Every generation has its own view on what works best in firms, as a group of CPAs talked about the changes they are seeing in today's environment.

During a panel discussion Tuesday hosted by the Accountants Club of America. Peter Frank, a partner at the New York firm Cornick Garber Sandler, reminisced about how he was one of the first accountants to use a PC in the early 1980s, advising some of his clients about computers, while needing to write some programs on his own because the software hadn’t been developed. He started out as a musician but got drawn into accounting by helping his father out a few days a week during tax season.

“What I’ve enjoyed about being an accountant is I consider myself somewhat of a Renaissance man in that I need to understand a little bit of everything in order to be valuable to my clients,” he said. “My clients tend to be a little bit smaller to midsize, and they rely on me for more things. I can think in different realms, not just tax, not just accounting, but understanding about business. Even just knowing about music, art, New York City, wherever you practice, you can be more valuable to your clients. Your life will also be more interesting.”

Accountants Club of America panel
Rick Telberg (left) leads a panel discussion with Deborah Hammett, Salvatore Collemi, Peter Frank and Jordan Frey during an Accountants Club of America meeting at Arno's Ristorante in New York Photo courtesy of Ed Mendlowitz

He runs the CPE development program at his 36-professional firm and is trying to tailor the education program there to create opportunities to get the necessary skills. “I’m looking to get my staff involved to tell us what they want to learn beyond just the technical areas that we know to advise them,” said Frank.

Rick Telberg, president and CEO of Bay Street Group and of CPA Trendlines Research, moderated the panel discussion. “As professions go, the accounting profession is the most entrepreneurial of them all,” he said. “There are more small firms and solo practitioners by number and by percentage in the tax and accounting profession than in any other licensed profession. This is a profession of entrepreneurs, whether we admit it or not, whether we embrace it or not, whether we know how to encourage it or not.”

Jordan Frey, an accountant and consultant at EisnerAmper LLP, talked about being a young member of the profession. He chairs the NextGen Committee at the New York State Society of CPAs.

“As young accountants grow up and as you mentor and hire young accountants in this profession, we’re not just accountants,” said Frey. “We’re advisors. We’re here to grow. We have to understand how there are different segments. For example, my personality might be that I want to sit back and read the codification and updates to see how to protect my client. Or I might want to be an accountant who advises my client, transmits that information and helps grow the firm, essentially through entrepreneurial activities, to make it more efficient. Coming from the younger side, a lot of the clients want this information. They want it fast, they want it efficiently, and we as accountants have to work together to understand how we can deliver it, be effective and move forward in the process. What it all comes down to is matching your personality, your staff’s, and anyone working at the firm or organization to essentially align their goals.”

Another young CPA, Deborah Hammett, a supervisor and senior accountant at Adelman, Katz & Mond LLP, talked about how young employees work with the partners at her firm.

“At our firm, the partners have an open door policy and they will tell the staff, even right down to the managers, just because something is being done a certain way, if you as a staff person or a manager think there is a better way to do it, we are open to it,” she said. “The younger generation wants their input to be acknowledged. They do want to contribute, but they can learn from the knowledge as far as the debits and credits, tying that into the technology. I think the two different generations have to meet in the middle.”

Salvatore Collemi launched his own consulting firm, Collemi Consulting & Advisory Services LLC, last year after working for a number of firms, including McGladrey & Pullen, BDO USA and Grant Thornton. “When I opened up my practice a little over a year ago, I came to a crossroads in my career,” he said. “It had been 20-plus years and I was always struggling, saying what am I doing wrong? I’ve been with so many different firms throughout my career. I knew within five years of starting my career that I wanted to go into the technical side of the business. I made a conscious decision not to be a line person servicing audit clients directly. I wanted to service the firm and the partners. I was passionate about the standards. Throughout my career, I was always struggling because I didn’t fit the mold or the structure of these firms. I worked in large firms and small firms throughout my career.”

He decided to become an outside consultant for firms because he was often getting calls from friends asking for his advice. “I didn’t realize throughout my whole career that I was an entrepreneur in the closet,” said Collemi. “I was doing branding, marketing, public speaking, writing, business development, working with people, all these skills. My wife told me a few years ago, ‘Sal, you’ve got to open up your own practice. People consult with you all the time from other firms. Why don’t you do that?’ She was right. A couple of years ago, I really started seeing this was something that was staring me in the face, and I was ignoring it. What I’m trying to say to you is don’t ignore those signs. Don’t make the same mistake I did. I wish I had done it earlier. Right now, I feel liberated. Being on my own, I get to make my own schedule. I work with clients from all over.”

Peter Frank encourages firms to allow their younger staff members more freedom for activities such as networking. “So many accounting firms are afraid to even send their young accountants to state society events and chapter events because they’re going to get stolen away,” said Frank. “It’s a terrible philosophy because people will leave you before they get stolen. That’s the difference now with millennials. They’re smart enough to know there are other jobs out there. They want to be in a place where they’re going to be valued and also have a good life. And you should seek that out. Don’t take any less. Accountants have often been relegated to be at the low end of the professional totem pole. There’s no reason for that. We’re the most important people out there and we need to elevate that further.”

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