NASBA Chief David Costello moving on to an even brighter future

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David Costello is ready for new horizons. In April, he announced that he will step down from the top spot at the National Association of State Boards of Accountancy (NASBA). When he goes, he’ll leave the organization much better than he found it.

If you have a conversation with him, you’ll quickly see that he is an enthusiastic leader who seeks to bring out the best in those around him. He’s someone you’d like to partner with in the boardroom or on the golf course, and the kind of guy you’d like to have over for a backyard barbecue. That’s why he’ll be sorely missed when he leaves NASBA.

Before joining NASBA, Costello spent 13 years cutting his accounting teeth as an internal auditor for Ernst & Ernst (before it became Ernst & Young). After that came another 10 years as president and CEO of a chemical company.

When NASBA went looking for a new president and CEO, Costello caught the association’s eye as someone who knew how to lead and how to grow a business. NASBA had very specific needs. It was a national organization that was struggling for an identity. It had no visibility and no business base. These were areas where Costello knew he could help.

Besides his business acumen, he has a drive for progress in himself and others.

"I don't want to sound trite", he told AccountingWEB. "But I love to see people not 'make a living, but live their making.'" He sees the importance in people living out their purposes in life and, if he can help lead them in that direction, he's happy to do it.

"I think any president or CEO of a company should make it a goal to help people be better. I want to motivate and give appropriate incentives. Then, growing a business naturally follows", he said.

Challenges abound

There was no shortage of work to be done when Costello took the helm at NASBA in 1994. But the greatest difficulty may have come just three years into his stint, when the decision was made to relocate the agency.

By that time, NASBA had been firmly entrenched in New York City for more than 90 years. Five cities were under consideration, and one of them happened to be Costello's home town of Nashville. More than a few eyebrows were raised, he said, when Nashville rose to the top of the list. Still, as it turned out, the city was the best fit.

With the move complete, Costello said one of the most interesting achievements was the transition from the paper-based CPA exam to the current computer-based test. This was a tremendous undertaking, and somewhat risky, he said, because the CPA exam is the most successful professional exam in the country. Obviously, the existing system was one that worked well so chances were good that there would be opposition to the change. But by partnering with the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) and testing and assessment provider Thomson Prometric, the computerization was accomplished and it proved to be a good decision.

Another great achievement, said Costello, was getting states and the profession and regulatory groups to accept mobility in the accounting profession. Just three years ago, only four states allowed it. Today 48 states do, with no notice, no fee, and no escape. No escape means accountants are held responsible for their actions and cannot escape the consequences of wrong-doing. The upside is that, unless an accountant moves an entire practice, he or she is able to move around without permission and without red tape.

A job well done by all

It wasn't hard for the retiring leader to come up with aspects that stand out during his years at NASBA. Costello is most proud of the people who make the organization function each day. He's also proud of the tremendous growth he has seen.

When he took over in 1994, NASBA had a staff of 25. With the increased responsibilities and oversight, it now employs 250 people. The organization has expanded its influence in the profession, and is more active with the state boards of accounting. As he intended, Costello took NASBA from a group with no visibility to an agency that has a real impact on the profession as it relates to accounting and auditing standards. 

Perhaps the most stand-out accomplishment during his time at NASBA was the establishment of the Center for the Public Trust. This is the ethics arm of the organization, a separately funded 501(c)3. The center emphasizes, through various means, the ethics and right-doing of the accounting profession. It seeks to put a positive face on CPAs, CEOs, and chief financial officers. With so much scandal that has tainted various members of the profession in recent years, there was a growing need for the public to see and hear about those who work hard to do the right things, for the right reasons. 

Though Costello has formally announced his intention to step down, he has given the board long lead time. He will continue to work until 2012 as an appropriate successor is found.

Challenges for NASBA's next leader

He or she will need to maintain and improve relevance of state-based regulation in the face of increasing national and international efforts to consolidate, said Costello. “The United States has the most effective regulation in the world because we have distinct and separate state-based regulation. Here, only the states license CPAs, and only states can take away licenses.” 

Also, Costello points out that in the last 10 years, the ethics of the accounting profession – especially in leadership – have eroded. He expects that his successor will be busy enforcing the standards that have been in place for more than 100 years. "Keeping ethics and right-doing are some reasons why we created the Center for Public Trust", he said.

 What's Next?

"I don't call this retirement", said Costello. "I call it refirement.” He looks forward to the next chapter of his life as an opportunity to get fired up all over again with new projects, as well as more family and leisure time.

“I'm not going to sit in a rocking chair, but I do plan to be on some corporate boards, do some work with universities, play golf, and spend more time with my grandkids", he said. That's not just a cliché. Costello is a true family man. He and his wife have 15 grandkids, and they are very involved with all of them. Family, he said, is what ignites his passion and enthusiasm.

In work or in refirement, Costello probably will always find a way to help out. He’s a true believer in people, he said, like residents of Tennessee. When the recent floods hit the state, more than 400 homes were lost. But they didn't look at this as life-ending. Instead, they saw it as a new beginning. There was no looting, no stealing. They worked together, he said, and helped each other get back on their feet. "You can only do that if you are looking for the sun to come up again."

For Costello",the best is yet to be." Many people look at retirement as an end, but he looks ahead and sees life only getting better.

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