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Be A Star In Business---Be A CPA!

by Anita Dennis

If you are considering a career in business, becoming a Certified Public Accountant (CPA) will allow you to be a star player on any business team. Because CPAs understand the nuts-and-bolts of finance, their expertise is valued everywhere, from high technology companies to the music industry to the fast-paced world of electronic commerce. The CPA designation is a stepping stone to whatever business career you can imagine.

Wherever money is being made, CPAs can provide the framework for long-lasting success, according to CPA Derek Ferguson, top financial executive at Bad Boy Records and related businesses run by music star Sean "Puffy" Combs. "If you're a CPA, there are limitless opportunities to have a major influence on the business world," he says.

Accounting is a solid foundation upon which to build a future. The U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that accounting will be among the fastest growing industries over the next ten years. "Once you get your CPA, your marketability goes through the roof," says Kevin Chambers, a senior auditor at Ernst & Young.
Accounting also provides a background that can readily adapt to today's rapidly changing business environment. "There are new definitions of how, where, and why we work," observes CPA Matthew Pedersen, a senior consultant at Great Plains Software. "Accounting is a solid background and skill set that can always open doors in business or related careers."

Becoming A CPA
What does it take to become a CPA? A career in accounting requires an array of skills, aptitudes, and technologies. CPAs need extensive business knowledge, as well as strong problem-solving and communication skills. CPAs must be licensed to practice public accounting, usually by their state boards of accountancy, which administer licensing requirements. Requirements vary by state, but the following elements are the minimum necessary to qualify for certification:

  • Complete a program of study in accounting at an accredited college or university. The AICPA, the national professional organization of CPAs, recommends at least 150 semester hours of college study in order to obtain the common body of knowledge needed for success in the CPA profession. In fact, 48 states now require (or will soon require) 150 hours of education to be eligible to take the CPA exam. To meet this requirement, a student might combine an undergraduate accounting program with graduate study. While accounting and business administration courses are important, potential CPAs will also benefit from courses in communications, the humanities, the sciences, economics, and technology applications because of the many types of job opportunities open to them.
  • Pass the Uniform CPA Examination. This two-day exam tests accounting knowledge and competency. (The Uniform CPA Examination Candidate Brochure is available on-line at www.aicpa.org/exams or through state boards of accountancy.)
  • In some states, acquire a certain amount of professional work experience.
    Life-long learning is a hallmark of the profession. As a result, most states also require that CPAs take regular continuing professional education courses to keep their skills sharp and retain their professional licenses.

A Range Of Choices
The CPA credential opens doors in every kind of business. CPAs may work in public accounting firms, large or small companies, in their own businesses, in government, in education, or for non-profit organizations. New areas of opportunity open all the time for CPAs. One of the most exciting emerging fields in accounting is assurance services. This hot growth area of the profession provides assurance to clients about economic issues in areas such as electronic commerce, elder care, and risk management. Assurance services also includes the traditional audit in which a CPA examines a company's financial "health."

Information Technology Services
There are many job opportunities for accounting professionals who can design and implement advanced systems to fit an organization's specialized needs.

Environmental Accounting
CPAs are involved in everything from environmental compliance audits to setting up preventive systems to ensure compliance and avoid future claims or disputes.

Forensic Accounting
The forensic accountant works to stamp out fraud, searching for evidence of "white collar" criminal conduct.

International Accounting
Companies doing business in the new world economy need CPAs who understand international trade rules, government regulations, and tax laws.

CPAs provide a range of value-added services and information to their clients and employers. No matter where they work, CPAs have taken on the role of key business advisor.

Earning Power

Accountants enjoy good starting salaries and great long-term earning potential. First-year staff in public accounting firms average from $26,000 to $36,000, depending on the size and location of the firm. Graduates going into industry positions can expect to make $27,000 to $34,000. Those with one to three years of experience average between $30,000 and $41,000 in CPA firms and between $31,000 and $45,000 in industry. (Those who have received the CPA designation or who have graduate degrees would earn 10% more in these positions.)

