The Enron collapse, the Madoff scandal, alleged tainted audits, and more: the accounting industry is reeling from a black eye, as the credibility of these trusted professionals has been tarnished. The Big Four – PricewaterhouseCoopers, KPMG, Ernst & Young, and Deloitte – have responded with employee ethics training, quality czars, social responsibility programs and a more careful and selective relationship between high-profile clients and relationships. But if ethical parameters and accounting decisions were simply black and white, the practice of accounting would be much simpler, says Frank Mahoney, managing partner of the Boston office of Ernst & Young. “There’s a lot of judgment and business instinct involved,” says Mahoney. “A good accountant has to be technically strong enough to understand the rules and principles of accounting as well as possessing a deep knowledge of business regulations and rules to help clients get to the right answers.”
Mahoney started his accounting career 29 years ago, in a simpler era, before the Big Eight merged into the Big Four. “If you were an accounting major then, your goal was to land an audit practice in the Big Eight,” says Mahoney. “My older brother went on to be a partner in Deloitte, and it seemed like a good job, so I followed in his footsteps. Kids today are smarter and more sophisticated then I was and have a better understanding of what a career in accounting is.”
Gone is the studious man in the green eyeshade, putting numbers in little boxes. Employment of accountants, who speak “the language of business,” is expected to grow by 18 percent to 2016, as changing financial laws, corporate governance regulations, and increased accountability drive growth in the career. “Today’s accountants are everywhere, making sure companies are getting the right information at the right time to make sound financial decisions,” says Mahoney. “People have gone from accounting to be human resource directors, general counsels, CEOs, CFOs, marketing and sales, venture capitalists. Accounting provides you with the base skills of business. With an accounting background you can go anywhere.”
Q: A lot of people don’t understand the difference between accounting and bookkeeping.
A: Think of the days before computers, when you needed someone to track transactions and data, deposit checks, and oversee transactions. A lot of that mundane bookkeeping is automated today, so you no longer see a room of 1,000 bookkeepers. The real focus of accounting is taking the processes of these transactions and analyzing and communicating financial information to help make smart business decisions and respond to corporate responsibilities and threats in a timely, accurate and transparent manner.
Q: Why does accounting have a reputation as a boring or a tedious career?
A: In the past, accountants were more in the back rooms, grinding out the work. But the modern accountant is serving the needs of global clients in large, multinational companies. You need to be ready to hop on the plane and be in India or China the next day to help clients address a business problem. Personally, I have watched clients go from start-up phase to two of the biggest companies in the state. It’s really neat to watch. Accounting changes constantly. It’s a very dynamic business.
Q: I’m going to be facetious for a moment. Why is the woman in the accounting department always named Helen?
A: I have no idea. That must be one of the stereotypes that comes with accounting. But, you know, I don’t think I personally work with any Helens.