I would do it over, but choose a different launch point

By Eugene Flegm, CFE, CPA, Bonita Springs, Florida

Editor’s Note: I’m glad that this month’s guest thinks that if he could do it over again he would still become a CPA, albeit with a different launch point.

Like many CPAs, I didn’t plan to be an accountant. I entered Ohio State University as a history/journalism major in the Arts College. After my first year I was out of money and looking for a job. My employment agency discovered I had a high aptitude for numbers and found me a job as a clerk in a small company’s accounting department. Frustrated at not understanding what they were talking about, I enrolled in a correspondence course in accounting at an extension program of the University of Chicago. I became interested in a professional career. A family friend who was an attorney pressed hard for a law career, but the decision came down to time and money: accounting would take four years, law seven. I went back to college and worked my way through night school.

After graduating with a B.S. in Business Administration, I joined the Cleveland office of Haskins & Sells and spent two years before transferring to the firm’s new office in Columbus, which had been formed through a merger with a sole practitioner. Five years later, General Motors recruited me for its corporate financial staff. I had enjoyed my seven years in the audit and tax areas immensely, especially working with and advising smaller clients on many business problems. Because I had just been promoted to principal (manager) at Haskin & Sells, the decision was difficult: I was on my way to a partnership, something I had aspired to since my return to college. But the challenge of joining the corporate staff of GM was too strong to decline.

I decided that although I was leaving public accounting, I would still be a professional accountant, and throughout my 28 years with GM I was fortunate enough to be just that. Early in my career there, the company appointed a new comptroller, Thomas A. Murphy, with whom I developed a lifelong association anchored in our mutual respect for accounting. Murphy went on to become chairman of the board of directors of GM, but while he was still comptroller and I was director of accounting, FASB began its conceptual framework project. Murphy asked that I “get into this in depth” and I did. My work on this project led to my writing (again at Murphy’s urging) a book, Accounting: How to Meet the Challenges of Relevance and Regulation.

During the 15 years I was in charge of GM’s accounting, first as director and then as assistant corporate comptroller, I represented GM on the Financial Executives Institute’s (FEI) Committee on Corporate Reporting, and testified at all major FASB hearings as well as the SEC’s hearings on GM’s acquisitions of EDS and Hughes Aircraft, which were extremely complex and interesting from a theoretical point of view. During these years I was also quite active in national accounting groups, notably the American Accounting Association (AAA), where I chaired the group of executives that created and raised the money for the AAA’s Corporate Accounting Policy seminars. During the past 10 years, these seminars have annually brought about 70 professors of accounting and 20 corporate financial executives together to discuss the day-to-day problems that accountants in industry deal with. The AAA now considers this seminar to be one of the best they sponsor.

During my career at GM I led the centralization and computerization of all basic accounting activities. My last three years at GM were as auditor general, possibly the most satisfying position of all. I continued my goal of eliminating redundancies, and I centralized the worldwide audit staff. The emphasis on audits was shifted from checklists to broad-based risk analysis. In addition, we began auditing during major computer projects rather than waiting until the errors had been set into the new programs before an audit was done.

Obviously, this has been very different from any career I could have entered with a degree in history or journalism. But would I do this again? Accounting has undergone great changes in the past few years. More than ever, mechanical bookkeeping is just that. The various regulatory agencies have virtually choked off the prospective student’s interest with a plethora of rules, none of which change the theory of accounts. Some in the profession have attempted to relabel the CPA with a new designation.

The profession seems to be having a severe identity crisis that I believe stems from the success of the MBA degree. Beginning in the 1960s, MBA programs stole the best business students with the siren song of high finance. I lived with this attitude for all of my years with GM. One boss even told me that it would be difficult for me to advance into other areas because I had become an expert! I thanked him and told him that is what I had set out to do.

If I were choosing a career today, I would still pick accounting. However, I would enter through an arts college program with an emphasis on writing and speaking before going for a master’s degree in accounting. This way I could contribute more to the general understanding of the art of accounting in the publics mind.

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