A Conversation With Alan Olsen: CEOs Hunting For New CPAs?

The following is an opinion editorial provided by Alan L. Olsen, CPA, MBA, Managing Partner of Greenstein, Rogoff, Olsen & Co.:

The relationship between a chief executive and his accountant is an extremely important one. An outside accountant can be one of your most trusted business advisors and a key to your success. That’s one of the reasons why a new initiative by the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board (PCAOB) is creating a stir in the offices of CEOs across the land.

Established by the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, the PCAOB is charged with establishing rules for — among other things — auditing, quality control, ethics, and independence. In April of this year the PCAOB issued a set of seven rules for auditors of public companies. Though focused primarily on tax services, these rules also address ethics and independence.

The Rule in Question

Rule 3523 is entitled “Tax Services for Persons in a Financial Reporting Oversight Role.” In a nutshell, this rule states that an audit firm must maintain its independence by not providing tax services to any person in an audit client firm who fills a “Financial Reporting Oversight Role” (FROR). In layman’s terms, this means that CEO’s, CFOs, controllers, and others cannot have the company’s CPA firm do his or her personal taxes, or those of his spouse or dependents. Using the same firm to perform both services would create at minimum the appearance of a conflict of interest.

So Now What Do I Do?

There is a daunting array of accountants and firms to choose from — from sole practitioners to huge national firms, from generalists to highly specialized CPAs. However, there are few basic guidelines you can follow in order to make the process of choosing the right accountant a little easier:

* What’s the Big Picture? Take the time to step back and look at your needs from a 30,000 foot perspective. Your new accountant should be able to deal with not only your present need, but with the unforeseen circumstances of the future. A good financial partner will not only manage the individual pieces of your financial picture, but also won’t miss the forest for the trees.
* Specialist or Generalist? If your financial needs require a specialist, look for someone who has experience in your area. Do you simply need someone to prepare your taxes? Then perhaps a general purpose firm will do. But as in most industries today, specialization has worked its way into all areas of society and accounting firms are no different.
* Large or Small? Will you feel more comfortable with a large name-brand firm, or do you want the personal attention a smaller organization can give you? Larger firms may farm out pieces of your work to junior staff or even outside contractors. You may not be getting what (and who) you think you are paying for. And on the other hand, the smaller firm may not have the breadth of resources you really need.
* Check the Qualifications. It’s easy to find out if the firm you are investigating is properly licensed or has any pending disciplinary actions. Make sure the people you partner with have the education, licenses and certifications you need. Accountants who have the certified public accountant (CPA) designation must adhere to certain rigorous accounting standards. It's uncommon, but some who offer accounting services may be unqualified and may not carry liability insurance. Nor would there be any supervisory body you could go to if things go wrong. The apparent savings in fees, if any, could prove costly in the long run.
* Reputation is Key. Ask around and find out what kind of reputation the prospective accountant (or firm) has. Talk to your friends and business associates. If your friends and business associates had to choose another accountant, whom would they choose? A firm's reputation among non-clients is almost as important as its track record with existing clients. Finally, consider the “relationship fit.” In other words, do you get along with the individual? Do you share a similar outlook and philosophy? Does he or she show a real interest in your business?

Don’t forget that your primary factor in choosing an accountant should be the value he or she brings to the relationship. And always remember that real value from an accounting firm comes from several key factors:

* Superior professional service
* A forward-thinking attitude with your needs at heart
* A relationship of trust

Evaluating such elements as a proactive approach to your total financial picture, the ability to bring specialized expertise to your situation, and superior professional credentials will help you make an informed decision on the CPA's skills and ability to address your unique needs.

Alan L. Olsen (CPA, MBA tax) is the Managing Partner at Greenstein, Rogoff, Olsen & Co., a Bay Area CPA firm that focuses on serving Silicon Valley’s high end clients. A specialist in income tax planning, Alan frequently lectures and writes articles on tax issues for professional organizations and community groups. Alan has over 21 years experience in advanced tax planning including international tax, company reorganizations, multi-state taxation, financial statement preparation, stock options, estates and trusts, and representation before tax authorities.

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