A junior-high dream realized: One CPA leader’s career path

Hosted by Neil Amato

December's Last Word feature subject in the Journal of Accountancy is Amish Mehta, CPA, partner and nonprofit practice leader at the accounting firm Friedman LLP. Mehta explains why The Shawshank Redemption is his favorite movie, more about his path to becoming a CPA, and why it's never too early to start networking.

Also, hear a summary of recent analysis of the Senate Finance Committee's Build Back Better text and more on the attributes of top-performing CPA firms.

What you'll learn from this episode:

  • Why Mehta says "business often is very personal."
  • The specific ways not-for-profits had to adapt to the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • When Mehta first knew he wanted to become an accountant.
  • His advice for aspiring accountants.
  • How the Senate Finance Committee's Build Back Better text differs from the House of Representatives version and coverage of the 2021 MAP survey.

Play the episode below or read the edited transcript:

To comment on this episode or to suggest an idea for another episode, contact Neil Amato at


Neil Amato: This is the Journal of Accountancy podcast. Welcome to any new listeners just finding us, and welcome back to our repeat listeners. I'm your host, Neil Amato. This episode focuses on a finance leader featured in the Journal of Accountancy's December issue. We will also touch on recent survey data related to the traits of top accounting firms and on decoding the Senate Finance Committee's Build Back Better text.

Now joining the show is Amish Mehta, a CPA who is partner and nonprofit practice leader at the accounting firm Friedman LLP. Amish is the subject of The Last Word in the December issue of the JofA. In that feature, Amish, you say that your favorite movie is The Shawshank Redemption. What is it about that movie that you like?

Amish Mehta: Well, thanks, Neil, for having me on the program today, and I appreciate being with you this morning. It's interesting, The Shawshank Redemption, it's really about self-worth. It's about finding hope in a situation where you're feeling hopeless, and at the end of day, it's about relationships, the main character and the relationship that he forms with others throughout the movie. It's about building and keeping positive relationships that ultimately drive business success, however you define that success, every time.

People often say business isn't personal, but in fact, business is often very personal. Every day, you need to surround yourself with people who will support you, who will encourage you always to look up, people who will be there in your corner, and who will challenge you to always do more, to think two steps ahead, and to strive to be a little bit better every day. In order to drive that long-term success, you've got to keep at it. You can't say, "I'm done. I've hit my networking goal, and I don't need to do anymore." We continue to challenge ourselves every day.

And [as] a leader in an industry that's competitive with clients and for talent, I know that if I can look at a movie like The Shawshank Redemption and really absorb and activate those subliminal messages that are there throughout the movie, I'll come out ahead every time.

Amato: You've been in public accounting, you've traveled internationally for work, now your focus is on not-for-profits. As Friedman's practice leader in that area, what appeals to you about working with such organizations?

Mehta: With nonprofit organizations. I started in public accounting — God, it's almost been 30 years now. When I joined the profession, I was open-minded. I didn't have any specific industry that I had a particular interest in. At least when I started public accounting many years ago, they really gave you a diverse client base, so you've got to feel and touch many different industries. Over time, in the firm that I joined when I worked with the people in the not-for-profit group, they really enjoyed me having me on their jobs, and I really enjoyed working with the clients that I was on.

That's really how I found my passion for the not-for-profit space. It's really about the positive feedback that you get when you work with such clients, when you provide them recommendations and guidance, and they're really thankful and appreciate the work that you're doing. The fact that they're involved in such great causes, it's really just a bonus. I've been fortunate to experience the travel that I've been on with clients that have international operations. I think when people think of nonprofits, they really don't think about having international operations, but many do have international operations, so I've been fortunate to do some visits to their overseas operations, and it's just a great experience, and I don't think people realize that.