After moving up the ranks of a public accounting firm, a CPA who becomes partner starts at a salary of about $175,000, with the potential to earn much more over time. Managers and directors earn between $56,000 and $78,000. In industry, the top finance officers can earn more than $300,000 in many larger companies, while corporate controllers enjoy a pay of as much as $140,000. Stock options and other incentive compensation can boost these salaries even higher.

Snapshots Of Success
Although they share a fundamental set of core competencies, skills, and values, CPAs come from all different backgrounds and use their talents in a remarkable variety of professions and purposes. Here is a closer look at a group of CPAs who have become stars in business.

Building A Foundation For The Future

"The first thing I realized about accounting is that it has a lot less to do with math than I thought," says Kevin Chambers, a senior auditor at Ernst & Young in New York. "Accounting is a wealth of knowledge." Chambers, who is on the road to earning his CPA, specializes in financial services clients such as Fiduciary Trust Company and Fuji Bank. In the past, he has also worked with clients like Club Med and Essence Magazine. "Although a knowledge of accounting is important, the job that we do here involves a lot of interaction with people. I work with people who have just started and with chief executive officers and chief financial officers."

Although he has only been on the job for two years, Chambers has observed that those on the CPA track are taken seriously. "Once you get your CPA, you get a certain level of respect. People are willing to put their trust in you because they know you know your stuff."

Chambers acknowledges that accounting is "one of the most exciting jobs out there." Today, computers can add up numbers, so my job is not about number crunching. It's about learning new ideas and concepts and understanding how things work. You really gain such a good understanding of so many different fields of business. It's one of the best foundations you could have. If you're at all interested in business, a knowledge of accounting is invaluable.

Riding The E-commerce Wave

As electronic commerce grows into a multi-billion dollar market, CPAs are well-qualified to take on a leading role in this business revolution. Just ask Angela Snelling, who at 28 years old became the director of electronic commerce at Milacron, a maker of industrial materials in Cincinnati. While she has used technology throughout her career, she gained her promotion because of the skills she acquired as a CPA.

"They needed someone who had a broad business background and the capacity to run the business, from marketing and advertising to taking orders and making sure they were shipped from the warehouse," Snelling says. "That person also had to understand all the financial implications, as well as tax issues and computer systems." In other words, the company needed a CPA.

When it wanted to market over the Internet, Milacron, like many companies, understood that technology know-how alone wouldn't be enough for its e-commerce chief. "E-commerce technology can re-engineer or eliminate processes," Snelling says, changing a business entirely. "The person in charge has to be able to determine if the processes really are necessary or if they can be eliminated." A CPA has the training needed to make those decisions. "My boss has joked that he can't believe he is turning over the most promising part of his business to a 28-year-old. I say, "Well, she's a CPA." Snelling takes obvious delight in her cyberspace adventure. "It's been a wild ride," she says. "The technology is so new, we're dealing with issues the company has never faced before. But the CPA gave me the tools I needed."

Making His Mark In The Entertainment World
If you want to break into the music industry, become a CPA. That's what Derek Ferguson would tell you, because his accounting knowledge is crucial to his job as chief financial officer of Bad Boy Records and other businesses related to Sean "Puffy" Combs, including restaurants, clothing companies, music publishers and entertainment companies, merchandising and touring companies and a television and film group. All told, the businesses add up to $200 million in sales. Ferguson, who has an MBA from Harvard, has worked as an executive at the international company Bertelsmann Music Group and in management consulting. He has found that sometimes the most dynamic companies have the greatest need of accounting expertise. "Success can easily mask things that are out of control," he says. Imposing accounting discipline in a music company "is a challenge because of the way creative businesses are run. They focus on trying to create the best product, and all the financial ramifications aren't always considered." That leaves CPAs like Ferguson with a delicate balancing act. Although he must ensure the company follows the correct policies and procedures, "you don't want to decrease the creative energy by tying everything up in paperwork." But even the most creative entrepreneurs can appreciate a CPA's skills. "Any successful business person knows that accounting and finance are the foundation for their ultimate success," Ferguson says. "That's true for musicians as well as for high-tech companies. Anyone out there who's making money needs a CPA, and they need one badly."

