A Conversation With...Ron Eagle

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After a long, successful career centered on accounting profession technology, Ron Eagle is winding down his work life, but still has plenty to say about accounting and the Information Technology Alliance (ITA), the group he has led since its inception in the late 1990s.

The ITA is a consortium that includes many of the accounting profession's most successful technology consulting practices, and most of the key vendors of technology systems used by CPAs and their small to medium size business (SMB) clients.

In a telephone interview at his home-office in Carmel, Ind., Eagle disclosed that he plans to fully retire in the next year or so, ending a semi-retirement in which he's splitting time between golf and grandparenting, with work that includes heading ITA and providing management consulting advice to firms' technology practices.The ITA has begun searching for a replacement and will announce its formal succession plan at its Fall Conference in November in San Antonio.

“My career has been a race between technological obsolescence and retirement and right now I think retirement is going to win,” says Eagle, who began that career in 1969 with the former Arthur Andersen in North Carolina and from there moved on to manage computer-based processing of tax returns at Cherry Bekaert & Holland, and then went to the former Olive CPA firm (now part of BKD ) where he was a key player in creating one of the first highly successful CPA-firm affiliated technology consulting practices.

Since leaving Olive, he was an executive consultant in the creation of Centerprise Advisors, the ambitious accounting firm rollup company that is now known as UHY Advisors, and he subsequently became a management consultant. He provides consulting when asked, but does not actively market for that work.

While with Olive he was a key person at ACUTE, a consortium of leaders of CPA firms' internal technology operations, which in 1998 re-branded itself as ITA, widened its scope to include technology consulting operations, and named Eagle its president. He has served in that role ever since, with the exception of a stint as chairman from 2000-2002.

From that perch, he has been among the most informed and outspoken authorities on CPAs' handling of technology.

Eagle, who turns 60 in May, acknowledges there is not much to be outspoken about on the technology consulting front. From what he sees, firms are reducing their role in technology consulting and no longer view it as they did in the 1990s, as a vital alternative service closely aligned with their core accounting services.

As a result, Eagle says, the ITA will shift what had been its heavy emphasis on providing IT consulting –related training and resources into other areas. “We have to reinvent ourselves much like the accounting profession has reinvented itself,” he says.

“I don't see many CPA firms thinking about information technology consulting at all,” he adds, explaining that most firms are being lured from IT consulting to focus on attest related services, where demand has been stoked by the increased reporting requirements in the Sarbanes-Oxley accounting reform law.

“Firms are doing a good job of building practices around that because that's compliance work and something that clients have to do. Firms are embracing this intellectually in a way they could not for IT,” he says.

While it used to be natural for CPAs to help clients implement their first accounting software systems, that market has evaporated. “There are no virgins left, everyone has been through an accounting software implementation,” Eagle quips.

He further notes that CPA firms focused on the SMB market have been squeezed out of IT consulting by other IT consulting firms that blossomed in the 1990s, including ones launched by non-CPAs who got their start working for CPA firms. Indeed, the vast majority of ITA's consulting firm members are from companies not owned by or affiliated with CPA firms.

And Eagle does not expect software vendors to cater to CPAs and aggressively recruit them as resellers or consultants as they did in the 1990s. “Everybody seems to now know that CPAs are a dry hole when it comes to driving IT products and services,” he laments.

This (loss of IT buying influence) is especially true for midsize and small firms, but Eagle expects that some regional accounting firms' IT practices will remain dominant in the middle market, citing RSM McGladrey, Plante Moran and BKD, as among dozens of examples.

While his attitude is a shade of mellow yellow as he approaches retirement, Eagle remains critical of the American Institute of CPAs' (AICPA) effort to increase CPAs' involvement in technology through the creation of a Certified Information Technology Professional (CITP) designation. He claims that the institute has not effectively marketed CITP.

To be sure, the AICPA, which reports there are 726 CITP holders, has made the designation a subject of several training sessions at its Tech 2006 conference this summer. And in February, it sgreed with the Information Systems Audit and Control Association (ISACA)to make CPAs, who hold ISACA's Certified Information Systems Auditor (CISA) credential, automatically eligible to receive the CITP. There are some 3,300 CPA CISA holders.

Eagle is not impressed and calls the CISA-ISACA arrangement an attempt to “goose up” the CITP count. AICPA spokesman Joel Allegretti counters that ICACA's mission is complementary to what CITP covers and that ISACA and the AICPA have a long-running relationship that includes work on the institute's annual Top Ten Technologies report, and collaborating a few years ago on a White House Conference on Critical Infrastucture Issues.

A few years ago, after the ITA ceased a brief stint of being a membership section of the AICPA, Eagle ruffled some institute feathers when he said that membership section arrangement was doomed because the institute failed to get its members to approve a global designation that would have recognized accountants who also have skills in information technology and other key business disciplines. However, he also concurred with the AICPA's explanation that the termination of the membership section arrangement was part of the institute's increased focus on attest services and away from nontraditional areas, in the wake of the Arthur Andersen accounting scandal

Back to today, the ITA is already at work trying to determine how to redefine itself. “At the board level we are trying to anticipate where the next (IT) benefit will come from and to re-position ourselves accordingly,” Eagle says.

How ITA re-positions will have a bearing on CPAs outside its membership because the alliance helps the AICPA develop programs for its annual technology conferences, and state society technology shows often cover the same areas that the AICPA shows cover.

Non-IT consulting ventures the ITA is pursuing include a benchmark study on CPA firms' internal technology systems that is being built with data and results from the ITA's very large firm members.

Just the same, the ITA is still delivering a robust set of training programs geared toward firm IT and general consulting operations. The agenda at its Spring conference for members only, slated for April 23-26 in Chicago, includes topics such as lead generation strategies, client nurturing, network services and custom development services.

ITA's Fall conference, which is open to non-members, will include the launch of training on personnel issues, including staff recruiting and retention, which Eagle expects will be an ongoing theme for future conferences. For details on registration, visit the ITA web site, www.italliance.com.

Another topic of discussion in November will surely be retirement -- Eagle's and the ones being considered by many of his fellow Baby Boomers.

Written by John Covaleski, AccountingWEB Staff Writer.

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