Marketing tops designees’ list of priorities; AICPA’s future role undetermined

by Seth Fineberg

New York - Holders of the Personal Financial Specialist designation want to take management of that designation away from the American Institute of CPAs, and are willing to pay additional fees to do it.

The designation holders have been pleading their case to the AICPA since April, when the institute began the process of researching new strategies for the PFS and two other designations that it created but which it has had trouble supporting due to limited resources.

While no decisions have been made regarding whose roof the PFS certification will be under, a recent survey conducted by the Association of CPA Financial Planners - created last year to represent the 3,000 PFS holders - makes a case that it’s time to leave the AICPA.

Ninety percent of the 800 PFS holders surveyed said that they would pay $300 or more if the ACPAFP became the new PFS member organization. Holders now each pay about $100 per year net for their designations.

“The fact that they are willing to shell out more money before even knowing any further details of a plan is very encouraging to me,” said James Shambo, the Colorado Springs, Colo.-based CPA/PFS president of the ACPAFP. “I think once we are able to convince [the AICPA and PFS holders] of our plan, the hard work of coordinating with them and what we can do to enhance the PFS experience comes to light.”

However, 60 percent of surveyed PFS holders also said that they want the AICPA to remain involved “in some cap-acity” with the PFS designation. “They like the clout of the AICPA, but want a more entrepreneurial organization that would lead the charge and provide benefits,” Shambo added.

The survey was sent to 2,500 PFS holders in June, the results of which are intended to work in tandem with the AICPA’s own survey and other efforts to gauge PFS holder opinions.

PFS holders are willing to pay more simply to help develop programs that will properly promote the designation, Shambo said. He claims that his group’s approach would differ from the AICPA’s, in that funds would be used to promote the PFS “on the local level,” rather than nationwide.

“The AICPA always thought that the way to promote the designation was through a national media campaign, but with only 3,000 of us, a national branding campaign wouldn’t be feasible,” Shambo said. “It would be more effective to try and drive recognition of the designation to the home town and build up from that level.”

The ACPAFP survey also revealed that if the PFS designation were removed from the AICPA, 77 percent would want it to land in an organization “run solely by PFS designees.”

On June 30, ACPAFP representatives met with AICPA officials to present their plan to take over management of the certification. The specifics of that meeting remain hidden, as institute officials directly involved with the PFS are under a non-disclosure order that the AICPA has set for this matter.

The AICPA issued its own survey in June and conducted town hall-type meetings and phone-in forums for PFS holders to voice their opinions.

The institute, at press-time, was expected to release an invitation for comment to PFS holders regarding the results of its efforts. It will use these comments in its decision-making process, according to Anat Kendal, director of financial planning at the AICPA. She stated that members should expect to receive the invitations in early August, and submit them over the next three weeks, but declined further comment.

AICPA’s governing Council is scheduled to make a final decision on the PFS’s future at its Fall meeting in October. Council is also expected to make decisions regarding the institute’s separate certifications for specialists in valuation services (the ABV) and in information technology (the CITP).

Meanwhile, Shambo is confident that this months-long process will yield a positive result, regardless of who oversees the certification. “The AICPA and our organization have a common interest, and that is what’s best for our members,” he said. “We’ve come a long way, though there is no indication of where we are going to go at this time.”

He and other PFS holders have speculated where their certification will end up, and resolved that it will either be in the hands of the ACPAFP or the CFP Board.

Earlier, some had predicted that the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors could take over the certification, but later decided that that might not be the best idea.

“From what I understand, it is a foregone conclusion that the AICPA will align themselves with somebody, likely Shambo’s group or the CFP Board,” said Norman Berk, CPA/PFS/CFP and owner of Birmingham, Ala.-based Professional Asset Strategies. He was one of many participants in the AICPA’s town hall meetings on this issue. “I don’t think people are too keen on NAPFA after they trademarked the ‘fee only’ term.”

Berk also said that he and others are particularly supportive of the ACPAFP because “they have no axe to grind and no hidden agenda.”

Others, like PFS Phyllis Bernstein, a New York-based practice management consultant to financial planners, feels that PFS holders will ultimately put their faith and their money “in an organization they can trust will spend for PFS awareness.”

“I think there is still a lot of work to be done,” Bernstein said. “In the end, it’s about increasing the value of the PFS to the CPA community, and there really hasn’t been a whole lot of promotion up to now, even within the profession.”

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