Fighting Crime With The FBI
Did you know that nearly 1,400 of the FBI's special agents are accountants, including the bureau's #3 executive, Thomas Pickard? "If you want to join the FBI, being a CPA is a great way to get in," says special agent Ken Hosey. "An accounting background definitely aids in all types of investigations," Hosey says. "A lot of crimes are committed to make money," including fraud, bribery and money laundering. People who have been trained to understand financial records can quickly recognize when the numbers don't add up, when activity in a bank statement or transactions in a financial statement or a bank account just don't make sense, Hosey says.In college, Hosey started out as a finance major, but when a speaker from the FBI told students that the bureau looked for people with accounting backgrounds, he switched to a double major in finance and accounting. "You never go wrong with an accounting background," he says.

Assigned to the FBI New York bureau, he is on the public corruption squad, which investigates cases mainly involving state and city officials suspected of taking bribes. Since white-collar crimes can be quite complex, "the organizational skills you learn as a CPA help you to present your findings in a manageable format." A CPA's communications skills are valuable, too, Hosey says, when he testifies about evidence he's helped obtain. In court, his financial background adds credibility to his testimony. "The skills you learn as a CPA are things that you can carry into any field," Hosey advises. "A CPA will be a credit in any line of work.

Running Her Own Show
When you manage your own business, you have the power to shape your own professional destiny.

CPA Carmen Aguiar, who heads the four-person CPA firm the Aguiar Group in Bellevue, Washington, is creating strategies that will take her and her firm into what she expects to be an exciting future. Aguiar doesn't perform many of the services people normally associate with small CPA firms. I don't do any bookkeeping, accounting or financial statements. Even though some of my clients are fairly small, they have the technology to do all that themselves. Instead, Aguiar consults with clients on the strategic decisions that are crucial to their companies or their investments. She advises people on personal financial planning and consults with biomedical companies, among other types of clients, on corporate taxes.

As a sole practitioner, you have a very one-on-one relationship with your clients. You know everything about them, she says. Aguiar calls her firm a continuous prototype, something that can change depending on the business environment. For example, in the near future, Aguiar plans to expand the business to begin consulting with companies involved in electronic commerce and to take a more active role in managing clients' investments. As part of her innovation, she has encouraged staff to design their own job descriptions and compensation packages, which she believes keeps them happy and working at the height of their abilities.

Aguiar advises students to expect the unexpected. The profession is evolving at such a high speed that what you see today in business is nothing compared to what it will be like in a few years, she says. CPAs, however, have the kinds of core competencies that will be valuable no matter what happens in the business world.

Getting the Big Picture.

Internal audit is an excellent but still unknown opportunity for students, says CPA Mary Beth Goodrich. For CPAs, it's a great chance to do a little more than financial workto get a big picture approach, working with operations, information systems and other areas. Internal auditors function something like inside consultants, helping to improve their companies' operations by evaluating and enhancing a range of areas, from risk management to internal control. According to Goodrich, a corporate auditor for the financial services firm The Associates who has an MBA in internal audit, we look at all aspects of a company, including various processes and information systems.

I've even looked at and audited marketing and participated in fraud investigations. It's really exciting. It's probably one of the best opportunities for someone who is just out of school or really new to a company to learn all about the business. It's also a highly visible job. When you are evaluating different areas, you have meetings with upper management to explain what you see. You get face time with pretty important people in your company. It can be a good springboard to other areas of the company.

After she earned her MBA, Goodrich found that her employment options were plentiful. Although she received two job offers through campus interviews, she wanted to relocate to Dallas, so she turned to a local chapter of the Institute of Internal Auditors, which lead her to a job at Electronic Data Systems.Internal audit is a very hot field, Goodrich concludes. If you're a go-getter, it's very easy to get jobs. Changing the Course of a Court Case. When companies face off in court, money is often the heart of the matter. Since nobody knows as much about money and finance as a CPA, CPAs take center stage when lawyers need an expert witness or adviser to sort through the business facts of a case and analyze complex economic issues.

