by John M. Covaleski

New York - Separate grassroots groups of practitioners are reaching out to the American Institute of CPAs with their own plans for two of the institute’s specialty certifications that have come under scrutiny - the Personal Financial Specialist, or PFS, and the Certified Information Technology Professional, or CITP.

Representatives of the National Association of CPA Financial Planners, which was created last year to represent the 3,000 PFS holders, have scheduled a June 30 meeting with AICPA officials to present their plan to take over management of that certification.

Separately, a CITP holders group hopes to meet with institute officials at the upcoming AICPA Tech 2003 technology conference, June 23-25 in Las Vegas, to discuss providing assistance to help maintain that designation within the AICPA.

Their proposals emerged in the wake of a vote by AICPA Council in April authorizing the institute to research new strategies to enhance the PFS, the CITP and the ABV (Accredited in Business Valuation) certifications. The PFS and the CITP have attracted more attention because their membership counts and market recognition are the lowest of the three, and the AICPA once considered terminating its involvement with them altogether.

“We hope to show how we can do what the AICPA has not been able to do with the PFS,” said James Shambo, the Colorado Springs, Colo.-based CPA/PFS president of the NACPAFP. He plans to present the AICPA with a multi-pronged business plan for expanding market awareness of the PFS and attracting more CPAs to it.

The CITP group plans to present institute executives with a plan to defray the AICPA’s costs for managing that designation. Holders would pay more annual fees to support the designation, and the group would be an information link between the institute and the 500 CITP holders.

“I want to legitimatize what’s already been started with the CITP and look for additional ways to enhance its value to CPAs and to the market,” said the CITP group’s founder, Susan Bradley, CPA, CITP, and partner with the firm of Tamiyasu, Smith, Horn and Braun, in Fresno, Calif.

While Bradley wants to assist the AICPA in its management of the CITP, Shambo said that his group “would take over the PFS designation and work with the AICPA in common areas, such as conferences and publications.” He added, “We can provide the focus this needs but has been missing with the AICPA, where we PFS holders are a small part of a much larger organization.”

Neither group is especially large, even though Shambo and Bradley said that they’re open to all holders of their respective designations. Just 20 PFS holders have paid $500 each to launch the NACPAFP, while there are 122 regular participants in an Internet listserv forum that Bradley conducts for CITP holders.

Both said that they have not yet launched concerted efforts to attract full membership, and they’re confident of a broad buy-in when they do. “We first have to convince the AICPA and then we can convince more members,” Shambo said.

An AICPA spokesman said that the institute is open to talking with members regarding the credentials, but declined to elaborate on Bradley or Shambo. Institute officials directly involved with the CITP and the PFS declined to comment altogether, because of a “non-disclosure” rule that the AICPA has set for the credential matter.

The AICPA’s national accreditations chairman, Bruce Harper, said, “It would be inappropriate for me to prematurely discuss various potential courses of action until the fact-finding and data gathering phases are complete and the National Accreditation Commission concludes its deliberations and is closer to specific recommendations.”

However, AICPA Council indicated support for operating the credential programs in alternative methods to sole management by the AICPA. During a debate preceding the enhancement strategy vote, Council refused to vote on an earlier resolution to seek “exit strategies” and argued that the credentials should be retained for the sake of those CPAs who have already earned them.

“It’s a slippery road if we abandon the 3,000 committed members [who hold the PFS],” said Stuart Kessler, of New York-based Goldstein Golub Kessler and a former AICPA chairman.

“How could we look members in the face and say we support the development of technology?” asked fellow Council member Mike Dickson, of Columbus, Ohio, in calling for continuing the CITP.

The institute proposed a review of the credentials because of their limited growth and the institute’s inability to provide the support required. “We have not proven we have a core competency in building and supporting a credential,” national accreditation chair Harper said, in opening the Council meeting discussion on the designations.

