Engage 2020: Opportunities ahead for accountants

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Accountants are critical to the economy’s recovery from the devastating effects of the coronavirus pandemic, according to leaders at the American Institute of CPAs — and that central role is also opening up some very specific business opportunities for them.

“Our profession today is the equivalent of the medical profession for the economy, not just the U.S. economy, but the global economy,” explained institute president and CEO Barry Melancon, in a keynote panel during last week’s Engage 2020 conference, which was held online. “We count on front-line professionals to keep us safe and to do the right things.”

“This pandemic has brought tremendous pressure on the need for businesses to build resilience,” said Susan Coffey, executive vice president of public practice at the AICPA, during the panel. “It's an opportunity for us to lead internally, and to support our clients. And the needs around disruption, survival and stimulus have strengthened our position.”

Coffey and Melancon highlighted a number of advisory services that clients will be needing to survive the pandemic and thrive in its aftermath, and that accountants are particularly well-suited to provide:

  • Navigating relief programs. “There's likely to be additional stimulus packages coming,” Coffey noted. “So helping our employers and clients understand which ones are for them is an opportunity.”
  • Scenario planning. “This actually extends well beyond cash flow to business modeling and transformation, mergers and acquisitions, and certainly business restructuring,” Coffey said.
  • Business interruption and recovery. “We can help with business interruption insurance claims, we can help with damages, we can help with business valuation,” she added, “but risk is paramount.”
  • Bankruptcy services. She noted that some firms are training all of their professionals in this area, in the expectation that these services will be in high demand.
  • Reopening consulting. “Distance model restructuring is a critical component,” noted Melancon.
  • Supply chain management. The pandemic has introduced an unheard-of level of risk into corporate supply chains. “This is going to be a big issue moving forward,” said Melancon.
  • Fraud prevention and data security. “Those are services we perform every day for clients,” Coffey said, “and we have greater opportunities with them now.”
  • Cloud computing. “The most successful entities coming out of the pandemic are those that have the right cloud-based systems,” she explained, “and we can revise and help implement those.”

Many of these opportunities are immediate, with clients seeking help in the near term.

“As we look forward, it really is the next 200 days or 300 days that are going to be critically important for companies as they look at business transformation, how do they continue to look at what their needs are in terms of hiring, their supply chains, and all of the different elements from that perspective,” said Coffey. “What we do in the next several days, going forward, will be key to our clients.”

“The relationships you build today with clients will last decades into the future. The decisions that we reach, the opportunities that we find to build the profession for the future as well, will be critical to what we look like, and what our services will be in the future,” concluded Melancon.

Audit and assurance

Many of the opportunities noted during Engage 2020 were advisory or consulting-oriented in nature, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for growth in more traditional services.

In fact, in a separate Engage 2020 session on assurance, Coffey noted that 75 percent of firms have reported either an increase or no change in their level of A&A work, despite the pandemic.

“We are the profession of trust, and we can leverage that trust in so many ways,” said Coffey. “There are all sorts of opportunities we should be involved in.”

“I think the biggest opportunity for growth is around assurance of non-financial information, which is becoming more and more important for business decisions,” she said, pointing to the potential for growth in assurance in areas such as SOC for cybersecurity, SOC for supply chain, information privacy and sustainability. “I would have expected a deceleration of interest in sustainability services, but we're actually seeing an acceleration of interest,” she added.

In both sessions, Coffey and Melancon highlighted the accounting profession’s strong reputation for trustworthiness and reliability, and the importance of maintaining high standards

“That trust that we bring to the table is critically important,” Melancon explained during his keynote panel, not just for client relationships, but for helping underpin public confidence in markets and the economy as a whole.

“We will be judged: Have we done it right? Did we appropriately respond to the new risks?” warned Coffey in her session. “We will be judged with 2020 hindsight, so we have to be sure that all our services are provided with our usual values of integrity and competence. Where we find new opportunities to serve our clients, we must be vigilant about quality.”

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