A Conversation With Jim Abbott Executive Director of NDSCPA

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Life at the top edge of the country is good for Jim Abbott and his family. Snowy North Dakota is a big change from sunny Pasadena, California where he graduated from Ambassador College, but while the geography is drastically different, Abbott's career transition has been more natural. He started by working with chambers of commerce in three different communities. Then in 1988, he took over the reins as Executive Director of the North Dakota Society of Certified Public Accountants(NDSCPA). Working for the Society is a lot like working for a chamber of commerce, says Abbott, but with a narrower constituency and a statewide reach instead of local.

For Abbott and his family, North Dakota is the place to be. It feels safe and provides a more rural lifestyle without feeling disconnected from the rest of the world. The state enjoys four distinct seasons, and it's close to the Canadian border where they can get the tea they like.
The only thing missing, he says, is the ocean. But even without a coast and a sandy beach, North Dakota has been a good place to raise a family. He and his wife and son and best friend - an American Eskimo dog - live in Grand Forks, while they have one daughter in medical school and another daughter in her fourth year of college.

Compared to more densely populated areas, North Dakota might seem isolated, but that remoteness not only makes for an agreeable way of life, but has somewhat insulated the residents from the ravages of the general economy. Their biggest economic engine is agriculture, so though they are still subject to the fluctuations of the market, overall, the state has fared well. "Many people don't realize that North Dakota is the fifth largest oil producer in the nation," says Abbott. The local economy is not without risk, since you never know what the water agriculture or oil situation will be next year, he adds. But for now, at least, life and business in North Dakota are still good. And that means that, generally speaking, business for CPAs is still going strong.

Life Among Certified Public Accountants is Not as Scary as it Sounds

Everyone has heard the stereotypes about stuffy accountants who reduce everything to numbers. Actually, says Abbott, "Working with CPAs is a friendly business to be in. You can call on peers across the country,describe a problem, and learn how they would handle it," he says. "CPA societies can reach out to each other... you can't really do that with competitors." If he had one piece of advice for someone wishing to serve in the leadership of a similar organization, it would be to take full advantage of this and encourage the kind of information sharing that happens in the North Dakota Society. "Peers can share knowledge and be immediately more productive. In other words," he says, "accountants can help each other without harming their own organization practices. CPAs are a good group to work with, especially here in the Midwest."

Besides working with professionals willing to actively support one another that he respects and admires, the job itself has many plusses, says Abbott. There's a lot of independence, a lot of ability to exercise your own judgment, set your own timetable. As long as he is responsive to the needs of the constituency, he is free to craft his workday and his timetable the way he wants. In his twenty years as Executive Director, the flexibility of his schedule has also allowed him to attend the University of North Dakota and complete two additional degrees, including a PhD in communication.

The NDSCPA office has six employees, two of whom are part time. "It's a good environment," says Abbott. "We have excellent resources and great coworkers, and we all get along very well." All of the staff of NDSCPA also works for the State Board of Accounting, which is regulatory in nature and shares payroll and other costs with the Society.

From a legislative standpoint, the NDSCPA has done well, says Abbott. They are very selective in the issues they take up and have been pretty successful in getting things passed. In spite of their remote location, they have kept up well with the rest of the country when it comes to changes in legislation. For example, like many other states, North Dakota has instituted the new stronger requirement for 150 hours of education to get into the profession. "We're not the bleeding edge," he says, "but we take a smart approach to change." Rather than rushing to adopt the newest technology they let others do so, and allow things to percolate and settle down before jumping in.

Right now, the NDSCPA is focusing on legislative work as they prepare to enter another legislative season, which is every other year. Before a new bill is introduced, they employ a three-party task force that seeks input from those who could be affected, instead of putting something together and then trying to get consensus afterward the way many groups do.

"We're getting ready to introduce a mobility bill," says Abbott, "to make the CPA credential more like a pass that is good throughout the nation. We're doing our part by making it easier for CPAs to come to our state." Twenty-eight states have already done this, so "North Dakota will be right in middle of the pack," he says. "Plus, this would allow CPAs to take on clients across the country without first contacting the Board of Accountancy. They can find out what the fees are and get approval. Once all states enact this," he says, "CPAs will be able to work remotely without extra levels of legislation." In many states, firms would still need to get approval and there might be other requirements, he explains, but the red tape would be reduced.

The NDSCPA is also involved in continually providing opportunities for education for members. They may be small, but they have a practice review program and maintain two Web sites. Currently, the NDSCPA has about 1,400 members, which includes roughly 73 percent of the CPAs in North Dakota. Like most of their fellow CPA associations, they are always working to add new members.

Abbott and his staff are understandably proud of their organization. "North Dakota is remote, but not so remote that we can't participate in national activities," he says. Besides working with a capable staff and members who are true professionals, he also credits the board of directors for the Society's smooth operation. The board has shown a lot of confidence in him, he says, allowing him to make decisions without having to getting approval every step of the way.

The NDSCPA, under Abbott's leadership and the board's direction is one fine example of what can be accomplished when you put good people in place and then trust them to do their jobs, cut the red tape, and share the credit for success.

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