Art of Accounting: Five years and counting
This column completes five full years — 260 columns. I am grateful I’ve been able to do it and feel I can continue for quite some time. I am also gratified by the many comments and feedback I get from readers, so thank you. These are your columns too.
Many people have asked me how I’ve been able to do so much and what I have done to create the situations. The answer is I really did nothing to create the situations, but I stepped up when asked and followed up when necessary. I never passed up an opportunity I stumbled upon. Here is a rundown of some examples that I have not previously written about:
- When I was a junior accountant, my boss told me I was going with him the next day to work on a budget for a client. That night I looked up budgeting in some textbooks I had and came up with a summary of the process to get started. When my boss saw that the next day, he told me I should do it myself and he would review it when I needed help or was finished. I worked hard, but came up with a pretty good draft. After that, I became the “budget and projection expert,” which put me on jobs where I got to work one on one with clients I never would have met otherwise.
- Another time I was told I was going to work on a restaurant. On my lunch hour, I went to the AICPA Library, which was then in Manhattan, got some help and took out two books on restaurant accounting.
- When I was in the National Guard I attended weekend meetings once a month. For a February meeting, I wrote and printed a “newsletter” with tax tips for National Guardsmen and distributed it to everyone there. I got quite a few clients out of it, including the lieutenant, who was my company commander (I later became a partner with him in a restaurant he opened), the sergeant major and a captain. Needless to say, this made my weekend meetings actually enjoyable.
- My prior boss had a client who introduced me to a friend who had just purchased a dude ranch that he was taking public, and I was asked if I would do the audit. I had just started my own practice a week earlier and took the client. I spent three weekends at the dude ranch. After the audit was completed, I needed to sign off on it before it could be submitted to the Securities and Exchange Commission. That occurred while I was at Camp Drum for two weeks of training. A car service delivered the report to me. The driver waited until I had read it and put my John Hancock on it. I then got other business from the attorney.
- My father was a CPA and also admitted to practice at the U.S. Tax Court, even though he wasn’t an attorney. While I started my career as an auditor, I shifted to taxes and thought it would be helpful to have that credential, so I took and passed the biannual test. To establish my special expertise I started including this in my credentials, which was the only thing I had besides the best one of all — CPA. I never intended to practice there, but some clients with losing tax audits did not want to throw in the towel, so I ended up representing them at Tax Court. The deal was no fee if I lost and we would negotiate a fee if I won. The first three or four cases were losers, but I was getting experience. Also, I used my admission to file Tax Court petitions when clients received 90-day letters and time was running out. This got me quite a few new clients with pretty substantial matters. I also handled some more cases that I was paid for. I met a lot of the tax attorneys at the IRS who provided me with a sounding board for some difficult and esoteric issues I worked on in the future.
- My partner Peter Weitsen and I always had an audit manager working for us. One day the audit manager left the firm for family reasons and it looked like I was going to have to start running the audits again. I looked around for an auditing update CPE program and the earliest one was a two-day course for peer and quality reviewers. I figured I would get the A&A stuff I needed, plus it would qualify me to do peer reviews, so that’s what I took. I then met Mark Lilling at an accounting show where he had an exhibit promoting his considerable peer review business. We became friendly and when he heard I was qualified to do peer reviews, he said I could do his and he would teach me what I needed to know. Bingo! I ended up doing peer reviews for over 60 firms. During that period, another partner, Frank Boutillette, joined our firm and I then turned over the peer reviews to him. He still does them and also for some of the firms I did over 25 years ago. And I am still in touch with Mark.
- I have presented a "Managing Your Tax Season" speech and variations of it over 100 times since 1980, but there always needs to be a first time. I had joined the New Jersey Society of CPAs Management of an Accounting Practice committee, and at my first meeting it came up that the person who was supposed to present a speech in two weeks on that topic had to cancel. The committee discussed who they could ask. I was new there, did not know anyone, and pretty much just sat at the meeting listening. When it became apparent they were going to have to cancel the program, I said I thought I could put something together in time. I became a hero, but when I left the meeting I started to wonder how I could create a presentation that I could talk about for two hours. I was always very procedure- and system-oriented (from my training as an auditor) so I started collecting forms, letters and whatever else I could get my hands on. I prepared an outline of the order of how I wanted to present the information and gave the speech. I worked very hard, very late for a few nights and was very nervous, but I got it done. Two side effects were that the preparation made me even more organized and systematized, and it helped establish a reputation among colleagues that led to referrals for client tax matters they felt they could not handle. That grew into the Withum Partners’ Network, which we still have.
- In 1976, my partner, Paul Rich, was offered an adjunct teaching position in the Fairleigh Dickinson MBA program in an off-campus program about 15 minutes from his and my houses. Well, a second spot opened up two days before the semester was going to start, and Paul asked me if I wanted to do it. I immediately went to the school to look at the textbook and felt I could handle it. It was the prerequisite financial analysis course. To be frank, as long as I could get to the class, I had the job because they were desperate since they did not want to cancel the class. However, that led to me teaching one course a semester for 11 years, and I ended up teaching five different courses. That string ended in 1988, but last summer I started teaching again for the Fairleigh Dickinson MBA program, but this time I am a professor! I am now in my fourth semester and have already taught two different courses.
- I started teaching again last summer when the dean attended one of the Partners’ Network CPE programs and he asked me afterwards if I would be willing to speak at a Beta Alpha Psi meeting about my experiences as a CPA -- my favorite topic! I of course said yes, and in a déjà vu moment, he ended up with an oversubscribed financial accounting applications course. He called me to see if I was willing to teach it. I met with him, reviewed the curriculum and text book, and we spoke about the approach he wanted me to take in that course. The approach was practical-oriented for future business leaders and I got excited about the opportunity. Since then I have also taught managerial accounting applications and am scheduled already for the next semester, which will be the fifth class I will be teaching.
- Another instance was when a new organization I was involved in starting wanted to begin hosting periodic programs for its members, potential members and the general public. Someone gave suggestions of topics and asked if I would present a year-end tax planning speech. Little did I ever think that it would become an annual event, and on Feb. 3, 2019, I will be presenting the 39th Annual Ed Mendlowitz Financial Program. It will be in Old Bridge, New Jersey, and is free. If you are local and want to attend, let me know and I’ll send you the details. I expanded my speeches beyond taxes, and this year’s program will be a “Getting Your Affairs in Order Workshop.” I will distribute a Tool Kit with over 20 checklists and worksheets. For those who cannot attend, I will post information here in February on how to obtain a free handout so stay tuned.
Looking at the above illustrations (and there are many others) shows I’ve done a lot, but in reality, I did one thing at a time. I just happen to have been around a long time. If I did just one new thing a year, it would be over 50 things. Just one every other year, it would be 25. I really did not go out of my way to create the opportunities, but I did expend the necessary, and sometimes more than necessary, efforts to get the job done and to do it the best I could under the time constraints I was working under. Each of these was accomplished while I was trying to build my practice, spend time with my wife and two sons, and be active in professional and charitable organizations. I did it, and I know it can be replicated by others.
My takeaway is to just do it and never pass up an opportunity!
Thank you for reading my columns these past five years, and keep the comments and questions coming. My email address is email@example.com. Include your phone number so I can call you back.