Accounting changing, but future looks bright

Hiring has been brisk for executives with accounting skills, according to the Cerius Executive Demand Index report, which spotlights C-suite recruiting and hiring trends. During the fourth quarter of 2011, 28 percent of the more than 1,100 top executive job openings nationwide were finance-related.

“Particularly going into 2012, savvy and experienced CFOs and CAOs will be the keys to successful companies weathering the economy and maintaining or growing market share,” said Pamela Wasley, CEO of Cerius Interim Executive Solutions.

CPA Horizons 2025, a yearlong study by  the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants, reaffirms the profession’s bright prospects as long as firms can change to respond to today’s technology-driven, increasingly complex global marketplace.

“The core competency and value of being that trusted financial adviser hasn’t changed, but the world has. It no longer needs your granddaddy’s CPA,” said Gary Edwards, CFO and CAO of Bennett Thrasher, an Atlanta full-service accounting, tax and consulting firm.

In years past an accountant would earn a degree, join a big firm to gain experience, and then hang out his own shingle. “He could have a good business doing taxes and giving financial advice within a 15-20 mile radius,” Edwards said. “Now tax preparation companies and programs are a dime-a-dozen. Accounting firms need to grow and diversify their services to be successful.”

In the past decade he’s seen top firms consolidate down to a top four, and small companies merge to become midsized firms in order to offer their clients more services. Businesses need a wealth of information to operate in today’s global environment. Smart CPA firms are working to gather, analyze and deliver that information faster and more accurately.

Bennett Thrasher has added people and expanded its services to include dispute resolution, financial reporting and assurance, forensic accounting, valuations, international tax work, compliance and other skills.

“One challenge we all face is being able to articulate our value proposition to clients. We often know more about our clients than they know about themselves, and we need to leverage that knowledge to help them grow,” Edwards said.

Some firms expand their offerings by merger. Others are aiming to become deep experts for a particular industry.

CPAs are taking on larger and more critical roles in companies and will be required to be actively involved in operations from the start of their careers, Edwards said. “Those who are multi-disciplined, such as having an MBA, technology knowledge or a second language, will find even more career opportunities,” he said.

With the scope of business more complex, CPAs can’t be relegated to their own departments any longer, said Jim Underwood, principal of Windham Brannon, an Atlanta accounting firm. Having worked on the AICPA's vision project for accounting in 1999, he sees little fundamental change in how CPA Horizons 2025 defines the core purpose, values or competency for the profession going into the future.

“It’s still our purpose to ‘synthesize intelligence to insight’ [as the report states], or to gather and sift through all the data and to help our clients understand it so that they can act on it,” he said. “Leaders in the C-suite have a greater need for that expertise, because so much of business is driven by financial decisions.”

As a result, he sees two trends emerging in the accounting field -- collaboration and integration.

“Increasingly, CPAs must collaborate with attorneys, insurance professionals, private equity specialists, investment bankers and other professionals to help companies look at the financial implications for navigating cross border transactions,” Underwood said. “We’ve seen for a long time that collaboration is great for our clients.”

Collaboration requires CPAs to move beyond math skills, to hone their analytical, technology and communication skills, he said.

“In the past few years, many accounting firms have gone through mergers or acquisitions in order to bring greater resources to bear on their clients’ problems. Advising businesses today requires more skill sets,” Underwood said.

With baby boomers retiring, firms are also looking toward succession planning. They need or want to add young talent who can carry the firm forward.

“I always tell young people that accounting offers outstanding opportunities for the future,” Underwood said. “People may think that all we do is tax work, but we do so much more. The CPA designation translates into lots of career paths.”

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.