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
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
- 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
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
CPAs are involved in everything from environmental compliance audits to
setting up preventive systems to ensure compliance and avoid future claims
The forensic accountant works to stamp out fraud, searching for evidence
of "white collar" criminal conduct.
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.
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
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
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
Running Her Own Show
When you manage your own business, you have the power to shape your own
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
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
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
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.