Aimee Heden is a litigation services specialista CPA who performs investigations in association with court cases or law suits. Heden concentrates on bankruptcy and fraud investigations. In some cases, she may be trying to track down money or other assets that a business in bankruptcy is concealing from its creditors. In others, she will prepare tax information for a company that is in bankruptcy. When fraud is suspected, a company owner may ask the CPAs to investigate whether an employee is stealing from the business. In an investigation, we get the accounting records and look for things that don't seem right, she explains. In litigation services, it's essential to have a strong accounting background and strong analytical skills so you know what the financial records are supposed to look like, what the norm is.

In her third year working in this area at Blum Shapiro Litigation Consulting Group in West Hartford, Connecticut, Heden expects to be presenting her own testimony in courtrooms soon. She finds tremendous satisfaction in her work. Litigation services is very fulfilling. Our work and our testimony play a strong role in the outcome of a case. People are looking for facts to support the conclusions in a case, and CPAs supply those facts.

Forging a Career in Technology.
What's the best way to break into the high technology industry?

Matthew Pedersen found that his CPA credentials were the key to a job as a senior consultant at Great Plains Consulting, an accounting software company. My accounting background alone got me this job, he says. Great Plains insists that it's much easier to teach someone information technology skills than it is to teach them accounting. For jobs consulting with clients, they would rather hire a CPA than someone with IT skills. In addition, his early years in public accounting taught him to be confident in a team environment. I learned how to meet client expectations, to look at the big picture, to ask what we are doing and how will it affect the organization.

Pedersen's job is to align the software tools with management's information needs. No implementation is the same. I have to learn the organizational structure, both legal and management. Because the software is customized for each client, I use my knowledge of accounting and business in all different settings. Pedersen enjoys the challenges of his job. It's a very fast-paced industry. Everything changes every month, so you are forced to learn new things, but his CPA background enables him to adapt to new business situations. In addition, when you go to a software client, you are respected because you are a CPA.

The clients are comfortable that I'm not only focusing on information technology. I can also create a solution that will satisfy their business processes and their management information needs. Pedersen is confident about his future. The CPA profession has provided me with a stable foundation of skills that will always be needed. I am very marketable.

Soaring Up the Executive Ladder.
Accounting is one of the few jobs that I know of in which you can get a good job with a future right after graduation, says CPA Jane Ling. Ling's career path is proof of her words. Armed with her CPA credential and a background at a public accounting firm, she is a vice president at American Express. After working for nine years as an auditor in a public accounting firm, Ling made the leap to American Express, where, as vice president of external reporting, she communicates information about the company's financial dealings to bodies such as the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Her job goes well beyond number crunching and into consulting in areas such as corporate acquisitions. For example, if the company or one of its divisions is considering buying a business, Ling's group offers advice on issues such as how the deal should be structured. She also works with other divisions, such as information technology, to ensure the systems can accommodate changes dictated by any new accounting rules.She has also been involved in international business issues, traveling to Singapore and Japan, among other places. Making presentations in various regions, her trips bring her into contact with executives around the globe. Because of their range of experience and visibility, confidence and recognition comes early to CPAs, she says.

By the time you have been a CPA for four or five years, you can become a very well respected manager with a lot of business sophistication. You become very polished. You learn how to supervise people and to work with client senior management. You develop all those skills in a hurry.

Getting a Ticket to World Travel.
During the past year, Jeff Burnison began to travel the world, all the while sticking close to his roots in the Midwest. The CPA has been to South Africa, Greece and Montreal, Canada so far, and has plans to travel to Hungary, Germany and Brazil in the coming year. All of this travel is part of his job as an internal audit manager at Pioneer Hi-Bred International in Des Moines, Iowa.

Pioneer, a DuPont business, is the world's leading developer and supplier of advanced plant genetics to farmers worldwide. Burnison is one of five six managers who spend about 30% of their time directing and performing internal audits at international subsidiaries of the company. Pioneer, which is mainly involved in agricultural research, operates in over 30 different countries. Originally from a small Iowa town, Burnison heard from his college professors about the opportunities available to those who begin their careers in public accounting.

