous names in gambling: the Prima Donna, later bought by MGM, Bally Gaming Inc., the Desert Inn and the Venetian.

“It’s a very exciting environment to work in,” she says. “It’s a 24-hour business with activity buzzing around you constantly.” While Bowen generally works during the day like most auditors, the Venetian’s 24-hour operation occasionally requires her and her staff to show up at different times on overnight shifts to observe certain procedures. “When we’re not here,” she says, “the surveillance department is watching 24/7. We work closely with them and do some of our observations from the surveillance room.”

Bowen spent two months in China last year, setting up the internal audit department, hiring and training local staff and CPAs from Hong Kong to perform internal audits at the company’s new casino, the Sands Macao. The opening required Bowen and her team to work long hours. “That’s not unusual for a casino opening where you take a team of people from different backgrounds and ask them to adhere to a complex system of interrelated procedures.”

As with most internal auditors today, Bowen finds Sarbanes-Oxley demands a significant portion of her time. It has, she says, “required a shift in focus from being concerned about compliance and fraud risks to framing risks in a financial statement context.” Still she thinks the legislation has “been a good way to broaden the experience of our audit staff” and has empowered her own position with increased staffing and a greater role in the company’s quarterly disclosure process.

CPA John Meinert is gearing up for a hot merger and acquisition market this year. He is chairman and a principal of the J.H. Chapman Group, LLC, and former chair of Hartmarx Corp./Hart Schaffner & Marx, where he served as chief financial and administrative officer for more than 20 years.

“Instead of retiring, I joined an investment banking firm with a focus on the consumer goods businesses, which has been the ultimate opportunity for me to continue using my CPA talents and experience,” he says. His responsibilities include helping clients sell, acquire, merge or finance a business. His particular focus is on the apparel, retailing and service industries.

A combination of an improving economy, lingering low interest rates and regulatory tolerance toward corporate consolidations continues to fuel M&A activity, says Meinert. “My background was perfect; I handled so many acquisitions and divestitures for Hartmarx.” In his new position he marshals his negotiating talents to resolve union contracts, divestitures, government antitrust issues and leases. “When looking at a company to buy or sell for a client, you have to know all its strengths and weaknesses,” to be able to offer advice on what to keep and what to spin off.

Valuation skills and cost accounting also come into play in M&A work, pricing assets, properties, leases, licenses and franchises, often worldwide. Understanding government regulations and tax issues is critical, says Meinert. CPAs must form opinions on how a target company is pricing its goods and keeping costs in line. “The field is a natural for CPAs, particularly those with corporate finance experience,” he says.

Susan Hinds, a former senior manager of corporate strategy for Toyota North America, credits her CPA training with giving her the necessary analytical and critical thinking skills—as well as a firm grasp of ethical leadership and the ability to integrate business strategy with financial results—that now make it possible for her to advise others on corporate direction. In fact, she was so confident that 10 years after obtaining her CPA certificate—and after four years at Toyota—she launched her own business, Strategic Management Harmony LLC.

Headquartered near Cincinnati, Strategic Management Harmony LLC helps small and medium-sized businesses identify key value drivers in their industries. Since every client has different needs, Hinds’ objective is to help them understand how the vital elements in their industry integrate with the company and contribute to the bottom line.

“I love it,” says Hinds of her career as a business consultant. “I get involved in so many interesting and emerging-trend-type issues.” Drawing on her background at Toyota, she specializes in the automotive industry but also serves technology companies, consumer products manufacturers and health care providers.

Shannon McWilliams’ career took him from auditing for Ernst & Young in Tallahassee, Fla., to designing the first Internet portal for a state government. MyFlorida.com racked up numerous awards and tens of millions of hits following its launch in 1994, says McWilliams, who built in links to public and not-for-profit information, such as online job applications and state services. His accounting knowledge also helped him to convert procurement and other government processes to the e-commerce medium.

“E-commerce is all about security and accountability in transactions, so it’s important to have accounting and tactical skills,” says McWilliams. Creating accountable procedures and security on the back end of remote transactions has become one of his specialties. He called his first company Net Commerce Group and built custom Web sites, e-commerce catalogs and other applications. CPA skills came into play in calculating gross margins, gauging investments and designing compensation and performance analysis models for salespeople, he says. The group grew to a staff of 15 by 1999 when IBM’s largest reseller partner, Mainline Information Systems, bought the company. “That was a good deal,” says McWilliams, who took a sales position with Mainline as director of software solutions, which he still holds.

Public service always has been the accounting profession’s foundation, but today’s nonprofit organizations have a greater appreciation of the value of an accountant’s skills than they might have had in 1905. For David Houchen, senior vice-president and CFO of Children International, a charity for disadvantaged children overseas based in Kansas City, Kan., the goal is to maximize the organization’s resources to “help as many children and families as I can.”

When translating his business background to an NPO model, Houchen says he thinks of the children and families the charity serves as shareholders. To best meet their needs, he works hard to keep the percentage of donations spent on charitable programs at 80%. The organization voluntarily implemented some of the requirements of Sarbanes-Oxley and installed an audit committee that is separate from the charity’s board of directors. To ensure that overseas affiliates do likewise, Houchen travels abroad to conduct audits and reviews of budgets and annual programs.

Other CPAs are applying their professional expertise to similar endeavors. For Michael Crvarich, “a big part of the CPA’s role is to serve the public—we are certified public accountants.” In working with publicly traded companies, “our help with the financial sector is a public service—to make sure capital markets operate efficiently is a traditional public role.”

Crvarich considers his current job as associate director of gift planning for the University of Washington in Seattle another dimension of that public role. “When I help raise money for charitable and educational institutions, I call it social capital,” he says. He applies a values-based approach to estate planning that allows donors to contribute even after their death and shows potential donors how to combine their philanthropy with financial planning. In doing this, he uses the tax and interpersonal skills he learned in public practice to help people consider the value of giving back to the community. He previously worked with high-net-worth clients at Ernst & Young in Long Beach, Calif.

Some stories about accounting career opportunities in the next 100 years have yet to be written. One belongs to Brandon Mason, a senior attending Southern University in Baton Rouge, La., on a baseball scholarship. His godfather, an accountant for a local government agency, got him summer jobs doing bookkeeping. That, combined with As in math and an overall 3.1 grade point average, has fueled his interest in being a CPA. After graduation he plans to get his master’s from Louisiana State University and then take the CPA exam.

Mason sees many opportunities in accounting for minority students such as himself but says, “You can’t be afraid to talk to people and pursue your dreams.” He is surprised to be the only guy on his team who wants to be an accountant. “Most of my accounting classes have 30 or 35 people, and usually only two or three are male. I don’t understand why, since I really do think accounting offers opportunities for black males in particular.”

The recruiters Mason meets at career fairs seem to like the fact that he plays baseball, which they call a “failing sport.” “They tell me even when you bat .300, you still fail 7 out of 10 times.” That’s how it is in the real world. “You can’t get discouraged when things go wrong: You can fail many times and still end up a winner.”

The CPAs who read the early issues of the Journal of Accountancy could only imagine the jobs today’s accountants would hold both in and out of the profession. As accounting has moved from a profession of numbers to one of ideas, the jobs of today’s CPAs have evolved as well. Who knows what changes the next 100 years will bring and what kinds of CPA careers the editors of the Journal’ s bicentennial issue will write about in 2105?

Maureen Nevin Duffy is a freelance business writer.


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