June 2003

Do It Over? But I’m Not Done Yet!

By Stephen A. Kolenda

Franklin Mountain on the upper slope of the Catskills is the final natural break between the refuge of my under-renovation 1840s home in the woods and the organized chaos of my office that lies ahead. As I coax my old Harley into a full roar, this accountant wonders what adventure the new day might bring. The twists in the road and the exhilaration of cruising through the world seem to mirror the accountancy career I chose to pursue 30 years ago.

When in the late 1960s my mother changed secretarial jobs from the Connecticut corporate office of Schick to a local Stamford CPA’s office, I finally got a chance to visit her workplace. Class and prestige seemed to permeate every corner of Tony Lorenzo’s office suite. From the always-new Cadillac to the seemingly comfortable job, this appeared an impressive life to a kid who every day saw his father return from the railroad yards sweaty, grimy, and exhausted. As I headed off to Villanova University to be an accounting major, I still had only a narrow idea of where this decision might lead me.

Jobs with three Connecticut CPA firms after college enriched my personal and professional life with more peers and mentors than I can recount here. Their styles were as varied as their many clients, yet one message clearly permeated their work: They served their clients. In doing so, they were respected and needed, and they performed services that allowed individuals and organizations to thrive. In turn, their clients’ businesses created jobs in the community, the communities promoted the public good, and the accountants’ services contributed directly and indirectly to improving those communities. It was with great pride (and relief) that I became a CPA.

As a misguided strategy to earn an MBA in night school without the ordeal of tax season, I ventured into private accounting. Again, I became part of an organization that was creating jobs and providing products (mostly publications) that served to better our nation. Joining the headquarters group of a public company, I began internal auditing, SEC compliance, and budgeting. This world was different, but it provided professional growth and experience that public accounting could not. It was certainly not easier or more glamorous, as evidenced by hours spent toiling over consolidations on a precomputer manual spreadsheet or driving to a distant division in the Illinois farmlands for a two-week audit. After three years that culminated in an intense period of working projections and due diligence on a leveraged buyout, I decided to explore yet a third area of accounting: academia.

As an accounting professor, my professional life has become devoted to serving students in their quests for intellectual growth. My job is as challenging as ever with its daily hours of preparation for classroom presentations, tough questions from great students, and incredible technological advances. Every day is an emotional roller coaster ranging from career advice to personal counseling, from students’ failures to students’ successes. I watch young lives change, and actively participate in that process. Many of my students have become practicing CPAs themselves, and some have become partners who are mentoring yet another generation of our profession.

Accounting has also opened another door for me: world travel. As an educator I have lived in China, teaching international accounting for the Ministry of Trade, and was allowed to travel independently around that incredible country with my family for eight months. I have returned twice to China, once with Binghamton University MBA students to do marketing research for New York companies. My family and I lived in Thailand for almost a year while I taught accounting there. The peaceful Buddhist nature of the Thais doesn’t hamper their thirst for accounting knowledge, and my own love of accounting hasn’t hampered my thirst for Thailand’s world-class tropical beaches, fiery cuisine, and rain forests with wild elephants and tigers. In addition to accompanying students to Burma, the Czech Republic, Germany, Laos, and Poland, I have also taken them on leadership development courses sailing the Florida Keys and the Maine coast as an instructor for an Outward Bound school.

During a sabbatical in 1998, I worked directly with Robert Bayless, then–chief accountant in the SEC Division of Corporation Finance, to create the division’s first academic fellowship, and served as its first Fellow. Commuting daily into the SEC’s Washington, D.C., headquarters to be at the frontlines of the global business world, I worked with some of the sharpest minds in accounting, wrestling with the most complex accounting issues of the day. Interacting almost daily with FASB, the national offices of the large public firms, and professionals from the top levels of the world’s largest corporations, I felt at the pinnacle of the accounting profession. Serving the public interest explicitly, the economy’s watchdog regulator vigilantly strives to ensure the integrity of our capital markets, with accountants leading the way.

So, would I choose accounting again? You bet! Still in my 40s, I have worked in public, corporate, academic, and government accounting. Every step has brought rewards and the satisfaction of a career serving others in a range of interesting ways. As the sun sets and I recuperate on our back porch from playing ice hockey the previous night, overlooking our organic gardens and 124-acre tree farm, I have to wonder where accounting will lead me next.

Stephen A. Kolenda, CPA, is a professor and chair of the department of management and accounting at Hartwick College in Oneonta, N.Y.

Editor’s Note: In last month’s issue, I called for your perception of “public responsibility” in today’s environment. Of course, this space sitll welcomes reflection on whether, as CPAs, you would “do it over again,” such as the contribution below.

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