insight magazine

IN Play: Q&A With Timothy Watson, CPA

Watson, a partner with Benford Brown & Associates LLC, looks back on his father's legacy and looks forward to the Black CPAs who will follow in his footsteps. By Hilary Collins | Spring 2021

Many CPAs come to the vocation through a friend or mentor who was able to show them the rich possibilities of a profession that’s often pigeonholed. For Timothy Watson, CPA, that mentor was his father, a vanguard in the field. Tim has spent the last 23 years as a partner at Benford Brown & Associates, a Black-owned CPA firm in Chicago. Here’s a look at how he has spent his career deepening his connections, embracing his father’s legacy, and offering his own mentorship to the Black CPAs who will follow in his footsteps.

You’re a second-generation CPA. How has your father served as an inspiration?

My father was probably one of the first 200 Black CPAs. He got his CPA license within a year of the last person on the list of the first 150 Black CPAs, and his firm was the largest Black-owned CPA firm in the world at one point. He was a trailblazer. Because of his connections, I knew that I wanted to be an accountant by age 14 and was actually doing the work alongside him. I learned a lot from him about leadership, strategic planning, individual goals, business goals—all of this knowledge he had from his work. It’s a really unique way to grow up.

How have those experiences played into your work with your firm?

My friends Alyssia Benford and Kimi Ellen founded the firm in December of 1996, and I joined them in January of 1998. I was able to take everything I knew from my dad and apply it to a very young firm. I was able to pass on things I knew from working on audits and other engagements in my teenage years, from the niche knowledge to the broader strategic lessons.

You have the somewhat unique experience of working with two other partners at your firm who are Black women. While women and minorities are better represented in accounting than they used to be, there’s still a huge lack of women and minorities in leadership roles. What can firms do to help traditionally passed-over people climb the ladder?

The first step for any firm is to get great, diverse candidates in the door; the next is to develop them. We have made a commitment to our staff to train them on not only technical and client service issues, but also management and business issues. Once you have a diverse team, you have to really invest in developing them for leadership. But first you have to get them in the door.

So then, how can CPA firms get diverse CPAs in the door?

First of all, there has to be a commitment. It needs to be a stated part of the strategic planning. Secondly, if you want to attract diverse candidates, you need to go where diverse candidates are. We recruit and urge other firms to recruit from historically Black colleges and colleges that have a larger minority population. Thirdly, you have to get out of your comfort zone. People naturally tend to gravitate towards people that act like them and have the same background as them. You have to be willing to break out of that pattern.

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