by John M. Covaleski

Charleston, S.C. - Its divorce from the American Institute of CPAs seems to be working well for the Information Technology Alliance.

The ITA, a consortium of software resellers, consultants and vendors that service small and middle-market companies, has big plans for expansion in 2003 after closing out 2002 with its largest member conference ever. The conference was the ITA’s first full membership meeting since it ceased being a section of the AICPA in April.

"That was a great event we just had," ITA president Ron Eagle said weeks after the ITA Fall Collaborative concluded here in early November. "We definitely have momentum going forward."

While the 175 attendees made it the largest ITA gathering ever, the more significant thing was the makeup of the attendees. There were several prominent software vendors that had just joined the consortium, as well as a smattering of new CPA and non-CPA consultant members and a representative from the Gartner Group, the first analyst of technology industry trends to participate in an ITA event.

The conference also included three days of technology and consulting-related training, and networking sessions that featured new ideas and faces. For example, Gartner’s small and midsized business research director Robert Andersen delivered the keynote address at one of the show’s 25 training sessions.

According to many of those in attendance, the show was an improvement over conferences in 2000 and 2001, when the ITA was an AICPA membership section. The two groups have said that the split was designed to help the AICPA better focus on its CPA constituency.

The union was part of an AICPA plan in 2000 to stretch the industry into non-traditional areas like consulting and to reach out to non-accounting professionals. The ITA had expected the combination to greatly expand its membership, which, instead, stayed flat.

At the time of the break-up, ITA officials indicated a willingness to move the group in directions that it could not have gone as part of the AICPA. The ITA is, indeed, headed in new directions, according to the initiatives that Eagle outlined after the meeting.

By ITA’s fall 2003 conference, Eagle expects the group’s total membership to have doubled, due in part to an emphasis on attracting very small and new technology consultants. He also expects to expand membership to include tech industry analysts, such as Gartner, and infrastructure system vendors. Its vendor members are now exclusively developers of business application software.

Eagle said that Hewlett-Packard/Compaq, AT&T and IBM are prospective infrastructure vendor members. He also said that he is in preliminary talks with accounting practice software specialists CCH and RIA, the latter of which is a Thomson company.

While the ITA has been primarily known as a haven for the largest consulting groups affiliated with accounting firms, Eagle plans to have the group attract small and even start-up consultants/resellers who handle entry-level products, such as QuickBooks and Peachtree.

The smaller consultant idea may have gotten a boost at the fall conference, where attendees included new ITA member Intuit Inc., the developer of QuickBooks. Intuit’s delegate at the show, accountant services group director Rich Walker, said that he attended in hopes of meeting prospective consultants for vertical industry versions of QuickBooks.

The ITA already has leverage in attracting Peachtree consultants. Its board includes Taylor Macdonald, a channel strategy development executive for Best Software, owner of Peachtree.

The ITA’s new consultant member outreach will also seek more software reseller/consultants that are not affiliated with accounting firms. That idea was part of the plan of joining the AICPA, but that was thwarted after the AICPA decided to retrench from non-accounting industry pursuits after the fallout from the Andersen audit scandals.

The independent ITA has a financial war chest for the expansion, though. Eagle said that the group got back more than $50,000 in funds that were escrowed when it joined the AICPA, and since leaving the institute it has garnered $275,000 in member fees and dues. It also raised $10,000 to $12,000 from the fall conference.

He also noted that none of his plans would be considered if the ITA were still in the AICPA. "They are now focusing just on CPAs, and so we have to be outside in order to work on these," he said.

However, it’s not been a total divorce from the AICPA. The two groups have pledged to work together on special projects, and Eagle noted that institute officials at the fall ITA conference included senior vice president Alan Anderson, IT group member Jim Metzler, and Jennifer Wilson, who heads the AICPA’s technology conference planning.

All the same, Eagle noted that attracting more vendor members to the ITA would have been particularly difficult under the AICPA. He added that vendor reaction from this year’s fall show could make a case for more vendors to join in the future.

Those vendors at the fall conference, by and large, said that their time was well spent. Rita Strauss, accounting alliances manager for new ITA member NetLedger, called the event "a great meeting" for NetLedger to launch its new consultant recruitment program. (See story on page 22.)

"This was a good way to kick off the new ITA," said Steve Thompson, channel development director for accounting software developer Accpac International, a longtime ITA member. "We believe we have a good story to tell and the ITA gives us a forum to reach leading channel members."

Intuit’s Walker said, "This was our first time at ITA and we found that people need to be educated about our products." Other new ITA vendor members at the show included nonprofit industry specialist Blackbaud, practice management applications specialist developer Interface, and enterprise resource planning developer Epicor.

Practitioners on hand generally agreed that the most recent show was a cut above previous ITA-AICPA events. "There was a positive energy," said Lynn Berman, of SWK Inc., a Livingston, N.J., accounting software reseller that is not affiliated with a CPA firm, but which handles referral work from CPAs.

Doug Weintraub, president of Centerprise Information Solutions, the Akron, Ohio, technology consulting affiliate of accounting firm consolidator Centerprise Advisors, said, "There definitely was a freer flow of information."

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