Then when you get to see the boots on the ground, if you will, and these nonprofits carrying out the mission just not locally, but internationally, it's really a fulfilling feeling, whether it spans the arts and education to health and human services. I personally choose to donate my time, too. I'm involved in my temple. I'm on the board of an association as well, so I'm the treasurer. Not only do I see it from this side of the profession, but I also see it on the other side as well in my role as a treasurer and as a member of my temple. You can't really serve, I don't think, the nonprofit community without being involved.

It's not just me. The partners of Friedman and other professionals are encouraged every day to become active in organizations that mean the most to them in any way, from community cleanups to lending time for their child's school to serving on boards and committees. We have this Friedman Cares initiative that actively encourages all professionals to be involved with a broad variety of local, state, and national initiatives. We walk the talk, if you will, when it comes to not only working with nonprofit organizations, but also being personally involved. It comes down to embracing that personal purpose,. What do you have? What do you know that you can give back and improve the lives of those around you?

Amato: In particular for not-for-profits, what lessons have they learned, you think, from the extreme disruption brought on by COVID-19?

Mehta: Certainly, this challenged not only nonprofit organizations, but all businesses as we're all aware. The knock on nonprofits is because they don't have all the resources. They may not have invested enough in technology to be able to ramp up when situations such as this arose. So, clearly, it was challenging. Some were better off than others. One takeaway of coming out of this is that, hopefully, to emphasize the need to invest in technology, to have all of the information on the cloud and to be able to access all the information remotely, to be able to be productive, rather than being tied to paper documents in the office.

It certainly challenged some of them and then forced them to ramp up pretty quickly to meet the new demands of the environment that we're operating in, but I think at this point in time, they've adjusted. Certainly, some of our audits tended to go a little bit longer than we would have liked, but now, I think going forward, it's going to be a positive improvement that they're much more advanced from a technology standpoint to be able to adapt to anything else that comes along in the future. That's one aspect of it, certainly the technology.

In terms of being in a financial position to deal with such a situation, again, some were challenged more than others, ones that had larger endowments and had those rainy-day funds stowed away were certainly better able to deal with the environment than others, who maybe they only have six months of reserves or maybe 12 months at the most, really found that they were in a challenging environment. Certainly a lot of the government programs help them carry them over the short term. But now they've got to go back to building up some of those reserves. Certainly the social service organizations for the most part were fine because they did get the continued government funding to provide those essential services.

But one that really dependent on events, fundraising events, the galas, and the like really struggled to figure out, how can we engage and connect with our donor base so that we don't lose touch with them? They were coming to the gala and were able to share what we do with them so that they see the good work of the great things that we do and they continue to give.

Suddenly many of them pivoted to virtual events and had some levels of success there. But I think one thing that it showed them is the need to continue to engage your donor base and your constituents actively, so that they're well aware and in tune with what's happening at your organization and continue to give. Certainly the financial markets have done very well. There's certainly a great amount of wealth that's still out there. That shouldn't preclude or prevent people from continuing to give. But again, it really challenged that these nonprofit organizations to be able to pivot in that environment.

It's just not management; it's also the board members. The board had to hopefully become much more active than they may have in the past, just to help the management deal with this new environment. Hopefully the board was diverse enough and had a diverse skill set, so we can tap on maybe there was a technology guy on the board, certainly a finance professional who knew about all the government funding programs that were out there and could help a nonprofit organization navigate some of the complexities that were in the embedded in some of these government programs.

It's really was a collective effort, and communication, as I mentioned, was really key in terms of working with board members, donors, and the teams, and the recipients to keep talking, sharing information about the progress that the organization continues to undertake and to drive success.

Amato: Going back to you a little bit, how did you know growing up that you wanted to be an accountant?

Mehta: It's really funny. My parents recently found my junior high school yearbook, and I hadn't seen it in years and was flipping through it and they asked a typical question like, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" It's scary that I was probably 13, 14 at the time that I probably responded to this question. But I had written down I wanted to become either an architect or an accountant. I was pretty narrow in what I wanted to become when I grew up.

