Edward Zollars, CPA
Tax and Technology partner
Henricks, Martin, Thomas & Zollars, Ltd.
Curiosity in trends helps keep your practice vital
Most days find Edward Zollars in his firm's office occasionally chatting online with fellow cyber-travelers … but don't think he's wasting valuable work time.
Zollars of Phoenix, Ariz., is an early entrant and major enthusiast of participating in accounting discussion forums over the Internet. By joining in on the new age of information gathering, the CPA and partner of a public accounting firm has helped keep his skills on the cutting edge, and assured his position as an authority in the industry. His colleagues in the profession value his opinions and guidance on tax accounting as much as they look to him for expertise in adapting emerging technologies for the practice.
Zollars' career path looked quite typical, initially. A graduate of Arizona State University, he received his CPA license in 1984 and landed with R. Keith Henricks & Company in Phoenix, expecting to concentrate for several years on write-up work, tax returns, and slowly make his mark in the firm.
But one day, his casual understanding of computers made him a candidate for assisting others in his firm with hardware and software concerns. That led to duties of overseeing the firm's network.
Zollars had participated in discussion forums via computer for a few years already, but his growing knowledge of providing accounting services using the tools of technology was gaining respect.
He first logged on with CompuServe's information service, and eventually served as volunteer sysop, or moderator, on the forum that became known as WordStar. Soon, he fulfilled a similar role with AICPA's Accountant's Forum. He also participated in a group that led to the creation of a tax discussion on the UseNet forum called misc.taxes.moderated. It became one of the most active taxation-related discussion groups online.
For some 20 years, he facilitated the communications between professionals in the field. At its peak, the online site over which he often presided in his role as moderator welcomed about 500 visitors a day.
Joining professional discussion groups just makes sense to Zollars. These online forums help keep him knowledgeable about topics that are hot and worth pursuing. That helps his own accounting firm as well.
"The key is I need to know my stuff, and I find this is an incredibly efficient way to stay in touch," he says. "Others may get analysis four or five months down the line, but I hear about it almost immediately. And since clients will downgrade you versus when someone else tells you who already knows it, client perception of your knowledge depends on you knowing it quickly."
Connecting to these discussion forums is especially useful to solo practitioners, according to Zollars.
"The visitors come from throughout the nation so you're not likely to be competitive," he says. "Plus, mulling over evolving tax acts like the Roth Tax Conversion and the latest incarnation of the tax act is encouraged without judgment."
Zollars' service to the accounting profession has burgeoned. Now a partner with Henricks, Martin, Thomas & Zollars, he has served on several high-level national committees for the AICPA, including those concerned with tax technology and information technology. He has served on the AICPA Top Ten Technology Issues panel for four years, and is a member of several national and state CPA groups.
Zollars is a frequent speaker for state and national organizations needing the latest information on tax work and technology. He has spoken at a number of meetings of the AICPA Tax Section, as well as giving two presentations at the National Conference on Federal Taxes. He has appeared before state CPA groups in Oklahoma, Virginia and Arizona.
Learning and sharing
Zollars was inspired to adapt technology to public accounting through wise words of founding partner Henricks (now deceased), who once said you gain as much by giving to the profession as you do by sitting back.
"Plus you learn a lot by preparing and giving and interacting," adds Zollars. "I sell my expertise and if I don't improve it, I eventually won't be able to sell it."
The hot topics he shares these days include his views on taxation: the dynamics of a government sharply divided down political lines and how that will affect evolving tax law. "Issues of state tax reform will have impact on accountants today. Family limited partnerships are hot, issues for clients who want to file as cash basis, and intricacies of qualified plans."
He predicts that if a new tax bill does pass Congress, some good liberalization will occur. "There's a lot of tax changes coming down and a lot will help us help our clients do what they want to do.”
His advice on technology is also in great demand. "CPA firms are more sophisticated than we often give them credit for, but less so than they need to be," he says. "The average, local CPA firm has a computer network, some connectivity on the Internet, probably plans to add a Web site in the near future, uses e-mail to communicate with clients, and uses the Web for research purposes."
Technology for firms is not all good news. The downside is that firms may neglect to use technology as merely a tool and rely on it too greatly when one-on-one relationships are far and away the best arrangements. That, he says, leads to problems and wastes time.
Yet, technology as a tool poses broad advantages for firms. "It's a means for getting quality information fast to do tax planning, for better serving the client, for better communicating with client. Technology has made us more efficient and we can do less of boring grunt work like coding checks into the general ledger or doing basic compliance stuff in the tax area, or bookkeeping. Instead you can do higher-value work for the clients like determine strategy."
Zollars welcomes questions and comments. Contact him at [email protected]