University of Texas at Dallas team takes top honors in AICPA competition

Can a hotel become more sustainable and reduce its carbon footprint by using LED lighting and installing a rooftop garden? A team of four accounting students from the University of Texas at Dallas thinks so. The American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) and a popular luxury hotel in Cary, North Carolina, think so, too. Jason Bramwell reports.

The students from the University of Texas at Dallas in Richardson took first place this past weekend in a national case competition sponsored by the AICPA that focused on enhancing sustainability practices at a business.
 
For winning the AICPA Accounting Competition January 21, the team from Texas, which called itself Eco Consulting LLC, was awarded $10,000. Eco Consulting was comprised of students Dariel Dato-on, Diane Henry, Jinson Jose, and Jennifer Rauschuber. The students were advised by director of undergraduate accounting John Barden, CPA.
 
Jose told AccountingWEB it was nice that the effort the team put into the competition paid off.
 
"We were pretty confident with the ideas we picked and how we explained the reasoning behind them," said Jose, who will graduate this spring with a double major in finance and accounting. "However, there was always the possibility that the judges might have preferred a different [team’s] idea."
 
Dato-on, who was the team captain, said he enjoyed the opportunity to network with important people in the industry and make new friends during the competition process.
 
"[Winning] was simply the icing on the cake. The whole competition itself was worth the experience," Dato-on told AccountingWEB. "What is perhaps more important than the actual idea we proposed is having the right people on the team. From the time our team first met, I knew we had a very strong team."
 
Students from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, took second place in the AICPA competition and received $5,000, and the third-place team from Ohio Dominican University, Columbus, was awarded $2,500.
 
Partnering with the Chapel Hill, NC-based Institute for Sustainable Development, the AICPA opened the competition in September 2010 to give students pursuing associate’s or bachelor’s degrees an opportunity to apply their accounting and sustainability knowledge to a real-world business challenge for an actual client – The Umstead Hotel & Spa, a AAA five-diamond-rated property that has been certified Green Plus by the Institute for Sustainable Development.
 
"Accountants today must be dynamic, balancing the values and philosophies of an organization with sound financial guidance," Ben Campsey, director of finance at The Umstead Hotel & Spa, said in a written statement. "We saw this as an opportunity to be involved in an exercise that would challenge students to think critically on relevant business topics, while continuing to promote our belief in responsible luxury."
 
Sixty-four student teams from around the country submitted ideas that would improve the environmental footprint of the hotel, remain consistent with its brand, and make financial sense.
 
Dato-on said one of the challenges of being team captain was properly managing the ideas that were generated from a group of intelligent people.
 
"When everyone is trying to produce their very best work, it is easy to fall prey to a phenomenon called thrashing: making a lot of waves but not really moving anywhere," said Dato-on, who will graduate this May with a bachelor’s degree in accounting. "Thrashing is not necessarily a bad thing, and a lot of good ideas come out of these intense brainstorming sessions. Knowing when to thrash and when to move on was one of my key responsibilities as team captain."
 
However, he added that it didn’t take the team long to agree on its two ideas to improve sustainability practices and reduce the carbon footprint at The Umstead Hotel & Spa.
 
"We did consider other ideas in the process; however, we liked the simplicity of the LED lights and the aesthetic appeal of the rooftop garden," Dato-on said. "Both of the ideas have many environmental benefits which contribute to The Umstead’s goals. Our team was quite unanimous regarding our final choice."
 
Of the 64 teams that submitted ideas, 10 were chosen to participate in the competition, where they submitted written and video proposals. The video proposals were posted on the competition’s Web site and reviewed by the public for one week.
 
The public voting, as well as a review by an executive judging panel, narrowed the field from 10 to three, with the teams from Ohio, Tennessee, and Texas each giving an eight-minute presentation to the AICPA board of directors in New York City on January 20.
 
"I had faith in our presentation and our idea," Henry told AccountingWEB. "Once I met the other teams, I knew that we were going to have to perform perfectly, but I have always had faith in my teammates."
 
Eco Consulting explained in its presentation that LED bulbs would reduce the hotel’s carbon emissions by 2 million pounds per year, pay for themselves in two years, and save the hotel $30 a year in energy costs per bulb. According to the students, a rooftop garden would cut water runoff, provide extra insulation, and produce organic herbs and vegetables on-site for the hotel restaurant. They calculated the garden would make the roof last twice as long, reduce hotel energy costs by 30 percent, and save $5,000 in annual food costs.
 
"I was so excited and happy to hear that we had won the competition," said Henry, who will graduate in May 2012 with a bachelor’s degree in accounting. "It almost felt like a dream. It is kind of strange to see a journey that we have put so much thought and time into finally end."
 
According to the AICPA, the Umstead Hotel & Spa plans to incorporate Eco Consulting’s sustainability plan into its capital budgeting process.
 
"Our team hopes that The Umstead does decide to implement a rooftop garden, but will support the hotel in any final decision that they make," Rauschuber, a senior accounting major, told AccountingWEB.
 
The Team Titans from the University of Tennessee proposed the hotel integrate the EyePower energy management solution from Energy Eye Inc., which is certified to save between 15 percent and 35 percent on HVAC energy usage, into its current HVAC automation systems. The students also proposed the hotel update its turndown service by using iPod Shuffles that play music from local musicians as guests enter their hotel rooms.
 
The students said both proposals would support the hotel’s current business model, preserve the customer experience, and enhance its triple-bottom-line commitment. Team members included Daniel Aycock, Camille Crumpton, Richard Lusk, and Johannah Reed.
 
The students from Ohio Dominican University, which named their team The Green Assets, proposed the hotel incorporate LED lighting in its conference rooms, ballrooms, and parking lot, and implement a green roof, to minimize costs, increase efficiency, and reduce the hotel’s carbon footprint. Team members included Rachel Billing, Ryan Fasig, Mari Monaco, and Christina Steiner. They were advised by assistant professor of accounting Robert Osborne.
 
"CPAs today are strategists, guiding business decisions on issues like environmental sustainability that are becoming new metrics of corporate success," AICPA Chairman Paul Stahlin said in a written statement. "This competition has highlighted the exceptional level of up-and-coming talent in our profession and given participants invaluable, real-world experience. Congratulations to the students from the University of Texas and all the teams for their outstanding ideas and analysis."
 
The four University of Texas at Dallas students agreed the competition was a great experience that they will always remember.
 
"I was lucky to have such an amazing team and tough competitors, too," Henry said. "It was wonderful meeting the AICPA board of directors in New York, and I very much appreciate their time. I also enjoyed meeting the other teams and spending time with them in New York, as well."
 
Rauschuber added that the time invested would have still been well worth the experience even if the team had not won.
 
"I hope that the AICPA’s future competitions will give students the chance that I have had and that [the students] will embrace this as more than just an extracurricular activity," Rauschuber said.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Eco Consulting LLC, a team of four students from the University of Texas at Dallas, took first place in the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants Accounting Competition. Pictured (from left) are: faculty advisor John Barden, Diane Henry, Jinson Jose, Dariel Dato-on, and Jennifer Rauschuber.
Photo courtesy of the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants
 

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