by Tracey Miller-Segarra

Despite recent employee cutbacks and disappoint-ment over a failed deal with state societies, CPA2Biz is seeking to stage a comeback in the CPA community with a revamped site, a new deal with Nationwide Financial and its first true business solution - a payroll service that practitioners can offer to their clients.

At the American Institute of CPA’s Tech 2002 Computer and Technology conference May 5 to 8, CPA2Biz showcased its refurbished site, with quicker and easier navigation, a new My Account area to track online subscriptions and a payroll product designed by new merger partner Rivio.

"Payroll is the beachhead for many services we will be adding to help CPAs cement relationships with their clients," said Wayne Harding, senior director of channel development for the portal. "Business solutions is where the real growth oppor-tunities [for the site] will come."

The site also received a $7.5 million infusion this month from Nationwide Financial, which cemented a deal with the Web portal’s Capital Professional Advisors in ex-change for position-ing as a preferred provider of 401(k) products and serv-ices for CapPro’s 18 member firms.

"We see the CPA community as a significant distribution community for us," said Bob Rolland, Nationwide’s vice president for strategic partnerships. "We believe in CPA2Biz and CapPro’s model and feel this [deal] positions us to enter the CPA market."

Rolland wouldn’t confirm rumors that Nationwide planned to invest another $7.5 million based on how well the pilot program goes, but left open that possibility. "There will be future investments based on the future performance of CapPro’s firms," he said.

While CPA2Biz trumpeted its new deals, it also sought to deflect ongoing criticism about a series of layoffs and the looming May 31 expiration of a contract that CPA2Biz has with the Shared Services Network Inc., the group representing the state societies that have been providing their member lists to the portal.

J. Clarke Price, chair of the Shared Services LLC and president of the Ohio Society of CPAs, was once one of the site’s biggest boosters and would still like to see it succeed, but he expressed keen disappointment that the talks broke down over money and the apparent perception that what the state societies were offering wasn’t valuable enough to broker a deal.

"I wear my state society hat when I say that I think they’re shooting themselves in the foot," Price said. "There is more advantage that the states bring than just access to a name. We have an outreach and relationship with individual CPAs that I think could have been leveraged to CPA2Biz’s advantage, and now that’s not going to happen."

He added that, while he feels that it’s possible for CPA2Biz to become a key destination site for CPAs, he thinks that the company needs to put in a lot of footwork on the site in both form and content to attract new users and bring back CPAs who had negative experiences early on.

"Right now, it’s a little different than most Web sites that seek to serve CPAs," Price said. "When the grander vision of business-to-business offerings and other partners is connected into a single site, there will be a greater opportunity. But I’m not seeing the progress that would lead me to think that’s going to happen."

CPA2Biz’s Harding down-played the significance of the failed SSLLC agreement, adding that it’s still possible that the site could negotiate with separate societies, or that the new enhancements could bring both sides back to the table for a larger deal.

"Even though we could not come to a huge agreement, the state societies still see some value," Harding said.

Another issue plaguing CPA2Biz is the latest round of layoffs and departures. In April, the company laid off 12 employees, marking the third round of layoffs since the portal was launched last June. While CPA2Biz said that layoffs were necessary to reduce overhead after the February merger with Rivio, some apparently voluntary high-level departures, like those of vice president of sales and marketing Bill Reeb and chief information officer Mike Harnish, still raised some eyebrows.

"I honored my commitment to CPA2Biz to come up and help them get started and now I’m returning to what I’ve been doing for the last 20 years," Reeb told Accounting Today. He declined to answer further questions about his decision to leave the company. Meanwhile, Harnish could not be reached for comment.

It also appears that the site is moving to more closely align itself with the AICPA than as a separate entity. Gone from the revamped site is the snappy CPA2Biz logo, which is replaced by "AICPA and State Society Partners" with the Web address, www.cpa2biz.com subtly listed below the logo.

When asked why the state societies were so prominently featured in light of the failed deal, CPA2Biz’s vice president of sales and marketing Erik Asgeirsson said that the deal did not run out until May 31.

Meanwhile, reaction from CPAs and state societies about CPA2Biz’s prospects were not encouraging. "CPA2Biz was something that the market wasn’t ready for when it launched and that hasn’t changed in the past two years," said David Cieslak, an Encino, Calif.-based CPA and technology consultant. "They’re selling something that nobody’s buying."

Even those close to the site who believe that the new improvements augur well for the future, privately acknowledge that the old CPA2Biz was mired in 1990s technology and that the revamped site had better catch fire with CPAs if it wants to succeed because "there’s only so much CPAs will put up with."

John Covaleski contributed to this report.

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