The Curse and Blessing of the “Accountant” Stigma

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Although I have run wine companies for the past 16 years, I started my career as an accountant.  I passed the CPA exam in 1981 and worked at a CPA firm for the next six years.  I became involved with over 50 businesses during those years and was able to see the strengths and flaws of a wide variety of businesses both in terms industry and size.  I am thankful I got that opportunity to see a cross section of businesses that had varying levels of success in different industries.  It was great experience for a 22 year-old straight out of college, with no business experience or family background in business. I never needed to go to graduate school because I was living it every day at work.

The irony of those years is that I was always the outside CPA coming to a company to help solve a problem or audit financial statements.  My CPA firm was billing the client for my time, therefore I was a revenue generating unit for my firm.  This distinction was about to become very apparent to me over the next 15 years of my career.

At the end of six years, I decided I did not want to be a CPA for the rest of my life, so I took a job as a Controller of a large multinational clothing manufacturer doing business around the world with thousands of employees.  I had moved from the outside CPA role to what effectively was the internal Chief Accounting Officer of a large company.  Effectively to all the other people in the company, I became the “accountant”. 

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Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

Although I didn’t recognize it at the time, I had moved from being a revenue producer for a CPA firm to an expense item for a company.  That is a HUGE dynamic shift in a career that I had no appreciation for at the time.  Let’s face it, when you are generating money for a company (I was the product being sold to the CPA client) you are forgiven many shortcomings.  As long as you produced enough revenue for the firm, you could basically conduct yourself as you saw fit.  That is a very dangerous environment to put a bunch of uber competitive 20 somethings into with little to no supervision.  It wasn’t “Lord Of The Flies”, but it was close.

I was in for a big adjustment when I became the “accountant”.  Now I was just another expense for the company, not a revenue producer.  That was shock enough, but I also encountered the “accountant stigma” for the first time.  It became quickly and painfully clear that no one outside of the accounting department had any idea what the department did outside of making their lives complicated with expense reports and other loathsome requirements and reports.  Accountants were viewed as paper pushers, not connected to the realities of the business and certainly no appreciation of the people who actually generated revenue.  You are a necessary evil who the company needs to do business, but you are clearly a second class citizen.  Think green eyeshade and pocket protector.  As I said, that’s a HUGE shift to experience.

Through the years, I moved up the corporate organization chain in several companies for the next fifteen years.  Every time I got a little further away from the accountant stigma, but it was always there. Since I have been in the wine business, I have been in charge of the entire business, including the revenue producers, i.e. sales team.  I no longer have the accountant stigma, but all my sales guys know I was and to a degree still do have my roots in the accounting department.

In fact, I am now more grateful than ever I began my life as an accountant.  It provided me with skills that are useful as the CEO of Wine Hooligans and I use everyday.  The best way I can describe it is that accounting is not a function, it is a language.  It is the language of business.  Sometimes people use that language loosely, and sometimes with great precision.  Most people in a company don’t speak that language and are intimidated by it.  They hire outsiders to interpret for them.  I have always been able to speak the language, and it has benefited me greatly in running companies.  It’s a good skill for a hooligan!

Photo courtesy of  James The Scribe

Photo courtesy of James The Scribe

So, I always tell young people in college that they would benefit greatly by taking a few accounting classes and learn the basics of speaking the language of business.  They probably won’t be accountants, but they won’t be afraid of a financial statement.  Who knows, they might even like the people in the accounting department at their future companies…nah, probably not.