Celebrating Entrepreneurship: Innovating Beyond the Pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic turned the accounting profession on its collective head, and it came out more respected and more essential than ever before.
Accountants, along with their non-accounting colleagues, worked tirelessly this past year to innovate, create and adopt new ways of servicing customers and clients, making budgets work on less and organizing remote staff to be as effective as possible. Accountants everywhere — from academics to interns to managing partners and CFOs — contributed to new service offerings, such as COVID-19 resource centers, in-house cybersecurity programs, niche advisory practices and better uses of data and analytics.
Rising to the Challenge
Many accounting firm leaders and CFOs/controllers pushed themselves and their companies to new heights and in new directions to assist and retain their clients. As Eileen Monesson, CPC, a principal of PRCounts, LLC, explains, those accounting advisories that took a business-as-usual approach with their clients during the pandemic had a tougher time retaining them in the midst of burgeoning competition that seemed to be bursting with helpful pandemic resources. “Although most people would not consider the pandemic as being innovative, it was. People, processes and opinions changed. Just as the smart phone transformed how we communicate, the pandemic altered how we live, forcing businesses to adapt to survive and thrive,” she said.
Peter Mares, CPA, MBA, co-founder of Growth CPR, explains that accounting firms that offer cash management advisory services will not only help keep their clients in business, but they will also accelerate their own growth. “Business owners excel at their core competency, and that core competency is often not financial management. Accounting firms have the necessary training, experience and market permission to expand beyond compliance-based services and offer valued and valuable advisory services,” he said. “No other business challenge is as prevalent or as threatening to businesses than cash management. Understanding and managing cash flows is critical to the survival of any business,” he added.
Sarah Krom, CPA, managing partner of SKC and Co. CPAs, LLC, and a past NJCPA president, noted that the pandemic was an ideal time to launch the firm’s data analytics service line. “The pandemic has catapulted that service line faster than we could have planned. The immediate need for predictive analytics — using historical data to predict future results — was our first project. We created a model for cash flow projections based on existing company data. This became a priority as companies went into lockdown and, in some cases, panicked over where the next dollar or sale would come from,” she said.
“Once we were able to easily create a cash projection product, the next layer was to add assumptions that the business owners could manipulate and see in real time what the impact to their cash flow would be if they made various decisions,” she added. “Once clients saw that we could extract, clean and analyze their data from various sources into something meaningful to them, the possibilities became endless. We created models for project manager profitability, service firm inefficiencies and inventory reorder management within months of the pandemic hitting.”
Grassi & Co. also expanded its services during the pandemic by creating the Grassi Loan Application Asset Services program and soon realized it could help small businesses beyond their client base. Scott Stern, CPA, CCIFP, audit principal at Grassi, explains, “At the height of the pandemic, we held a virtual ‘Small Business Support Saturday’ that welcomed small businesses across the country to call in and get free advice on Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans, tax incentives and other strategies for surviving the crisis. Dozens of our partners and other professionals donated a full day of their personal time to answer questions from more than 350 small businesses.”
Dr. Barry R. Palatnik, CPA, MBA, assistant professor of accounting at Stockton University, believes the accounting profession will continue to have challenges as a result of COVID-19. But some will be more prepared than others. The way Palatnik delivered course content and communicated to his students changed immediately once the government closed businesses and schools. “My accounting students upon graduation should be ahead of the curve regarding COVID-19 work environment changes. The students are already working with cloud-based technology by accessing class projects and software off campus,” he added.
Dr. Sean Stein Smith, CPA, DBA, CMA, CGMA, CFE, assistant professor at Lehman College (CUNY), noted that the pandemic not only caused professionals to rethink how their work is being done but also to reevaluate career trajectories and directions. “To put it simply, the pandemic and associated economic ripple effects caused everyone in the profession to reassess (and improve) our collective digital capabilities and familiarity,” he said. “These are not trends that seem to be a fad. Rather, these shifts look like permanent changes to the business environment.”
Susan Firriolo, CPA, CISA, now the director and founder of Pet Rescue 990 Project, is one example of someone who made a new career move. “The point is, pandemic or not, take your passion and align it with your profession. Be happy.” After discovering a rescue pit bull named Billie, who was used for breeding and fighting and was dumped by her owners at the age of seven, was to be euthanized the next day, she adopted the dog. As Firriolo noted, “I wanted to save more pets. I decided I could help by providing affordable accounting solutions exclusively to 501(c)(3) pet rescues. I searched the IRS for registered charities using key words like rescue, paws, animal and others. I made cute little cards and mailed them out.” Surprised by the huge response, she knew she had the makings of a business and had to run the business virtually and be able to provide affordable services during and after the pandemic to be effective. “I started with a virtual accounting system and added apps based on each rescue’s needs. Since it was a time of uncertainty, I prepared detailed proposals with services, prices, a timeline and responsibilities.”
Regardless of their motivation — whether it was survival, client retention or an interesting niche market to explore — accounting professionals have proven how resilient and resourceful they were amid the COVID-19 pandemic. One thing is clear: their many entrepreneurial initiatives and better uses of technology and data and analytics are here to stay.
Sarah Krom, CPA, was president of the NJCPA for the 2018/19 term and is a managing partner at SKC & Co., CPAs, LLC. She is also a member of the Strategic Planning Committee and previously chaired the Young CPAs Council, which is now the Emerging Leaders Council.
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Scott Stern, CPA, CCIFP, is an audit principal at Grassi.