When you learn how Bill Pirolli became enamored with the idea of being a CPA, it's easy to understand why he is laser-focused on the pipeline to the profession as he begins his year as chair of the AICPA board of directors.
Pirolli hopes to motivate CPAs everywhere to inspire young people in the same way that Jack Renza, CPA, his accounting instructor, inspired him when he was a student at Rhode Island Junior College. Pirolli went to college unsure of what career he wanted to pursue, but the affable Renza soon got him hooked on accounting, and not because of a love of debits and credits.
Admittedly, part of what made Renza and accounting attractive was the lifestyle. Renza, a professor of accounting who also ran his own CPA firm, dressed in nice suits and had been spotted in the parking lot by Pirolli's classmate, David DiSanto, driving a Mercedes. But the thing about Renza that really attracted Pirolli to the profession was his ability to connect with people. He made people feel important, and it was easy to see why he succeeded in a profession dedicated to serving clients.
"You could just tell he was a relationship guy," Pirolli said. "This wasn't a spreadsheet guy. Jack cultivated relationships with his clients and cultivated relationships with the students, and we just got drawn into that."
Pirolli followed in Renza's footsteps to become a CPA, earning the Certified in Financial Forensics (CFF) and Personal Financial Specialist (PFS) credentials and a Chartered Global Management Accountant (CGMA) designation. It turns out that Pirolli, who was scheduled to be inaugurated as chair of the AICPA board of directors in May, was just one of many prominent CPAs whom Renza guided into the CPA profession.
DiSanto, the classmate who spotted Renza in the Mercedes, also interned with Renza and Saccoccia CPAs, and would partner with Pirolli more than 30 years later in the firm DiSanto, Priest & Co., in Warwick, R.I. Ernie Almonte, CPA, CGMA, also got his start with Renza and Saccoccia in a career that has included a year as AICPA board chair for 2008—2009.
Now it's Pirolli's turn to handle the leadership role and continue spreading the word that the CPA profession provides a great platform for a career of service to clients, employers, and the public.
"He has such dedication to the profession," said DiSanto, a CPA and CFF credential holder. "He's a real believer in it. He's a great mentor for the younger people. He has always encouraged others to join and provided them mentoring."
BACKING A NEW MODEL
Pirolli's focus is incredibly timely, as leaders of the profession are adopting strategies designed to ensure that the best and brightest young people will continue to be attracted to the CPA credential. Jobs at popular technology companies and startup opportunities are enticing for young people who are highly skilled in the latest tech, yet the accounting profession needs them more than ever.
In recognition of the need to continue to attract talented young people to the CPA profession and to help CPAs continue to develop the skills needed in the business environment, the AICPA and the National Association of State Boards of Accountancy unveiled a new model for CPA licensure last year as part of their joint CPA Evolution initiative. The model will restructure the CPA Exam to allow candidates to test in the core areas of accounting, auditing, tax, and technology. Meanwhile, candidates will choose to test deeper knowledge in one of three disciplines (tax compliance and planning, business analysis and reporting, or information systems and controls). There will continue to be just one CPA credential, but the new model allows candidates to specialize in an area that interests them.
The continued development of this model will be a key element of Pirolli's year as chair, and his passion for the pipeline makes him an ideal leader for this time.
"I think it's really what the students want," Pirolli said. "Of course, we have the core, which is vital, and everybody has to go through the core. Then they get that expanded knowledge and expanded thinking, more critical thinking in one of those three disciplines. It will help the employers and certainly help the students zero in on a future path."
Pirolli's path to the CPA began in simple surroundings. He grew up in a family that he said was as Italian as pasta and sauce, with an entrepreneurial streak that clearly is among the qualities he inherited. His father, Carlo, ran a floor-covering business that was later passed down to Bill's brother, Mike, who runs it to this day. Bill's mother, Elena, was the head waitress at her family's business, a well-known restaurant and nightclub called the El Marocco. The club was the Copacabana of Rhode Island, with entertainers making stops there between stints in Las Vegas. While Pirolli's uncles ran the front of the restaurant as well as the kitchen, his aunts led a chorus of waitresses. Bill developed a love for cooking while watching cooks in tall white hats prepare stuffed lobsters in the kitchen.
