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Counting on a new image

Even before Enron, the accounting profession had image issues. But a lot of people have misconceptions about the field, accountants say. And the American Institute of CPAs will spend millions to change that.

By HELEN HUNTLEY, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times
published February 17, 2002


When Christine Castellano tells people she's an accountant, she knows what reaction to expect.

"They either think you're dull or assume you know everything about the Internal Revenue Code," said Castellano, who works for Citigroup in Tampa.

photo
[Times art: Rossie Newson]
Long before Enron's bankruptcy put their profession in the spotlight, accountants had an image problem. A big one.

"People still think of us as folks with green eye shades who sit at calculators punching numbers all the time," said Michael Stone, a Port Richey accountant.

The usual picture: boring bean counters in windowless rooms surrounded by towering piles of paper. Though it's no longer particularly accurate, the perception at least had one thing going for it: Accountants were widely thought to be honest and objective. If PricewaterhouseCoopers counted the ballots, surely the vote couldn't be rigged.

Now the Enron scandal has produced another picture: accountants unable to detect or unwilling to blow the whistle on financial shenanigans that allowed the Houston company's top executives to rake in millions while the business teetered on the edge of collapse. When Enron actually did file for bankruptcy reorganization, its auditor, Arthur Andersen, shredded documents related to the engagement.

"A lot of CPAs are very disappointed right now that this has happened," said Stephen Nouss, a Fort Lauderdale accountant who is president of the Florida Institute of Certified Public Accountants.

Both accountants and federal regulators are tackling the issues Enron raised. Some of the big accounting firms have announced they will no longer provide lucrative consulting services to their audit clients, an arrangement that creates a huge potential conflict of interest. In addition, Securities and Exchange Commission chairman Harvey Pitt wants to create a new board to oversee the profession and discipline accountants who break the rules. On top of that, investors and their lawyers are demanding better audits.

The question is who will do the job?

Increasingly, college students are turning their backs on accounting as a career. Nationally, accounting enrollments fell 23 percent over the three academic years ending in 1999, according to a survey by the American Institute of CPAs. At the University of South Florida, there were 788 students enrolled in accounting courses last fall, down from 955 four years previously in spite of aggressive recruiting efforts.

"I'm not interested in being a desk jockey," said Mark Norris, 24, a USF senior majoring in marketing. "I like interacting with people and being creative. Accountants are stuck behind a desk, pushing papers and punching buttons, doing the same thing time after time."

Ryan Davis, 18, a USF freshman, said he plans to major in engineering.

"Accounting is not as big a field as it used to be," he said.

Accountants say there are plenty of reasons for the falloff in interest, starting with competition from other fields perceived as more exciting, more financially rewarding and often easier to master. Many students who might have majored in accounting in the past have been choosing majors such as finance or management information systems.

USF said its accounting graduates start out earning $35,000 to $45,000 a year. The high-tech boom and promises of stock options lured many business students, but the ensuing dot-com bust has not produced a surge in the numbers who want to become auditors.

Having to pass courses such as cost accounting and federal taxation is deterrent enough for most students. But would-be accountants also face additional hurdles if they want to become Certified Public Accountants, the profession's most recognized designation. That requires earning 30 extra credit hours, a full extra year of college, and passing a two-day exam that only a fourth of test takers master on the first try.

"It's one of the reasons people don't get into the profession," said Tampa accountant Alex Brophy, who earned his accounting degree from USF but has yet to take the CPA exam. "Why would you want to go through five years of college and then sit through this monstrous exam, two days of grueling questions on everything you've learned in the last five years?"

And what's your reward when you've finished? A job in accounting.

"The perception is that it's boring because it's just working with numbers and they don't want to work with numbers," said Meagan Mane, who earned her masters in accountancy from USF in December.

That perception is rooted in the public view of the one accounting task most people understand: tax preparation. Even many accountants find that a drag.

"I have a hard enough time just stomaching doing the tax returns for my family without doing that 365 days a year," said John Kramer, director of the Fisher School of Accounting at the University of Florida. "I don't think anybody would enjoy doing that."

The problem, according to the accountants, is that the public has the wrong idea of what accounting is all about.

"There's a tremendous amount of misinformation about the accounting profession and what it does," USF accounting professor Gary Holstrum said. "With technology, the boring old number stuff virtually has gone away. Once prospective students are informed of the variety of opportunities, they're much more attracted to the area."

Yes, accountants still do taxes, audits and financial statements, but they also do a lot of other things that people don't think of as accounting.

"We do analysis'for clients and help them make business decisions," said accountant Stone in New Port Richey. "It could be something as mundane as whether to buy or lease a vehicle or something as big as, "Should I expand my business?' "

Many accountants have moved into financial planning and some into money management. Others do computer consulting. As a result, just what defines accounting has become increasingly vague. Many of the people who work for accounting firms as consultants don't even have accounting backgrounds.

And although IRS agents brought down mobster Al Capone, few accountants ever end up in the limelight. Enron whistle-blower Sherron Watkins, a former Arthur Andersen accountant, is a notable exception.

Accountants have decided the solution to their dwindling numbers is a public relations campaign aimed at high school and college students. The American Institute of CPAs plans to spend $25-million over five years promoting accounting as a hip career choice.

The first year's efforts have included contests offered in conjunction with Web sites sponsored by MP3 and Burly Bear Network. In one contest, students could compete for a "dream internship" at Viacom Inc., Yahoo or the CPA firm of their choice. About one in five asked for the CPA firm.

Next month the institute plans to launch a Web site (www.startheregoplaces.com) with information about the profession. One ad promoting the site suggests accounting can be the ticket to a job in the film industry.

"The key message is the diversity of activities, the fact that it is so much broader than students realize," said Beatrice Sanders, the group's director of academic and career development. "We need to get talented students on track to go into accounting."

The Florida Institute has its own program encouraging accountants to speak to high school students.

"We need to take the initiative," institute president Nouss said. "We don't have L.A. Law or E.R. or some of the other television shows that might captivate students. It's hard to make accounting sexy, but it's fascinating for the businessperson. You're building a foundation in accounting that you can leverage and take a lot of different directions."

Nouss points out that his own job as chief financial officer for Seabulk International, an oil services company, requires him to monitor the global economy.

"I'm not counting pennies; I'm looking to see what global economic factors may have an impact on the price of a barrel of oil," he said.

Clearwater accountant William Hunter said he also uses his accounting background in a less traditional way, valuing and selling privately held companies as part of his job with Geneva Cos., a Citigroup subsidiary. He signed up for the speakers' bureau, although so far nobody has called.

"The stereotypical CPA scares people away," he said.

Hunter said the Enron scandal has given the profession a black eye.

"You're supposed to give the public the trust that they need in the numbers and that didn't happen," he said. But he said he thinks his clients still view his own CPA designation as a plus.

"Once they see that they have a lot more trust and they associate you with higher standards," he said.

Ultimately, the Enron scandal could be a positive for the profession, USF professor Holstrum said. If nothing else, it has shown the public that audits are important.

"Students, whether they're in accounting or not, see this as a more important function than they thought it was six months or a year ago," he said. "If it isn't done well, the whole stock market starts to lose faith."

St. Petersburg accountant William Tapp said the Enron episode probably will lead to a renewed emphasis on ethics in the profession. That, in turn, could attract more students.

The accountants do have one thing going in their favor: the recession.

"When you have a downturn in the economy, the marketing people and to some degree the information systems people are the first ones to be downsized," said Robert Keith, director of USF's School of Accountancy. "The accounting people are the last to go."

-- Helen Huntley can be reached at huntley@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8230.

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