Whether the NACPAFP or the CITP group gets the nod is questionable because the institute has been considering two other potential alliance partners for the PFS and three in total for the CITP.

While the AICPA is not commenting, informed sources speculate that the PFS organizations that are being considered are the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors, and the CFP Board, manager of the Certified Financial Planner designation.

The potential suitor most often identified for the CITP is the Information Technology Alliance, which had been an AICPA membership section until May 2002. The ITA joined the AICPA in 2000 as part of the plan to launch the CITP.

ITA president Ron Eagle said that his group is open to working on the CITP again, but cannot finance the national marketing that the designation requires. “Our position is to be more collaborative and provide secondary support rather than primary support,” he said. “But, if the AICPA were to throw it away, we would go into the trash can and pick it up.”

However, the ITA and the AICPA may differ on the CITP’s applicability. The ITA, whose membership includes many non-CPA professionals who are involved in technology, would like to see the CITP extended to non-CPAs working in CPA firms, while some in Council and the profession in general want it to be CPA-exclusive.

Separate from the non-CPA issue, Bradley said that keeping the CITP within the AICPA, as she proposed, makes it easier to offer the designation to CPAs in private industry. The ITA, she noted, represents CPAs and other professionals who provide IT consulting services and ones who handle IT needs within firms, but does not extend to CPAs in non-technology industries.

Meanwhile, the NACPAFP may have some advantages over potential competitors, as several industry watchers speculate that the PFS would be in danger with the CFP Board. “The CFP would only want the PFS in order to get rid of it and convert PFS holders to the CFP,” said Phyllis Bernstein, a New York-based consultant to financial planners and former director of the AICPA’s personal financial planning unit.

A CFP Board spokesman said that the AICPA has contacted the group regarding the PFS, but would not elaborate. About 6,635 of the 41,468 CFP holders are also CPAs, and of those, about 1,240 also hold a PFS designation, according to the spokesman.

The AICPA cited tough competition as part of the reason for the reviews. “Without sufficiently dedicated human resources and without the communications budget and critical mass of members necessary to generate comparable revenues, the AICPA PFS program cannot sustain the marketing and brand awareness efforts necessary to compete,” said an AICPA report circulated at a regional Council meeting prior to April’s national Council meeting.

That report further noted that the ABV credential’s key competitor, the National Association of Certified Valuation Analysts, has 40 employees dedicated to credentials, while the AICPA’s accreditation team “has five members who also focus on the other credentials of the institute.”

“The most significant thing is that the AICPA itself recognizes they’re not focused on just the PFS designation, while most other designations are group-focused,” Shambo said. “[The NACPAFP] will be 3,000 members dedicated to solely promoting the PFS and we will find ways to make it work.”

Shambo has already drafted a brand awareness strategy that differs from the AICPA’s. He said that he plans to build recognition nationally by developing tools that help holders promote the PFS in their local markets first, which compares to an AICPA approach of building national awareness first. The institute budgeted $6 million in its campaign, according to the regional Council meeting report.

Shambo’s local-level-first plan is similar to the original strategy of the CFP Board and the marketing plan for the CITP when it launched in early 2001.
Shambo’s and Bradley’s plans are both technology intensive and will require additional dues from designation holders.

Shambo said that he would make greater use of the Internet to reach out to PFS holders and to help them reach media and clients in their markets. Bradley began her effort with the Internet listserv and has expanded to a Web site - www.citponline.org. She also recently completed the first of what could be many online surveys of CITP holders.

Shambo’s group just organized in late 2002 and has not yet moved to the Web site stage. Bradley said that she began the listserv during Thanksgiving weekend 2001.

The exact amounts of additional dues required haven’t been set. Shambo said that he requested $500 from his group’s original members to “build a starting war chest,” and that future amounts could be less. PFS holders now pay a net of about $100 per year for their designations, he said.

Bradley said that a survey of CITP holders found that “an overwhelming majority are willing to pay more money if that keeps this designation going.”

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