by Melissa Klein

New York - Less than a month after its union with financial consulting concern Cap Pro dissolved, CPA2Biz - the controversial Web portal of the American institute of CPAs - has reshuffled its top management, elevating sales and marketing vice president Erik Asgeirsson to chief executive and relegating former chief executive Brett Prager to a consulting role.

Navin Chaddha, who replaced Prager as president of the portal when CPA2Biz acquired his California-based software and Web-hosting firm, Rivio Inc., in February, takes on the title of vice chairman. Meanwhile, product management vice president Patrick Bonnaure, will assume the role of chief operating officer.

The revolving door at the 18-month-old CPA2Biz’s executive suite is just the latest in a series of potholes the Web site has struck during its brief lifespan.

The entity had suffered through three previous rounds of layoffs, was named as a defendant in a lawsuit filed by Chicago-based BDO Seidman - which accused it of creating a monopoly to thwart competition - and lost a critical negotiating battle with Shared Services Network, a group representing state CPA societies, to allow the AICPA access to their respective members’ databases.

In September, the portal also lost its senior director of channel development, Wayne Harding, who left to head U.S. operations for Australia-based software vendor AccTrak21. Harding, however, will continue to consult with the portal on a limited basis.

And at the October meeting of the AICPA’s Fall Council in Hawaii, Chaddha told council members that the portal, which had between $8 and $9 million in cash at the end of September, needed to raise an additional $10 million in the next six to nine months.

Despite another restructuring, Asgeirsson, appeared undaunted. "We’re excited. The management team is confident in our ability to be able to continue to execute and move our business plan forward," he said during a phone interview.

"We’ll continue to add new offerings, to improve the quality of our services and to have great focus on our customers. We’re all about focus on the CPAs and on how we can make them more effective in their practice areas and how the business solutions we offer can strengthen the bond between CPAs and their clients," Asgeirsson added.

Downplaying the significance of the leadership changes and other events, he said, "Any organization, to prosper and grow, needs to change and learn from the marketplace. That’s what we’ve done over the past 18 months." He added, "Sometimes there’s too much focus on the people here and not enough focus on what we’re doing for the marketplace."

Asgeirsson pointed out some of the portal’s recent accomplishments. "In the past four months, we’ve rolled out a new search engine, a competency assessment tool, we’re hosting Webcasts almost monthly. These are the things that the customers we talk to are interested in," he said. "We appreciate the interest in our general organization, but there’s much greater interest from the customers we talk to from a product and services standpoint."

In addition, the site was refurbished earlier this year to make navigation easier, and a payroll product designed by Rivio and a client e-newsletter service have also been added to its offerings.

While he didn’t go into details about what lies ahead for CPA2Biz, Asgeirsson was upbeat about the portal’s future. "People will continue to see the exciting things we’re bringing to the marketplace. I think they will be surprised at the continued success that this company is going to have in 2003, 2004 and 2005," he said.

But the portal took a hit when financial advisors Cap Pro ended their 16-month union in order to spin off into an independent venture - thereby siphoning off much-needed income from the portal.

Perhaps the biggest challenge that Asgeirsson and his team face is getting skeptics to share his optimism about the portal’s future prospects. "I’m not sure they’re fixing the problem simply by making a pitching change," said industry consultant Allan Koltin, of Practice Development Institute in Chicago, who described the portal leadership as "a table with rotating legs at best."

"They need to start with candid dialogue about what they need to do. A leadership change is just one of a series of things that has to happen," he said. "The real question is how do we get member buy-in?"

"The vast majority of the membership doesn’t see it, and isn’t supporting it," said Koltin. "It’s been out long enough that if there was any positive momentum toward it we would’ve seen it. All we keep seeing is indicators going down."

Koltin added, "The leadership team should be held accountable to answer the question, ‘What are you going to do differently that you haven’t done before?’ By going forward with the same processes, they’re not going to get the exponential change needed to turn it around."

According to Clarke Price, chairman of Shared Services LLC and chief executive of the Ohio Society of CPAs, "There’s an undercurrent that can be generalized several ways. There is skepticism for some, for others a sense of frustration, and the third element for some people is hope. The portion that has hope as its undercurrent is getting smaller and smaller. Skepticism is probably the dominant mood."

"I worked with Erik when Shared Services was trying to negotiate a deal with CPA2Biz and I liked him," Price said of Asgeirsson’s appointment. "I felt he was honest and saw the big picture and really did believe in the potential that existed with CPA2Biz. In that sense, he’s been around and understands the good and bad, and hopefully can help move it forward. Will he be able to? Nobody knows."

While CPA2Biz may have a tough row to hoe in winning over its critics, some portal users like what they’ve seen.

"I think it’s great. It’s easy to use," said CPA Karen Signer, of Letourneau & Cleland Ltd., in Rockford, Ill., who has purchased continuing education from the portal though the AICPA’s InfoBytes offering. "There were some small problems initially, when they changed over from the old AICPA site, but ever since, it’s been very smooth sailing."

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