CPA INSIDER

Building a career as a regulator

CPA skills work well at agencies that ensure integrity and trust.
By Joshua Wiesenfeld, CPA

The CPA credential can open a door to diverse opportunities, even beyond the traditional career paths in tax, audit, or financial reporting.

Some CPAs have shifted their careers to work with regulatory agencies such as the PCAOB, the SEC, or the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA), where the emphasis on financial analysis makes them natural professional destinations for CPAs.

Regulatory agencies are popular employers for CPAs looking to use their analytical ability and financial know-how to ensure the integrity of financial reporting and auditing, protect consumers and investors, and maintain the fairness of financial markets. For CPAs looking to make a difference, upholding accounting standards by working as a regulator can prove a rewarding career option.

Getting your foot in the door

Job openings at regulatory agencies are competitive. Cultivating the following skills and experiences can help set CPAs apart from the rest of the applicant pool:

Get audit experience. Denise Muschett Wray, CPA, began her career as an auditor for KPMG Jamaica and Watson Rice LLP. She later joined Deloitte, where she audited private equity companies such as KKR & Co. and The Blackstone Group. She also worked on a project to revamp Deloitte's entire audit content. In 2011, seeking a break from the demands of client service, Muschett Wray applied for an inspections role with the PCAOB. She was offered a position with the Office of the Chief Auditor. "I believe my experience as an auditor, especially my extensive audit content work at Deloitte, was my ticket to my role at the PCAOB," she said.

Jason Williams, CPA, also credits his audit experience with landing him a job at the PCAOB. When the bank in Jamaica where Williams worked met financial difficulties, he accepted an audit role with PwC, then joined accounting research firm Glass Lewis & Co. When his department was eliminated during the financial crisis that started in 2008, Williams joined one of Glass Lewis's clients — the PCAOB.

"My audit work provided me the accounting foundation I needed to succeed at the PCAOB," said Williams, who now runs his own accounting analysis firm. "Auditing work is the best background a prospective PCAOB employee can attain."

Joy Sy, CPA, a supervising project manager at FASB, credits her breadth of experience with landing her a role at FASB. Sy also started in audit; she worked at Deloitte as an auditor before moving to an accounting policy role with a global investment bank. After implementing accounting standards, she transitioned to an advisory role at Ernst & Young before she was recruited by FASB.

"My hybrid accounting experience taught me the language of business and the financial reporting supply chain," said Sy. "It helped me land my job at FASB."

Learn to communicate — orally and on paper. Kimberly Earle, CPA, was working as an auditor with EY when she answered an ad in the JofA and shifted to a job in the SEC's Division of Corporation Finance. There, she reviewed disclosure documents, wrote reports, and conducted site visits. Earle, who recently retired from the SEC after a 28-year career, quickly found that the ability to communicate effectively was key to succeeding there.

"Strong writing skills are essential," said Earle. "CPAs at the SEC need to be able to accurately relay very complex information to team members." She was required to regularly collaborate with SEC attorneys and other enforcement professionals as part of her responsibilities, which required clear communication, she said.

Williams also stressed the importance of written and verbal communication skills. At the PCAOB, he worked at the Office of Research and Analysis, conducting accounting risk analyses of public companies. He was tasked with presenting his findings to the inspections division. "My reports had to be very detailed and airtight," Williams said. "The inspectors used this information to decide which companies to investigate, so the stakes were quite high."

Sy advised that CPAs should be comfortable working in a highly collaborative environment. "We speak with many stakeholders, be they Big Four accounting firms, investment analysts, regulatory agencies, or other standard setting organizations," she said. "To be successful, it is imperative that CPAs nurture their ability to work creatively as a team."

Demonstrate passion. Earle often served as a mentor to SEC interns and advised that the SEC looks for employees who display plenty of energy and enthusiasm. "We like to hire people who have a real passion for public service," she said.

N. Tien Pham, CPA, interned at the SEC before going to work as a regulatory analyst for FINRA, a self-regulatory organization that establishes and enforces rules and industry standards for broker-dealers. Her career path was motivated by wanting to make a difference: She joined FINRA following the multibillion-dollar Ponzi scheme perpetrated by Bernie Madoff.

According to Pham, FINRA looks to hire people committed to the investor protection mission. "The best employees in this field are those who find this type of work meaningful," she said.

Pham, who now works as a data privacy consultant and adjunct professor of fraud detection and deterrence, found meaning in the level of responsibility her work with FINRA carried. "My job was to prevent financial fraud and market manipulation," she said. "It's a big responsibility but protecting the vulnerable from losing their hard-earned life savings in a trading fraud scheme is a very rewarding occupation."

Sy, too, finds her job at FASB rewarding and engaging. "While every day is unique, we have a strong focus on our mission" she reported. She spoke to the variety of tasks her role entails, including conducting interviews and roundtables, researching legacy accounting standards, and reviewing financial statements of publicly traded companies. "My role directly contributes to the financial information provided to the capital markets," Sy said. "It is an honor to be part of the standard setting process and accounting history."

'No two days were the same'

"The best part of the job was the variety of the work," Earle said about her time at the SEC. "No two days were the same." Earle recalled reviewing blank-check shell companies, conducting risk assessments, and mentoring young professionals.

Williams echoed the sentiment. "My work at the PCAOB was really quite interesting," he reported. In addition to conducting deep-dive analyses of various companies, he wrote reports on macro themes like Chinese reverse mergers in the United States and also conducted a couple of inspections each year.

Williams emphasized the importance of developing an extensive understanding of his research subjects. Inspectors often challenged his conclusions, so he had to ensure that his technical accounting and analysis skills remained sharp. This was the part of the job Williams liked best. "I really enjoyed delving into companies' financial statements and developing a thorough understanding of their operations," he said. He likened the role to working as an analyst on Wall Street.

Muschett Wray, who now works as an accounting consultant in private industry, appreciated the deep regulatory analysis that her role at the PCAOB entailed. "I relished taking the engine apart, if you will," she said. She found this aspect of the work resonated with her nature as an evidenced-based problem-solver. "I am a strong believer in the power of a well-designed regulatory framework for sustained quality, fairness, efficiency, and effectiveness, and diving under the hood of audit practice helped to build that framework."

Earle, for her part, appreciated the level of responsibility that came with her role at the SEC right off the bat. She contrasted it with working at a public accounting firm, where associates are assigned pieces of a project while the bulk of the responsibility lies with the partner. "At the SEC, I enjoyed having opportunities to take the ball and run with it."

Visit the Global Career Hub from AICPA & CIMA for help with finding a job or recruiting.

— Joshua Wiesenfeld, CPA, is a financial investigator at Labaton Sucharow LLP. 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.

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