A pioneering CPA reflects on a 50-year journey

Hosted by Neil Amato

To celebrate National Hispanic Heritage Month, Gil Vasquez, CPA, the founder of the Association of Latino Professionals for America (ALPFA), joins the Journal of Accountancy podcast to discuss the history of ALPFA and how it has evolved over the years.

The founder and managing partner of Vasquez & Company LLP talks about early struggles to land a job as a CPA and some of the work he has done serving on boards in Los Angeles.

National Hispanic Heritage Month is Sept. 15 to Oct. 15.

What you'll learn from this episode:

  • An overview of the early years of ALPFA and why its name has had several iterations.
  • Why Vasquez thought he wanted to become a CPA.
  • What a college professor told him before he went for an important job interview in the 1960s.
  • Why serving on the committee for the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles was a highlight for Vasquez.
  • His thoughts on how opportunities have improved for Hispanic professionals and where there is room for improvement.

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@aicpa-cima.com.


Neil Amato: Welcome to the Journal of Accountancy podcast. This is Neil Amato. I'm happy to introduce today's guest, Gil Vasquez, a CPA in Southern California. This episode is celebrating National Hispanic Heritage Month, and Gil is going to discuss the professional organization he founded and more on this episode. As I said, our guest today is Gil Vasquez. Gil, welcome to the Journal of Accountancy podcast.

Gil Vasquez: Thank you. It's very nice to be on, Neil.

Amato: We want to talk today first about the founding of ALPFA and the vision and growth for it and how it's changed over the years. I guess the first thing that's changed over the years is that its name has changed.

Vasquez: The American Association of Spanish Speaking CPAs was the first name. Then it changed to the American Association of Hispanic CPAs because that was more of the trend. Later on, we changed it to the Association of Latino Professionals in Finance and Accounting and now the Association of Latino Professionals for America (ALPFA).

Amato: It has changed — not just that first it was accounting-specific, and now it is across a wider profession. Could you tell me some about how that's gone over the years?

Vasquez: Certainly. The original name was as a result of a grant that we received from the federal government to start the association. The fact that the Nixon administration at that time referred to Latinos as Spanish-speaking, so we adopted that first name, American Association of Spanish Speaking CPAs. At the onset, it was a trade association. It consisted solely of CPAs who are owners of Latino CPA firms.

That continued on until about probably 1980 and then in 1980 or thereabouts, we changed our name to the American Association of Hispanic CPAs, and we now let in all Latino CPAs. As long as you are a CPA and you were Latino, you could become a member of our association. From that time on to about 2000, we kept that same name and we were now more of a social, upward-mobility, sponsored organization. We no longer had a grant from the federal government.

We were about upward mobility. We brought in students, we created chapters, and then in about 2001, we became the Association of Latinos in Finance and Accounting. We let in people in finance and accounting. By doing that, we were able to grow significantly up until 2001, our growth have probably been maybe 1,000 to 2,000 members.

But once we change our name, we would grow in about 15 years to about 20,000 members. Then when we changed our name again to ALPFA, then we grew now to about 105,000 members. The name changed the structure of the organization, and its success have all been tied in ready with how we've postured our organization as with the times as they all changed.

You begin one way, and times like the Constitution, change that a little bit. Here we are today very proud to have our new name, the number of people that we have, 105,000, again, approximately 200 chapters throughout the United States.

I didn't mention this, but starting from the first conference had 16 people, and it was in Las Vegas. Our last conference, which was just celebrating our 50th anniversary in Orlando, we had about 3,500 people. The amount of enthusiasm, the amount of excitement, the sponsorship board, the scholarship grants we were able to give has magnified tremendously, and it was a wonderful event.

Amato: What prompted you to found ALPFA?

Vasquez: When I went to college, I knew immediately I wanted to be an accountant. I was really good with numbers, always number one in my math classes. I could add backwards. I had an affinity for two things, for numbers and for reading and history — I just loved to read. I was working before I went to college as a gas station attendant. In the old days you actually put gas in the car for people. They didn't get out to put in gas, you had a gas station attendant. I did that but once I went to college, I realized that that was not the job I wanted to keep, although I got paid very well.

I got a job as a controller of an engineering company. There I met Marlo Bearden, and he was a CPA, and that prompted me to start thinking about being a CPA. When I continued onto Cal State LA, where I was Alumni of the Year in 2017, and I'm very proud of that, Neil. I thought well, I want to be a CPA. When I was about to graduate, one of my professors, I think I was always a likable person, told me, "Gil, I don't want you to be disappointed, but when you go for an interview, you're not going to get hired."

I asked, why would that be? I have good grades I think I have a good personality. I have a good appearance. He says at that time, you're Mexican. They don't hire Mexicans. Really, I was kind of shocked. So he didn't tell me this, but they didn't hire African Americans, they didn't hire Asians, they didn't hire Jews, and they didn't hire women. Now, he didn't tell me those things.