He met his wife, Joanne, when they were seniors in high school as she played the lead in Gilbert and Sullivan productions and he sang in the choir, enchanted by the soprano who was the star of the show. Following Renza's advice, Pirolli enrolled in Bryant College (now Bryant University) after getting his two-year degree from Rhode Island Junior College, which now is known as the Community College of Rhode Island. During his junior year at Bryant, he began interning at a small firm run by Richard Delfino. After Renza inspired a love of the profession in Pirolli, Delfino taught him how to be a trusted business adviser. Delfino's clients were an incredible cast of characters from a collection of family businesses that each had their own unique quirks. With his ability to make connections and build relationships, Pirolli was quickly drawn into their world and helped steer them toward success.
Although he could have made more money in a larger firm, he never left and eventually bought out Delfino upon his retirement (see the sidebar "A Career Built on Client Service"). Pirolli left the technical accounting to others at the firm and focused himself deeply on developing relationships with the clients, some of whom grew to be close, dear friends.
"Through it all, we've been there," Pirolli said. "We're the first call. I tell everyone when they come up and when I mentor people to be partners, you're going to know you got there when you get the first call for everything and you become that trusted business adviser."
CPAs have found this to be true during the coronavirus pandemic as businesses and clients turned to them to help survive an economic shock. CPAs played a huge role in helping hold the economy together. They advised clients on the intricacies of obtaining Paycheck Protection Program funds and other government assistance. They used new forecasting and scenario-planning strategies to help businesses plan effectively during an economic event with no precedent. They assisted businesses and clients in finding new ways to operate when the traditional ways suddenly put people's health and safety at risk.
Many, many clients have expressed gratitude for the work by their CPAs that allowed them to keep their businesses from going under during this crisis. Pirolli said he has never been prouder of the profession.
"This was just the time when our skill set rose to the top," he said. "All the training, all the classes, all the things we've been through as a profession set us up for this moment to help keep the economy strong."
LEARNING TO SMILE AGAIN
Pirolli has found that when you spend your life being there for people, they will return your kindness. Tragedy struck the Pirollis in 2016 when the older of their two sons, Patrick, died at the age of 31. It was February, at the height of busy season, but Bill's staff and clients rallied around him. Lori Conaty, CPA/PFS, CGMA, his protégé at the firm, stepped in to divide Pirolli's client responsibilities among the rest of the staff. After Bill and Joanne decided to continue with his plans to attend the AICPA board meeting that spring, his fellow board members greeted him with an outpouring of sympathy.
They told him that in time, he would be able to smile again, and that was OK. They told him that he would learn to enjoy life again, and that was OK. He says that his friends in the accounting profession may have saved his life.
"I don't know where we would have been without them," he said.
Some time after Patrick Pirolli's death, one of Pirolli's clients, Larry Riggs, supported the family by making time during a trip to San Francisco to visit the Fairmont Hotel bar, where Patrick worked. He met Patrick's friends and asked them to join in a toast to Patrick. And each day, Pirolli wears a small pin that depicts a heart with angel wings around it in memory of his son.
"I wear it to keep him with me on this journey," Pirolli said.
FEEDING THE PIPELINE
How does a CPA do justice to the journey? Pirolli believes it's done by helping others embark on and succeed in their own careers in the accounting profession (see the sidebar "Making a Difference Through Mentoring"). He believes just about everybody in the profession has a teacher, family member, or friend who inspired them to become a CPA. He is urging professionals to reach out to students early, even when they're in high school, to identify and motivate young people to understand, appreciate, and ultimately join the profession.
"Who are you inspiring, and what positive steps are you taking to help feed the pipeline?" Pirolli said. "We can't just sit back and let state societies and the AICPA take the burden. We have a huge role in it."
Conaty said Pirolli's greatest strength may be his ability to communicate, both with individuals and in front of an audience where he can have each person in attendance hanging on his every word. Pirolli motivates a crowd the same way that Jack Renza always has motivated a classroom full of 19- and 20-year-olds.
A little over a year ago, Renza watched proudly as Pirolli addressed a group of students in Renza's class. Renza saw Pirolli's gift for connecting with people on their level on full display. The circle was complete. The student had become the teacher.
"He's just such a warm person," Renza said. "Young people particularly take to him."
Renza clearly treasures the triumphs of every student he teaches, of every young person he reaches. And that satisfaction is the whole point of Pirolli's focus for his year in leadership of the AICPA. There are always more young people to motivate, educate, and inspire, and the rewards are great. And there's no better time to do it than right now.
Making a difference through mentoring
Promoting young people is a way to give back to the profession.
Bill Pirolli’s capacity to mentor younger CPAs has always amazed his partner and friend David DiSanto, CPA/CFF.
