After 43-and-a-half years with the Massachusetts Society of CPAs, Theodore Flynn, CAE, will be retiring as president and CEO at the end of this year. We caught up with him recently to talk about his career, the changes he’s seen in the profession, and where he expects it to go in the future.

How did you get involved with the MSCPA?

Flynn: How I got started with the society is kind of unique – I was an officer in the Coast Guard, and I was stationed in Boston as an admiral’s aide and the public affairs officer. I ran a group of photographers and journalists, and I was assigned a reserve officer who was coming in for their two weeks’ active duty. I was a lieutenant junior grade, and as I was looking at the orders, I saw that the reservist was a captain, which is the next rank to an admiral, and so I got all the boys together and I said, “OK, go get your uniforms cleaned, go get your hair cut. We got a captain coming in here for two weeks.” And then a little while later I was looking at the orders and I saw the captain’s first name was Agnes — so I got the boys together again and said, “Here’s a list of words you can’t use in the office anymore.”

Well, it turned out she was a wonderful person, doing her last two weeks’ active duty before she retired, and she was executive director of the society. And she asked me what I was doing, and I said, “Well, I’m getting out in about three months, and I’m going back to New York, and I’ll probably try to get a job in advertising writing copy or as an account person,” and she said, “Well, I’m looking for an assistant.” And she described the job, and it was the continuing ed director, PR director and everything else. And I said, “OK, I have two questions: What’s a CPA, and what’s an association?” And then we were off to the races.

Her name was Agnes Lane Bixby, and she retired three years later, after being executive director for 20 years, and I became executive director in May of 1974.

What would you say are the two or three most significant changes you’ve seen in accounting over the past four decades?

Flynn: The obvious ones would be mandatory continuing education, which had a big impact on the profession, and mandatory peer review. But there’s another major change — there have been mergers and rollups and acquisitions ever since I’ve been around, but what is not happening today that happened way back when and continued up until recently – I’d be hard-pressed to tell you exactly when this change happened — but whenever you had these kind of mergers, you would see young people spinning off and forming their own firms, spinning off as a result of a merger or acquisition. You don’t see that much anymore. Perhaps it’s because of the cost of technology to get started, perhaps it’s generational differences, but you’re not seeing it as much. A couple of friends of mine started with just a desk and some column paper, and two chairs, one on opposite sides of the desk, and that’s how they started their firm.

I don’t see the number of new firm startups – you’ll see a lot of sole proprietors still emerging, but not the same number of three-partner firms that spin off from a larger entity and get started.

In another area, at one point in time, this was a completely male-dominated profession. Now, over 50 percent of the graduates and entries into the public accounting profession are women. They’re starting to reach the partner and managing partner level, but that’s still a struggle in terms of inequality of numbers at that level.

I think the profession is making accommodations for women partners, in maybe a reduced schedule and still being able to be a partner because of child-rearing. I think firms need to continue to make those opportunities available so that women can stay in public accounting and progress up through the leadership pool. So I think developing those kinds of situations where a woman can thrive and still be a mother is important.

What are you proudest of from your tenure at the society?

Flynn: My proudest accomplishment actually is the staff here, who are 20 professionals. We’ve got a lot of longevity on the staff. The No. 2 here has been here for 40 years, and the No. 3 for 37 years. We’ve got younger folks who are moving up the chain who’ve been here for 15 years, since they graduated from college. We’ve created opportunities for them to grow and prosper, and they’ve taken those opportunities. The worst thing for a state society would be to have a turnstile of staff coming and going, a constant number of bodies moving in and out.

Specifically, in terms of accomplishments as an organization, I’m proud of our helping fight off the sales tax on services in 1991, and rolling back the technical services tax this fall.

Is there anything you wish you’d done differently at the society, or anything that you didn’t get to do that you wish you had?

Flynn: Well, it’s always in development, but our whole government affairs program – would I have liked to have seen it grow even further by the time of my retirement? Yes — but all the basics are there, and it will continue to grow and thrive under new leadership.

What major changes do you see coming in accounting? What do firms and individual CPAs need to do to prepare for them?

Flynn: Succession planning is a big issue. How do the small firms cash out? And are they developing the personnel behind them that are going to take over the reins of the individual firms? I get into generational issues – do the young people coming in want to take over the practices? And how do you develop that young leadership into people who will run these firms 15 to 20 years from now? It’s an issue across the profession.

The constant move of technology is changing practice, and it’s actually changing the practice mix. For the larger auditing firms, so much is based on technology, and having the technology bodies on staff.

The personnel mix has shifted. You have to have more consultants or those with that kind of consulting background in the mix. And I think on the CPA side of the house, there’s broader skills needed, in terms of marketing and sales. It’s not enough to be a technician. You’ve got to have the skills to work with your clients and deal with them.

What do you think a young accountant just coming into the profession needs to do to have a successful career?

Flynn: I would advise them to seek out a mentor – someone who they can rely on and work with, who will help them adapt their career. I think it’s important these days. Too many kids come in and are kind of lost in the mix of the firm. I think it’s important to get that mentoring relationship going early.

I think on the firm’s end, they should be directing mentoring relationships for their new staff. Some of the firms in this area have mentors assigned that are specifically directed towards certain staff.

I think this is a great profession, I have enjoyed my career working for the profession, and I think it will prosper and grow in the future. It’s an integral part of our society and it’s a great career to go into.

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