by Tracey Miller-Segarra

As part of the American Institute of CPAs' effort to trim spending and refocus on marketing the CPA brand, the institute ominously announced in February that support for its specialty credential programs might soon vanish.

Among those rumored to face the ax: the personal financial specialist and the certified information technology professional. Insiders say the third specialty credential -- the accredited in business valuation designation -- is expected to survive any bloodbath.

In a Feb. 18 letter to all credential holders, National Accreditation Commission chair Bruce Harper said that the AICPA Board of Directors had asked him to conduct a review of the credential programs "to determine how best to allocate resources." He will report back to members sometime after discussing the matter at the March Regional Council and April Board of Directors meetings.

Harper said that the institute is seeking to understand how best to promote first the CPA brand and then specialty credentials, to determine which specialties are best poised for a "dominant market position," and to assess the "value and support" offered through the institute member sections that support each credential.

"These analyses are done with the understanding that specialty credential programs may be strengthened, remain the same, be redesigned or discontinued," Harper wrote. "We are currently investigating all strategies, including potential exit scenarios as necessary."

AICPA spokesman Geoff Pickard reiterated that no decisions have yet been made on the specialty credentials, but did note that the entire credential program only represents 1 percent of the institute’s total membership.

"That’s a relatively small percentage and one of the reasons why we’re looking at these credentials. It’s important to evaluate that fact against all of the other programs and initiatives where the institute feels it’s necessary to invest its dollars," Pickard said.

Pickard said the institute calculated that, for instance, it would cost up to $6 million per year to brand the CPA/PFS designation and that it would take a minimum of five years to accomplish that goal.

When asked why the institute created the credentials in the first place if it knew it would be cost-prohibitive to brand them in the marketplace, Pickard said that "raises a good question" and that he didn’t have a "pat answer on that."

"It goes without saying that it would cost millions of dollars to brand each of those credentials and that, realistically, that probably has not and will not be do-able," he added.

While Harper sought to reassure credential holders that if an exit strategy is deemed best, the institute would continue to offer support for its members who hold them, some credential holders were already drawing up contingency plans.

"If this is true, I am saddened and disappointed that this credential has never been given the ability to rise to its potential," wrote CPA/CITP holder Susan Bradley in an e-mail to her fellow credential holders via an online group she pioneered to share ideas and promote the CITP. "It never had its own Ôcommittee.’ It never had the champion at the institute it should have had, or the stature that should have been given to any credential put forth by the AICPA," she added.

She also said that while the number of people who have earned the CITP credential since it was first offered at the end of 2000 is small (about 500 people), technology is going to be a key niche as firms look toward paperless offices and computerized audits as the wave of the future, and businesses that can’t afford chief technology officers look to CPAs to provide that service. "You have to have someone who understands technology as well as the business process," Bradley said.

Other industry watchers said they wouldn’t be surprised if an organization like the Information Technology Alliance, which recently spun off from the AICPA, took over support of the CITP credential.

Other specialty designation holders said they were angry at how the entire program has been run since the first credential -- the PFS -- was created in the 1980s.

"The reason that specialization is currently being reviewed with an eye toward elimination is precisely because the AICPA never wanted it in the first place," said Harley Rubottom, who said he was the first CPA to earn the PFS designation. "The reason it has failed is that there are so few specialists that the public doesn’t even recognize that we have any. Instead of wasting time and money to justify terminating the specialty programs, the AICPA should be ramping up to have as many meaningful specialties as are necessary to reflect what we do."

Connie Brezik, who just completed a four-year term as chair of the AICPA’s personal financial planning technical conference, has been a PFS since 1993. "I’m not surprised at all [that the institute is thinking of eliminating support for the PFS], but I am disappointed," she said. "It never really got the type of support that we would have liked from the AICPA."

Brezik said she’s part of an ad hoc group of PFS holders who have been talking over the past year about how to promote and support the designation outside of the institute. And if the AICPA does cut the designation, the group may formalize and possibly take it over. She also noted that branding doesn’t always require a big budget, using the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors as an example of an organization that managed to make a big public splash with little cash, by promoting its fee-only philosophy.

CPA financial planner Bernard Kiely, who does not hold the PFS designation, said he felt early on that the certified financial planner designation was more important to earn.

He noted that as of Dec. 31, 2002, there were approximately 3,000 PFSs. Meanwhile, there were 40,375 CFPs. Of those, 16 percent were CPAs (6,460), and 3 percent were CPA/PFSs (1,211).

"That means there were 5,249 CPAs who were CFPs and not PFSs. What does that tell you?" he said.

The AICPA’s Pickard said it’s unfair to place all the blame on the institute for the fact that the PFS and CITP credentials, especially, have not become popular with members. "It’s easy to pile on late in the discussion and say, well you should have done this or that. It’s much more complicated than that."

One industry insider said the AICPA board voted 18-4 to retain support for the ABV designation, which has already gained acceptance in the marketplace. Business valuation is one of the most profitable niches for a broad spectrum of accounting firms.

Industry consultant Allan Koltin said the ABV designation is a good example of what the AICPA has done right. And he said it would be disastrous for the profession if the institute decided to end support for this credential. "Many of the ABV designates also do litigation support," he noted. "Imagine an attorney cross-examining a CPA who had a credential that’s no longer supported by the AICPA. It would ruin their credibility as an expert witness," he said.

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