“Bill has always got somebody in his office,” DiSanto said. “He’s always trying to teach them, always trying to help them out.”
Pirolli frequently encourages other CPAs to help younger members of the profession through mentoring. Lori Conaty, CPA/PFS, CGMA, who worked for many years with Pirolli and now is a principal at Gilligan & Bianco, said his mentoring is 90% responsible for where she is today. Among the reasons she cited for Pirolli’s success in supporting younger people are:
Including younger CPAs in important meetings: “Even as a young staff person, I really was included in client meetings and decision-making matters with the client,” Conaty said. “I did the work, reviewed the work with him. [He] really taught not just the number piece and the technical piece but really how to work with clients.”
Providing flexibility: When Conaty had her first child 22 years ago, Pirolli provided her with the ability to work from home when she wanted or needed to. “That made all the difference in the world,” Conaty said. “He’s so far ahead of the curve in a lot of ways.”
Understanding: A few years after her first child was born, Conaty was scheduled to become a partner on Jan. 1. The previous October she found out she was pregnant with twins. When she told him she was due to give birth in May, she said she would understand if he didn’t want her to become a partner effective the first of the year. “Of course you’re going to be a partner,” she said he replied.
Explaining the joys of the profession: Pirolli is an excellent communicator, and he particularly does a good job describing the satisfaction a CPA gets out of successfully serving clients. “He has an ability to communicate the pleasures about what we do, and there are so many,” Conaty said.
Serving: It’s well established that Millennials and younger professionals are eager to serve their communities. With his service to the AICPA, the Rhode Island Society of CPAs, and the Central Rhode Island Chamber of Commerce (both of which he served as president), he has demonstrated the opportunities to serve that exist in the profession. “His whole career he has given back to the profession in the form of volunteering,” Conaty said.
A career built on client service
Strong relationships and good advice provide the foundation for CPAs’ success.
Each month, Ted Eckstein would bring a shopping bag to his CPA’s office.
It was filled with the bank statements, check stubs, and receipts for paid bills associated with his fledgling automotive supply company. The young CPA he met there, Bill Pirolli, would dump the contents onto his desk and enter the information in the general ledger.
“It’s been an amazing journey,” Pirolli said.
Pirolli’s work with people such as Eckstein testifies to the success CPAs can lead their clients to achieve. With Pirolli’s help, Eckstein laid the foundation for Rebuilders Automotive Supply to grow into a company with 160 employees as it approaches its 50th anniversary.
Pirolli helped the company grow, succeed after Eckstein retired in 1996, and navigate additional ownership changes. Steve King, the company vice president and co-owner, said Pirolli helped the business build infrastructure and human resources capabilities as its growth continued.
“Bill was the perfect person to talk to,” King said. “He was able to talk about what he had dealt with, with other clients.”
Pirolli has served another client, Pare Corporation, since it was a small engineering firm under founder Robert Pare. The firm now has more than 110 staff members, including 49 professional engineers, and serves the entire East Coast.
About four years ago, Pirolli advised the firm to hire internal IT staff to replace an outside vendor and fully integrate its systems. A few years later, when the coronavirus pandemic hit, the IT staff was the backbone as the firm moved to remote work within a week and maintained its efficiency.
“It allowed us to be able to weather this COVID problem pretty seamlessly,” said Larry Riggs, the firm’s president and CEO.
Pirolli’s tactics for client service success include:
Building relationships: “Because we spoke so often and he advised me on so much and seemed to understand where I was going, he became easy to talk to, a friend to talk to,” King said.
Becoming comfortable with uncertainty: For example, regulations surrounding the Paycheck Protection Program changed often, and CPAs earned clients’ trust by helping them navigate that uncertainty. “That’s our stock in trade, making sense of complex situations,” Pirolli said. “No one does that better than a CPA does.”
Listening: “You’ve got two ears and one mouth for a reason. You should listen twice as much as you speak,” said Jack Renza, CPA, who taught Pirolli at Rhode Island Junior College. “He really follows that.”
William R. Pirolli, CPA/CFF/PFS, CGMA
Professional: Partner, DiSanto, Priest & Co., Warwick, R.I.
Education: B.A. in business with a concentration in accounting from Bryant College (now Bryant University); associate's degree from Rhode Island Junior College (now Community College of Rhode Island).
Favorite movies: The James Bond series.
Hobbies: Golfing, cooking, gardening, bicycling, traveling.
About the author
Ken Tysiac is the JofA's editorial director. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact him at Kenneth.Tysiac@aicpa-cima.com.