'Virtual CIO' Transforms Firms to Digital

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Going paperless is a goal many CPAs are eyeing, but aren't necessarily sure how to achieve. John Higgins serves as a virtual chief information officer for those accounting firms committed to making the digital leap, but lacking the IT staff to do so.

The name of his Rochester, Mich.-based firm, CPA Crossings, came from the concept of being able to bridge the gap between business and technology.

"A lot of firms like to buy hardware and software and don't always put the proper emphasis on the impact on their workflows and their business procedures," Higgins says. "That's where our value proposition comes along. Let's understand how you work now-whether it's preparing a tax return or going through an audit process-and understand where the opportunities are to really leverage technology to streamline those processes."

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Document management systems and electronic workpaper programs are the two key applications CPAs must focus on to become "a true digital practice model," according to Higgins.

The firms that approach it properly usually reap their return on investment within a year, he says.

"The biggest realization is the efficiency, starting to eliminate procedures that in the past they thought were required of the engagement, a lot of busy work the professional staff would be doing shuffling paper," Higgins says. Tasks like photocopying files when two people want to view documents at the same time are no longer necessary, because everyone can view them simultaneously online.

"Each of those may be a little piece of the puzzle, but you put it all together and firms are getting the same job done in 30 percent less time," Higgins says.

"We've worked with (firms for) over a year on transforming the tax return preparation process to be completely paperless," he says. "All work is scanned in immediately and viewed electronically. They are no longer moving paper through the office. (That's) significant efficiency."

The next level is helping accountants help their clients deliver information to their firms in electronic format in the first place, which could be as simple as helping them create reports in PDFs instead of sending snail mail.

A true "e-practice" model doesn't only concentrate on electronically storing and viewing documents, but also making full use of the Web.

"We are firm believers in the concept of Web-based applications," Higgins says. "(They) are much simpler to deploy and much less expensive upfront investments and they can be much more secure."

Higgins is building his own e-practice, conducting up to 12 Webinars per month about everything from document management to information security.

One of Higgins' favorite topics is, "Meeting Your Clients on the Web," introducing CPAs to the concept of Web conferencing.

Many Webinars carry continuing professional education credit, a growing part of his business.

He formed CPA Crossings in 2001, around the fall of the dot-coms, so business was slow to take off. However, Higgins and his partner, Bryan Smith, enjoyed roughly $1 million in revenue for 2006, and at least 30 percent revenue growth each year for the past two years.

Prior to starting CPAx, they worked at BDO Siedman, where Higgins was in charge of mid-market IT consulting following that company's purchase of Computools, Higgins' accounting systems reselling business, which he started in 1984-one year after earning his CPA credential.

He was inducted into the American Institute of CPAs Business Industry Hall of Fame in 2004. That same year, he became a Certified Information Technology Professional, an AICPA-issued designation that he says helps him overcome the challenge of addressing a potential customer as both a CPA and technology expert.

"When you have the skills from an accounting background and a technology perspective, it puts you in a much smaller group in terms of expertise," Higgins says. "It is a differentiator in the marketplace because it is so rare."

Alexandra DeFelice is Associate Editor of Accounting Technology and can be reached at alexandra.defelice@sourcemedia.com.

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