From Tiles to Taxes: How My Unconventional Career Path Helped Me Thrive in Public Accounting

by Nicholaus M. Vaccaro, CPA, Mazars USA LLP | February 2, 2024

My journey to public accounting was unconventional. And when I tell people my professional career started in kitchen design, I often get odd looks and follow-up questions.

Like so many others who graduated in 2008, it was difficult to find a job. I thought having both a bachelor’s and master's degree in business and finance would help, but it didn’t. Throughout college, I worked for my family contracting business. Amid a major economic downturn, I helped my father expand his business, which previously was strictly floor coverings, to include kitchen and bathroom remodeling. As in any industry, you have to adapt when the environment changes, which we did as we expanded our offerings.

Unaware of it at the time, the skills I learned in my family’s contracting business became invaluable as I entered, and continued to grow, in my public accounting career.

Sales and Relationships

Before working for the family business, my professional experience was minimal, and I was shy. My father said, “If you work here, you work on the sales floor.” Before I knew it, I was selling kitchens, bathrooms and other remodeling projects to a variety of clients from all different backgrounds. I was forced to learn how to strike up a conversation with strangers without being overbearing. I had to gain the client’s trust.

Renovations are large investments that require people to open one of the most personal parts of their lives — their homes. Finding common ground and being transparent and honest made these conversations easy, and I was quickly able to establish and grow relationships.

Regardless of the position you hold and the industry you’re in, you’ll have some type of sales component in your career — learning how to strike up a conversation and build rapport is crucial and will be beneficial in the long run.

Negotiation and Budgeting

After sitting down with a client and designing a kitchen, I had to prepare a proposal and budget. Any project, whether it be material and labor for a kitchen renovation or the hours in preparing a financial statement, needs a thoughtful and detailed budget.

All clients, irrespective of what they’re buying, expect an honest and realistic budget. My experience negotiating and having these discussions when I worked in my family business has become instrumental to similar conversations I have with clients today. I also learned that sometimes expectations don’t align, and sometimes it’s mutually beneficial to part ways.

Setting Expectations and Communication

As any home improvement project progresses, you must ensure it stays on track by communicating at every stage. You must communicate who’s responsible for what and establish expectations for everyone involved.

The same skills are required in the accounting profession. Is the project on pace and budget? Is the client aware of what they’re responsible for? Have there been any unexpected events that weren’t addressed in the original budget and scope of work?

Communicating clearly throughout a project, regardless of the profession, enables and fosters stronger relationships and builds credibility. Delivering difficult news isn’t easy but shouldn’t be avoided — your business and personal reputation depend on it, and learning to craft your message thoughtfully will allow you and your business to grow and thrive.

Finding a New Career Path

My professional path changed when I designed and sold a kitchen to a partner in an accounting firm. Our conversations sparked my interest in accounting, and I decided to go back to school and complete the courses needed to take the CPA Exam.

I left the family business and took a position in private accounting at a medical device company. There, I learned the fundamentals of accounting — debits, credits, accruals, prepaid expenses and numerous concepts of closing an accounting period. Throughout my time in private accounting, I considered transitioning to a career in public accounting to vary my experience. I liked the idea of working with different clients and industries, but I worried I lacked the experience and knowledge to excel. However, my unconventional path and background prepared me in ways I didn’t realize.

From Private to Public

I made the jump to public in 2019 and, ever since, I’ve become acutely aware of how instrumental the experiences and skills I gained outside public accounting have been in helping me thrive.

Interacting with a client, I understand their perspective and don’t use overly technical jargon — this makes me more approachable and relatable. I understand the client’s primary purpose is to run and grow their business, not just provide us with the documents we request. Empathizing with that priority is important, valuable and something I can appreciate because of my private-sector experience.

Effective communication is something I learned from working in the family business and a skill I continued to grow in private accounting. I’ve also learned that making connections is easier if the effort comes from an honest and genuine place.

Career paths don’t have to be traditional. Skills acquired in nearly every professional setting are often easily transferable to and applicable in a new one. Don’t discount prior experience if you’re considering a career in public accounting. Putting yourself in situations that are unfamiliar and make you uncomfortable will only help you grow. As I continue in public accounting working on different projects in a variety of industries, I know my prior experience will only help me continue to deliver services to clients as a true trusted advisor.

Nicholaus M. Vaccaro

Nicholaus M. Vaccaro

Nicholaus M. Vaccaro, CPA, is a senior at Mazars USA LLP. He is a member of the NJCPA and can be reached at

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