CPAs, like everyone else, have faced personal and professional challenges in this unprecedented year as they try to weather what has become a long and grueling storm.
We spoke with nine CPAs across the country and asked them to describe the difficulties and silver linings they've encountered in 2020 and convey the lessons they've learned along the way:
Moti Halberstam, CPA, co-founder and co-managing partner of Fasten Halberstam LLP in New York City, said his firm worked harder than ever this year as it attempted to help distraught clients deal with extended tax deadlines. "We haven't had a day off since March 7," he said on Oct. 16. But none of that compared to the sadness he felt when colleagues and friends died from the coronavirus. "Personally we probably knew 30 people who passed away," he said. As 2020 closes, he reflected: "We came to appreciate life, and learned how to have more patience and understanding, more tolerance toward employees, clients, friends, family. Not everything is about deadlines, deadlines, and deadlines."
Tricia Duncan, CPA, director of operations at Jones & Roth P.C., in Eugene, Ore., was designated the COVID officer for her firm, tasked with ensuring it was following state policies and procedures. These new responsibilities, in addition to her human resources and recruiting tasks, have weighed heavily on her. "Being responsible for everybody is the hardest part, keeping people positive, focused, and trying to find a balance," she said. This year, among other things, Duncan has learned to stay "in the moment," she said. "You just have to focus on what you can handle and what the issue is right now. If we think too far ahead or try to make too many assumptions in this environment, it creates a lot of extra turmoil and work."
Kyle Nagy, CPA, founder of KPN Enterprises LLC in Overland Park, Kan., said his greatest challenge this year was balancing work in a home office and taking care of his four children, ages 7, 9, 10, and 11, while his wife was at her health care job. "It was a lot easier for me to separate work from my personal life when I had an office to go to," he said. But there was an upside as well, he noted: This year has made him more "intentional" about a work/life balance, and spending quality time with family while catering to clients' needs. He offers this advice to other CPAs: Give clients options, such as whether or not to come into the office, and be flexible and understanding. "It is really helpful to value the relationship over just the transaction," he said. "We're all trying to navigate this situation in our own way, the best way we can."
Adrienne Davis, CPA, an independent financial adviser in Atlanta, has a favorite quote, coined by author Neale Donald Walsch: "Life begins at the end of your comfort zone." Davis was working as a tax accountant earlier this year but found herself craving a change. "I didn't feel passionate about tax," she said. So in August, Davis took a leap of faith and, through a connection, accepted a post with Northwestern Mutual. Today, she is helping people navigate their finances and is happier. While 2020 was difficult in many ways, the intense year prompted her to make this much needed change. "Once you step out of your comfort zone, that's where you see the most growth," she said.
Niko Yanouzas, CPA, a partner at Whittlesey in Hartford, Conn., has faced numerous trials this year as he worked exclusively from home. He's learned how to operate in a more isolated environment, alongside his corgi, Sullie, and worked through some irksome technological glitches. His firm, too, faced challenges. "One of the biggest struggles was navigating a new way to generate business," he stated. Despite the pandemic, Whittlesey ramped up its internship program and worked hard to help clients, many of whom were struggling financially. And the firm made it through a very tough year. "No doubt about it, we're going to survive and thrive because we've learned to live in this new world," he said. His view on what helped with that COVID-19-era survival: "You have to open your mind to a totally different way of doing things, from meeting people, talking to people, organizing your life."
Becca Martin, CPA, a manager in the tax department at MarksNelson LLC in Kansas City, Mo., has spent most of 2020 working at home with her husband and two dogs, Bailey, a 14-year-old golden retriever, and Maisey, a 7-year-old pug. The transition to working remotely was seamless, she said, and she saved time commuting, which helped her during busy season. The most distressing part of this year, however, was her inability to take vacations. "I love to travel," Martin lamented. Her advice to other CPAs during this isolating time: "Find a way to stay connected to your colleagues and friends, so you have some outlets, and somebody to go to when things get difficult."
Erik Causey, CPA, a partner at KPMG LLP in Washington, D.C., admits it's been a complex year as he adjusted to working remotely and conversing with clients virtually. Previously, he spent his workdays visiting with one or more audit clients in person. "My greatest challenge professionally was having to adapt to a different communication mode and method," he said. This year taught Causey that communication and flexibility matter, and it reaffirmed that being a partner means staying accountable to his team and clients. "Communication comes in all forms, and this past year really showed that communication is not just face to face," Causey said. "It is how you engage virtually and from a frequency standpoint."
Mary Jepperson, CPA, a professor of accounting and finance at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John's University in Minnesota, never slowed down this year since classes at the two neighboring campuses remained open. Both schools adopted a "block" system, where students take one course per month — either online or in person (their choice) — to help minimize contact with people. Still, Jepperson had to reshape her courses to provide videos to those students who were remote, and to adapt to the more intense block-system classes with less downtime. "Suddenly we were having class three hours a day, and as entertaining as accounting is, how do you stay dynamic for three-hour stretches?" she quipped. Her advice: "Try to think outside the box about how to collaborate with others, because it's a tougher, different world."
Keith Steincamp, CPA, former finance and accounting director for Marriott International and now an independent profitability strategist in Oklahoma City, was just ramping up his consulting practice when COVID-19 surfaced. While it slowed his business growth slightly, 2020 also opened doors to assisting companies in need. "It's a good opportunity for helping customers completely redo their cost structures so they can be lean and mean to survive and grow," he said. He networks and communicates with prospective or current clients mostly via Zoom. His takeaway this year? This is a time when CPAs can help clients understand their numbers in such a troublesome environment, he advised. In addition, he said, "I've taken this time to take the dog on a walk more often, and we have a great time together."
— Cheryl Meyer is a freelance writer based in California. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Chris Baysden, a JofA associate director, at Chris.Baysden@aicpa-cima.com.