Growth Perspectives | Fall 2023
The Future for Accounting Firms Is Advisory Services
It’s time for the accounting profession to look forward and embrace the expanding landscape of advisory services.
Brian Blaha, CPA
Growth Partner, Wipfli LLP
Complex regulation, labor force changes, generational demographic shifts, and technological advancements are making things challenging for all business leaders today. Finding the right talent to run the accounting and finance function, specifically, is a growing hurdle most small and mid-size businesses are struggling to overcome. To get over or around the seeming impossibility of finding experienced talent in all areas of accounting and finance, business leaders are increasingly turning to outsourcing. Of course, there’s an upside to this trend—it’s dramatically elevating the roles of certified public accountants (CPAs) and providing growth opportunities for their firms.
Traditional outsourcing has typically targeted the bookkeeping function, centered on taking inputs and creating outputs. However, business leaders outsourcing work to today’s CPAs are looking for more insight into their financial results, which provides more opportunities than ever for CPAs to bring their experiences, advisory skills, and unique perspectives forward to deliver higher levels of service and expertise. These realized and valued skill sets have led accounting firms to invest heavily in what’s being termed client accounting services (CAS) 2.0, an expanded offering of traditional preparation of monthly, quarterly, and annual financial reporting packages; billing and accounts payable; controllership functions; and chief financial officer (CFO)-level strategic advisory services and resources.
What’s important to understand is that a CAS 2.0 practice functions best when the client is at the center of the service wheel and the CPA advisory team revolves around them. Firms moving into this space will need to focus on serving clients through a more holistic approach and be more proactive about sharing information across teams.
Of course, data should drive the CAS practice—data needs to be properly structured, complete, and brought together in a manner that allows for analysis beyond the financial statements. For example, linking customer churn information with sales data allows us to better understand the customer experience and the volume of sales necessary to achieve revenue plans.
When done well, the engagement team will be able to identify additional business opportunities (e.g., tax specialty services, enterprise resource planning implementation, change management, etc.) to better serve clients.
MOVING FORWARD REQUIRES CHANGE
While the CPA profession is in a unique position to capitalize on CAS 2.0, firms and practitioners seeking long-term success with this new business model will need to transform how they work and truly embrace change. Consider the emergence of generative artificial intelligence (AI), which is speculated to replace much of the entry-level work CPAs develop skills from. CPAs starting out in their careers will need to essentially skip ahead and develop the skills necessary to analyze AI-produced information and extract strategic insights from it, while also developing deeper knowledge of the industries being served.
To make this shift, the technical training provided by CPA firms and through our university structure needs to incorporate stronger soft skills (e.g., communication, social intelligence, curiosity, and problem solving). Often these skills are honed over decades of experience, but newer generations of CPAs need to bring them to the fold much earlier in their careers.
Historically, the typical career path in a CPA firm would revolve around tracks in audit, tax, and eventually consulting. With CAS 2.0 requiring new skill sets that are aligned to the specific services the client values most, new career paths are emerging within firms. Advisory-focused paths are becoming highly sought after by high performing talent and will be key to attracting the next generation of talent. I believe this shift will redefine how CPAs are viewed and valued.
VIEWS FROM THE NEXT GENERATION
One key to successfully implementing a CAS 2.0 practice is to make it engaging and meaningful to the next generation of high performing CPAs. For insights on this, and in the spirit of the Illinois CPA Society chairperson’s theme of “tap someone on the shoulder,” I invited feedback from some of my colleagues at Wipfli LLP who’ve transitioned into our CAS practice.
Kat Maddi, CPA, a senior manager, as well as my mentee in our yearlong female executive program, made a career pivot from audit to CAS. “As I contemplated my future, I began delving into topics like blockchain and AI, pondering their potential impact not only on my audit career, but also on CPAs,” Maddi says. “While my audit background offered a strong foundation, stepping into this new realm [the CAS practice] felt like a fresh beginning—a chance to redefine my path.”
Senior Associate Jonathan Acevedo, CPA, also transitioned from audit to CAS. “I wanted to be a part of something new and exciting. I always wanted to be a controller or CFO. When I heard Wipfli had a CAS opening, I jumped at the opportunity,” Acevedo says. “As I navigated this transformation, I immersed myself in comprehending the intricacies of the services I aspired to excel in, and with each learning, I experienced an invigorating sense of purpose.”
Overall, Maddi and Acevedo say entering the CAS practice has offered them invaluable career benefits and insights:
- Continuous on-the-job experience and skill development. Outsourced CFOs or controllers are often tasked with solving complex financial problems and making strategic decisions. This aspect of the job appeals to individuals who enjoy analytical thinking and want to play a pivotal role in shaping the financial future of businesses. At Wipfli, we tend to strategize as a group and have a continuous improvement mindset. We include young talent in complex situations to learn and feel part of the team. This is a contributing factor in retaining talent.
- A flexible and entrepreneurial environment. CAS offers an opportunity to be innovative, propose new ideas, and implement creative financial strategies to benefit clients. It also provides for the freedom to take ownership of one’s work.
- A value-driven approach. By embracing the vision of a team of advisors rather than relying on a singular individual, you can enhance your financial decision-making skills and better unlock new possibilities for your clients.
- Greater client satisfaction. In catering to small and mid-sized businesses, CAS plays a crucial role in driving their success and growth. Your clients will benefit from a forward-looking approach, in-depth financial discussions, and access to resources that bring value beyond the capabilities of an in-house controller or CFO.
CAS 2.0 is a significant step in the evolution of the CPA profession. The opportunity to address many of the needs that clients are struggling with expands the relevance of our profession and broadens the career opportunities for all. It’s time to embrace this change and ensure the next generation entering the profession knows of the career opportunities CAS offers and has the knowledge, skills, and abilities to truly achieve the reputation as a most trusted and strategic business advisor.
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