Then I had the fortune of, again, a luck type of thing where I went to a business-oriented high school, that was bookkeeping and accounting classes in high school as well as finance classes in high school as well. I don't think a lot of my peers would have had that benefit or privilege early on. That, again, steered my path towards that profession. But coming out of high school, I was still in that finance mode, I wanted to be in the finance world.

I also got to intern the New York Stock Exchange while in high school. That was a really great experience. We also did some programs with a bank as well. Finance was my focus coming out of high school, and I still recall one of my accounting teachers in high school saying, "If you wanted to do finance, that's great, but think about doing an undergrad in accounting first." Then perhaps pursuing an advanced degree in finance, and I kept that at the back of my head.

I went to college at NYU, so again, a school well known for its business school. I started out with that finance path, but probably by the end of my second year, I saw that accounting was much more than about numbers. It really is about people and interacting with people and the things that we do in terms of getting exposure to the different industries that certainly in public accounting that one would have the benefit of, to see what different businesses are out there and how they operate. It's really a huge — and that's the one thing about public accounting — it's a never-ending learning curve.

I saw that the accounting firms were all very active as opposed to the finance firms and recruiting on campus. I became involved with the accounting societies. It really just cemented my desire to pursue a career in accounting at that point.

Amato: This has been a great conversation, Amish. To close, do you have two or three pieces of advice that you give to young professionals who are considering a career in accounting?

Mehta: Accounting, as I just said, is just a never-ending learning curve. You're not going to go to the office and do the same thing over and over again. I mean, the learning curve is just phenomenal; that's why people do get into public accounting, because of the learning curve and then the professionals that you work with, the smart people that you come across, and all the different clients that you have a chance to become exposed to.

Again, it's about much more than number crunching. Having a degree in accounting is a great entrée to business, opens you to a whole world of possibilities. Do your research and consider your passions and be open in your opportunities. You never know where the accounting degree can take you. As I mentioned, like it's taken me internationally, all these different clients that have had a chance to work on over the years.

If I think about it, networking is the biggest advice that I can give to young professionals today. When you're in college, start building that networking base with your peers because these folks are going to be the future leaders of the different professions that they choose to pursue. Just start building that networking base now. We have all these great tools like LinkedIn and others that you can continue to keep in touch with individuals well beyond college. Again, in our industry it's very important. Even when you're in public accounting, connect with different individuals at different firms, large and small, private and public, that have different areas of focus.

Talk to them about their own career path and consider the most of any opportunities they present to you and take advantage of it, because, when you have conversations with different individuals that you come across, you never know where that path is going to take you so, really just be open and wide-eyed when you come into the profession. Don't have a preconceived notion of "this is what I want to do," because then you're really limiting yourselves, but just really be open-minded.

Amato: Amish, thank you very much.

Mehta: My pleasure. It was a pleasure being with you here, Neil.

Amato: Again, that was Amish Mehta. His Last Word feature will be linked in the episode show notes, or you can find it by visiting journalofaccountancy.com and clicking the word "magazine" to access our issue library.

In other news, two AICPA experts break down the language in the Senate Finance Committee's version of the Build Back Better Act. The big picture from the article is this: The text mostly has small policy changes compared with the version passed by the House of Representatives. One change is that for now, the bill would not change the federal SALT deduction cap, SALT standing for "state and local taxes." It would also tweak the House's corporate profits minimum tax language to create a carveout for pensions.

The JofA's Jeff Drew has news on how top-performing accounting firms compare with their peers. That information comes from the 2021 version of the National Management of an Accounting Practice, or MAP, survey, which gathered benchmarking information from more than 1,000 accounting firms. The survey found that the top 25% of firms in terms of per partner net income produce more than double the partner revenue, profit, and compensation than the typical firm that took the survey. You can find a link to the JofA's coverage of the MAP survey in the show notes or by visiting journalofaccountancy.com/news.

That's all for this episode. We'd love for you to subscribe and share this podcast, to give us a rating and review. Thanks for listening.