I am a counter. I count the number of jumps when I jump rope in the morning (600), the standard number of banana slices on my bowl of cereal (20), the number of fellow parishioners in church with me on Sunday morning (last week, Easter, hit 282), as well as the number of seconds between traffic light cycles at the end of my street (maximum 64).
When I go to the theatre, I estimate the average ticket cost, count the house, and calculate the gross for the night. I used to do the same thing at church until they made me an usher and one of my duties was to count the collection plate. That took all the fun out of it – having real numbers was the domain of accountants. Living comfortably with estimates made me a finance guy.
I’m not an accountant, but I almost was. At the end of business school, all those years ago, I turned down the highest bidder for my services – the New York accounting firm of Touche Ross Bailey & Smart, one of the original Big Eight, now down to Four (Deloitte and Touche survives) – despite being reasonably impressed by their offer. But… man!… I couldn’t see myself being an accountant. I figured that those guys (mostly guys in those days!) lived in a binary world – black and white. Right or wrong. Either it balances, or it doesn’t. That’s not me – I can deal with gray, until it’s decision time.
I was reminded of this basic difference between finance and accounting a couple of weeks ago as one of my clients – president of a well-financed start-up company in the restaurant business – and I interviewed two partners of a good-sized local CPA firm. My client and I were initially referred to this firm due to its extensive experience in the restaurant industry. In our discussion with the partners, it was clear that their knowledge would be very useful to us. Beyond that, however, what difference does it make who you retain as outside accountants? If they have earned their CPA designation and retained their license to practice, that should be adequate validation, right?
CPA firms come in all sizes and shapes. Your challenge as a small company executive is to define your needs and then to go shopping with at least the following criteria in mind:
- Size – Match the CPA’s resources with your 3-5 year expectations. At a steady revenue level of $10MM or less with limited financial complexity and routine outside reporting requirements (e.g., to a bank loan officer), your company may do fine with a sole practitioner, though he/she may frequently be working below their highest level of capability. With growth and expansion comes outside financing, contracts, and capital purchases requiring detailed inquiry and documentation. A multi-layered CPA firm will assign its staff at the appropriate level of competence to match your complexity.
- Reporting Format– Year-end financial analysis is available at three levels, though many smaller CPA firms offer only the first two:
- Compilation, which is a presentation of your income statement and balance sheet in standardized form based on numbers which you generate internally;
- Review, which usually involves on-site inquiry to make sure that accounts “tie out” to detailed back-up and which results in a final presentation with notes about your accounting practices and your financial commitments; and
- Audit, which requires investigation and confirmation of a significant sample of revenue and expense transactions so that the CPA can “express an opinion” on the resulting financial statements.
The more outside money at risk in your business, the higher the level of reporting required and the greater the CPA’s time commitment.
- Relevant experience – Manufacturing is different from service; retail differs from wholesale; multi-national adds complexity, as does government regulation. Choose a CPA who has been down your road with clients who have already discovered the potholes and know the twists and turns.
- Fees – Eminently negotiable, unless you’re seeking a quick turn-around during the accountant’s peak period, February through April. A quoted fixed fee against an agreed list of timely client deliverables (detailed trial balance, bank reconciliations, updated fixed asset list, etc.) provides the right financial incentives for both sides.
- Personal characteristics– Any reasonably successful service provider (i.e., someone who’s been soliciting and delivering business for five years or more) has learned to be friendly, flexible, and responsive in the interview stage. But how do you subsequently avoid an argument over deferred revenue, or a six-month wait for your final statements?
- Check references: Has your CPA candidate been timely and attentive? Has his/her on-site staff been productive (buried in the numbers vs. on the phone or chatting with your employees)? Has there been continuity (two or three years with the same people, and smooth transitions)? Have their fees been as quoted? Was there add-on work (with additional fees) that might have been anticipated? Did they take time to provide full explanations? Were they flexible when there were optional treatments? Were they good problem-solvers?
- Check their offices: This seldom occurs up front, but it should. Arrive early. Observe the efficiency of the staff; eyeball the office environment. Is there ample evidence of good organization, or pride in surroundings? After meeting in the conference room, ask to see the partner’s office and the workspace of the person(s) assigned to your account. Most good accountants are meticulous, well-organized, predictable. Does the office strike you that way?
- Tax advice – As a corporate taxpayer, you have a responsibility to your shareholders, your customers, and your employees – as well as to yourself – to arrange your business affairs in a way that legitimately minimizes your taxes. You can’t keep track of the options or the opportunities, but your CPA can. He or she should offer preliminary advice in the first or second meeting by asking pointed questions about your corporate structure and suggesting ways to reduce your tax burden. This is an area in which there are really no “trade secrets,” only lack of knowledge, and no professional wants to indicate that.
After 25 years of working closely with them, I readily acknowledge that there’s more to an accountant’s life than just counting beans (witness: Alligator Bites, to the right). And I know that there’s a fine distinction between being a counter and being a bean-counter. But I could have done much worse in New York than being a Touche Ross accountant. I could have ended up being a Yankee fan!
Draining the Swamp
(less than $25MM company revenues, except less than $50MM for CFO and Controller)
|Title||2007 Salary||IncreaseOver 2006|
|General Accountant(1-3 years)||$36,000||–||$44,500||4.2%|
|General Accountant(up to 1 year)||$31,500||–||$37,000||5.8%|
|Cost Accountant Mgr.||$52,500||–||$66,250||4.9%|
|Asst. Credit Mgr.||$33,500||–||$41,000||3.5%|
|1 to 3 years||$42,000||–||$49,000||5.2%|
|Up to 1 year||$38,000||–||$44,000||5.1%|
*Subject to the following geographic adjustments:
|New York, NY||+||50.0%|
|New Orleans, LA||–||13.9%|
|St. Louis, MO||0.0%|
|San Francisco, CA||+||30.0%|
Source: Robert Half International , 2007 Salary Guide, Accounting and Finance Salaries
Well-qualified accountants are in great demand these days, given the proliferation of corporate compliance issues. Newly-minted CPAs can almost write their own job ticket. So it’s no surprise that savvy accounting firms are responding, expanding their values statement to encompass the younger generation.
Here’s a selection of some of the “Firm Values” from Charlestown, Massachusetts-based Vitale, Caturano and Company, who shared the restaurant conversation referenced in the lead article to the left.
- We expect more out of ourselves and of each other, and by doing so, we create “our firm” and provide outstanding and innovative service to “our clients.”
- Attract and retain exciting people – more than a few of whom are a little offbeat. All of whom have the desire to be the best.
- Constantly question “the way things are done around here,” and never, ever rest on our laurels. Continual investment must be made in getting better. The good is the enemy of the best.
- Make sure we are learning a lot, having a special experience, and making lifelong friends.
- Work with exciting clients who turn us on and stretch us, from whom we can learn, and with whom we enjoy associating. (And who pay their bills on time, too.) Understand your clients’ businesses and exceed their expectations.
You can access the full Vitale Caturano value statement, set to music.