During a college internship at Quaker Oats in Chicago, he learned that "most of the people with the good positions in the finance and accounting departments had come from a public accounting background. I decided that if I wanted to someday be a chief financial officer or a controller, public accounting would be a good path to take." In particular, Burnison takes pride in the profession's reputation for integrity and objectivity. He notes that surveys have shown that after the clergy, accountants are the most trusted professionals. "We're not just the watchdogs or bean counters anymore. We've really become business partners, consultants, and risk managers."

Coming Full Circle

As these stories demonstrate, the CPA credential offers the foundation for a career that can take you anywhere. No other majors offer you skills you can use to move into other fields, says e-commerce executive Angela Snelling. In short, a career as a CPA offers you a full range of possibilities. CPAs can choose job options in public accounting, financial services, the entertainment industry and e-commerceand that's just the beginning. The way the world is changing so fast, as a CPA you can create a whole new consulting practice around some new idea, says litigation services specialist Aimee Heden. The opportunities out there are probably never-ending.

Tips for Aspiring Accountants
Here is some advice from young CPAs to those interested in the accounting profession.Jeff Burnison:--Get a mentor. Find someone who is a CPA or a college student who has studied accounting. Burnison is a mentor for students at the Iowa CPA Society. --Use the Internet to learn more about the field. Information is available at the AICPA site (www.aicpa.org), or search for the sites of your local state CPA societies or of local or large public national accounting firms.

Be ready to learn.
"Your college degree is a ticket for opportunity, but not the end of learning," Burnison says. "An accounting degree teaches you how to learn and helps develop your work ethic."

Do more than is required.
"Do an internship or work after school," he suggests. "Go the extra mile, think outside the box. Those are the things that will help you grow." Derek Ferguson:--Learn about the business world as early as you can. Ferguson grew up doing the books for his father's trucking business. Business is so fundamental to everything that happens around us. Take a basic business or accounting course. Find something interesting in Business Week. Watch a business news program. Ask questions about what it all means and how it will affect you, because it will affect you in a big way.

Ken Hosey:--For more information about a career with the FBI, consult these Web sites and phone numbers: www.fbi.gov, check the Careers and Top 10 sections. Also see www.fbijobs.com. The phone number for the Washington, DC, headquarters is 202/fbi3674; in New York the number is 212/384-8400

Mary Beth Goodrich:--To learn more about internal audit, check out the Web. One hot spot is the Institute of Internal Auditors site: www.theiia.org.

Did you know??
John Grisham, author of A Time to Kill, The Firm and many other exciting novels, received his undergraduate degree in accounting from Mississippi State University.

The chairmen of several Fortune 500 companies, including Nike (Phil Knight), Home Depot (Arthur Blank), Coca-Cola (Doug Ivester), UNISYS (Lawrence Weinbach) are CPAs.

Robert Duvall relied on his CPA for advice on whether to undertake the financial and personal pressures of producing, starring in and funding his manuscript for the movie The Apostle.

Former Texas Rangers manager Kevin Kennedy, a CPA, did his players' tax returns to make extra money when he managed in the minor leagues.

Track sensation Marcus Sullivan passed the CPA exam.

Ray Wersching, the ex-San Francisco 49er's field goal kicker, is a CPA and worked for a CPA firm during the off season.

Ohio State University is home to the Accounting Hall of Fame, which honors outstanding contributions to the profession.

When Hernando Cortes landed in the New World, he brought horses, soldiers--and his accountant, Alonso de Avila. As a reward for excellent service, de Avila was made the first mayor of Veracruz, in what is now Mexico.

After graduating from school, J. P. Morgan got his first Wall Street job as a junior accountant. Five years later he founded his own company.

Walter L. Morgan, founder of the Wellington Fund, is considered to be one of the pioneers of the mutual fund industry. The Wellington Fund became the flagship Fund for the Vanguard Group of Investment Companies, the second largest mutual fund company in the world. Born on July 23, 1898, Morgan is one of the oldest living CPAs.
Anita Dennis is a freelance writer who specializes in business topics. She is the author of the book, Creating a Virtual Office: Ten Case Studies for CPA Firms, published by the AICPA.

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