I went to interview and I had a friend, his name is Ernie Ortiz, and Ernie was six-foot-four, he's a scratch golfer, very light complexed, good looking guy. If anybody is going to get a job, it'd be Ernie. But sure enough, seven of us graduated, and none of us got a job. I interviewed 13 times before I was able to get a job because I wanted to be a CPA. Everybody else went into private industry, IRS, utilities, so on and so forth. So I got a job, and I got a job with a Jewish firm.

I didn't know all of this. You find out that the Jewish firms, before they were not hired by the large firms, so they had their own firms. I went to work for the large Jewish firm on the West Side. At that time, I was the only non Jew in the professional staff. That firm did a lot for my success. I model my firm after their firm and they wound up joining — they wound up merging with Leventhal & Horwitz. I went to work for a large firm like I wanted to work for. Before I resigned, they asked me to stay. But when I ultimately turned in my resignation, they asked me to stay, and if I stayed one more year, they'd make me a partner.

But I had decided no, I wanted to form my own firm and so I did. I started in East LA with one office. Then I heard about this grant that they were given for trade associations. That's sparked my mind while forming ALPFA, the current name.

Now identifying Latino CPAs and taking the narrative, where we couldn't get jobs and seeing how we could come together and start to change that narrative. So, the forming of ALPFA, it took me a year and a half to actually form it, thinking about it, identifying the Latinos, which I identified in part because I belonged to the AICPA's committee on minority recruitment and equal opportunity.

Somehow they found me in 1970, I joined that organization. I realized what the numbers were, Joe San Miguel had done a study. There were only 230, I think, Latino CPAs in the country at that time. All of that fostered that notion that we needed to have an organization to come together, promote ourselves, be a trade association like you have in manufacturing, you have in the automobile industry.

All trade associations promote their interests. Let's increase our numbers, and let's promote what it is that we want to do to change the narrative that I've discussed and will be discussing throughout this podcast.

Amato: That's a great summation of how the organization has progressed over the years, and at the same time, through all that, you also have a growing firm. Tell me something about the firm's growth alongside that and some of the goals that you've accomplished.

Vasquez: The first seven, eight years of the organization, we were a trade organization, so our goal there was to, the reason we received the grant, was to help Latino CPA firms grow in the federal government.

We were able to successfully secure audit opportunities with the federal government and the prize, the culmination of all of our efforts and working together was to obtain a contract in 1977 for about $4.2 million to audit 142 Indian tribes. Now $4.2 million might not sound like a lot today, but in today's dollars, that probably would be closer to $50 million.

We had to hire 16 CPA firms, eight from the American Association of Spanish CPAs, and eight just from the broader community.

We had these 16 firms, our firm Vasquez & Company, which we'll talk about in a moment, led the effort, and we were able to successfully complete this contract. It was renewed for a second year, and it was probably the largest contract ever given to a small CPA firm in the United States, not just Latino, but just in general. It was a huge contract, a big success for us, and it really allowed us to grow and expand the firm and expand all the firms, and it accomplished what it was supposed to accomplish.

It allowed Latino CPA firms, like other minority firms, to grow and expand and develop a footprint, not just in federal government but the government itself, and then, of course, in the other sectors of accounting that allowed us to expand our firms such as the private sector, such as employee benefit plans, consulting, tax, IT today. As a result of all of that, many Latino firms are much larger than they would have been without this foundation.

Once we got past that contract, we now were on our own, and we continued on, and so fast-forwarding today, our firm is the largest diverse firm in America, by far. We have global operations where part of the G400, we actually do work for about 20 other CPAs and private sector companies; that office is growing dramatically in Manila, we're part of RSM Alliance. That allows us access to all of their tools or technology, their CPE, their technical desk.

The result is we're able to have very large clients because of our expertise and the support that we get from RSM. That combination has allowed us to grow to where we are today. Our firm has seven partners: Five are women, and two are men. We have seven partners, four directors, who are total of 11 of us that we run the firm. Again, we have a total of about 250 people.

Amato: That's great.

Vasquez: Seventy-five percent of all of our personnel are women, and 70% of our partners and directors are women.

Amato: That's a diversity model worth emulating for sure, so congratulations on that. One thing that's popped into my head from reading about you and talking to you some is the importance of service. Why is service important to you?

Vasquez: Over my career, I've sat on 40 different boards. I looked back and I actually marvel that I was able to do that. I had a lot of energy. Thirty-one of those were nonprofit boards, nine of the boards were corporate boards where I actually received compensation. The nonprofit boards they were important to me because I've gotten so much out of life, myself. I went to public institutions — East LA College, Cal State LA, and we'll talk little about the Olympics and their role in my career — but I really basically got a free education.

What I did, after I went into business, I taught at East LA College for two years to give back a little bit to be a role model for future students. I served as chair of National Council of La Raza, which is now the UnidosUS, has the largest Latino civil rights organization in the country. I did that because I felt that it was important to move the Latino agenda, and I wanted to be helpful in that process. I served on the board of the YMCA, here in Los Angeles, Los Angeles Metropolitan YMCA, the largest YMCA in the country.

