We Sell Alliance
by Adrian W. Hollander, C.P.A., CISA, CIA, CBA, CFSA, President of COMPLUS Inc.
A typical CPA (firm) in "public" practice sells independence. The reader of (management's) financial statements covered by a CPA's report (also known as an opinion) should be able to expect that the report's content is influenced only by the CPA's professional skill and integrity. We should expect tax returns prepared by a CPA to be in accordance with law and regulations. In that context a CPA works for everyone (e.g., investors, bankers, absentee owners, financial analysts, government, etc.) except for those who pay him (usually, company management). For "third parties," who expect fairness of presentation in financial information, "independence" is a critical characteristic, or the attestation has little value. The "independent" CPA should not be perceived as a tool of management, but rather as a protector of public interest. Engagement of the "independent" CPA is a good faith gesture by company management to corroborate their good stewardship to whom they are responsible.
In contrast, as Professional Controllers, we sell alliance. We work for the companies who hire us. Here is a little variation from tradition, though: we work part-time for several companies, as a contract service, rather than as full-time employees for just one company. We do not try to be "independent" in the professional sense any more than any other Controller or Chief Financial Officer (CFO) could be as a member of company management. We certainly hope that none of us professional accountants in "industry" would deliberately prepare misleading financial statements, and our integrity is not for sale at any price. Since skill and integrity should not distinguish the "independent" CPA from a controller, perception of their roles must. There are valuable jobs for both "public" and "private" accountants.
The Controller or CFO should be the leader of the process for generating management information. Today, he/she should possess respectable computer skills because we can't do an effective job of "accounting" any more without computers. He/she should be able to teach staff personnel how to do the tasks which occur regularly (the same way) and frequently (at least once a week). He/she should do work that requires creative skill and ingenuity more than just clerical persistence. Definition of accounting procedures and controls, advising other management, coaching of subordinate personnel and approval of clerical work, preparation of budgets and interpretation of performance, prediction of profits and cash flow, and analysis of the financial impact of management decision alternatives are examples of appropriate "Controller work." Having to "baby-sit" subordinates is a hindrance that should not be tolerated.
The Controller or CFO should be responsible for the "system" being able to produce accurate, timely, and useful information. Data that looks pretty, but is wrong, is no help. Data that is too late to be used for decision making is no help. Data that is confusing is no help. The accounting system should be a feedback mechanism to influence future actions of management. Don't expect the Controller to make the profits, but do expect him/her to enable decision-making executives (who do make the profits) to act without feeling blindfolded.