I did that because when I was a young boy, I went to the Y. East Los Angeles is where I was born and raised. As I got older, the East LA Y moved out, it was in Montebello, and the East LA community didn't really participate in that Y. When the president of the Y in Los Angeles approached me, I agreed to serve if they would put a Y in East LA. Little did I know how it really worked.

We had to form a committee. We started out small. It took us seven years to get the size that we needed. Finally, when it was time to really put our footprint in the Y and have a building, I was elected or appointed to serve as the major gifts chairman. I didn't count on that. I had to raise $3 million dollars. I can tell you $3 million dollars in 1979 was a lot of money. But I was a good friend of the sheriff, I got him to be my co-chair. We have nine months to raise the money, and that Y has been in place since 1980 or so. It's been a tremendous asset to the community, right in East LA, and it was built exactly where the old Y was before it was demolished in East LA when it moved to Montebello.

I did that because when I was a boy, I played in the playgrounds, I played after-school sports, went to the Boys Club, and I just felt that was something I wanted to do to get back to the community. My cousin who was playground director at Belvedere Park. Belvedere Park was again in East Los Angeles. The county of Los Angeles was going to put in a half a million dollars, that was the largest amount of money that we're going to put it in the 1972 — my cousin asked me to chair this committee with seven ladies and myself, seven mothers from the park.

I chaired that, and we were able to get the county to put in a soccer field, and one existed in LA County at that time. They put the lighting and the ballpark so they could play at night, two sandboxes, one for tiny kids, meaning 1–3 years of age, and one for older kids. The eating area, they put small buildings shaped like pyramids to resemble the Mayan pyramids in Mexico. They did all of this to have the park reflect the community's needs, and I was glad to play a role in that.

We hired the first Latino landscape architect who the county ever had for that part, and, of course, to this day, when you go on the weekends or even during the week, it's really enjoyed by the community, and I'm very proud of that. At each step, I tried to get involved in organizations that helped make America better, make it more inclusive, make it so that we could all enjoy what America is all about. That was the purpose of my involvement.

Amato: Well, one thing that I think a lot of Americans are into is the Olympics. I noticed your work with the 1984 LA Olympic Committee. What to you is special about that?

Vasquez: That was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. What the Olympic committee and being a member of the executive committee — it was 15 people from Los Angeles that were chosen for that. I immediately met with the president, Peter Ueberroth, and I told Peter, "If we leave the Latino community out of the Olympic Games, it would be bad for you and bad for me." What I told him is I'm looking for kind of fair. I've never known what fair is, but I do know what unfair is, and if we can get some reasonable participation, I think we'd all be very proud of that. Pete responded in turn, it was very positive, he said, "Gil, you're right, life isn't fair, and I can live with kind of fair as long as you present me with something that seems reasonable, I'll approve it."

Every opportunity that I provided him, he accepted, for example, the insurance broker, he was a Latino at a Japanese firm. They became the co-brokers of the Games with Marsh McLennan. The tie manufacturer Rudy Cervantes, he made ties for Disney, he was the tie manufacturer. The print laborer was Bob Varela, a Latino. In hindsight, every one was the right one. We were both very proud of the results, and I was thrilled to have that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

I work hard because I don't belong to any organization that I don't want to be an active participant in. And so it is with the Olympic Games or with ALPFA, with National Council of La Raza, or UnidosUS, every one of them I was very active in trying to get it to be successful. I'm in it primarily for results. I'm not in it for any glory or any personal recognition, of course, you always get some, but I'm in it because I believe that's how we make America better.

Amato: We are recording this episode in late September. It's slated to air within National Hispanic Heritage Month. Gil, this has been a great conversation, anything you'd like to add in closing?

Vasquez: Well, first of all, the battle for us is never over. For Latinos, it's never over, and probably for all the ethnic minorities. Things change, they've improved. There has been a big improvement. I'm always going to be positive guy. Every day where I wake up, I wake up with a lot of energy. Every night when I go to bed, I make sure I'm going to be having a happy guy, because every day I want to be happy, but we're now 20% of the population, we're probably 30% of the younger population.

Latinos are moving forward. I'm hoping that as we move forward that the opportunities to sit on corporate boards, the opportunity to be more successful in your business, the opportunity for upward mobility and positions in the hierarchy of companies, our depiction in movies, which right now is very poor and in very low numbers, will improve instead of being the drug dealers and the low-level people that appear in movies that we'll be now the people who are depicted in the more responsible roles, more respectable roles because this is who we are, we're part of the American fabric.

We have successful people and CEOs today. We have successful people in every aspect of America, but they're not depicted in a motion picture roles and television roles. I'm hoping that will change for us as well as having people accept us more as Americans. Many times people sees us as foreigners, so I'm hoping that all of that will change as we go forward.

Amato: Gil, thank you very much.

Vasquez: Thank you, Neil. I enjoyed our conversation. I appreciate the opportunity to be part of this presentation and good luck to you.

Amato: Thank you. Same to you.