By Ed Mendlowitz
Call Me Before You Do Anything: The Art of Accounting
I started my third job one year and seven months after I graduated college. I was hired as a “junior” but felt I was more experienced because I was doing “higher level” work at my previous job.
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The first week at my new job, I was sitting at a long table in the staff room with two other junior accountants, footing 50-page, 10-column schedules and similar work. I mean footing. This was January 1965 and we did not have calculators or adding machines. There was one Monroe calculator in the office, and if you wanted percentages you literally had to wait on line to get a turn using it.
My father taught me how to get percentages on a slide rule so I did not need to queue up to get my numbers. However, the three of us did a lot of talking to pass the time, to ease us from the boring work. I found out that one of them was with the firm three years and the other five years.
The next morning I went in to speak to my boss, the man who hired me. I told him that while I was hired as a junior, I was more experienced than that and I did not want to be a junior for three or five years like the two guys I was working with. He told me to not get so huffy and he would find something for me to prove myself. He told me to wait about a week.
Well, he told one of the more senior people about what I had said and asked him to find something that would put me in my place. A few days later I was told that I was to go to a client and write up the books and prepare the financial statements, accounts receivable schedule and customer statements.
I was also told that I had to get this done in two days, and if I fell behind, I would have to stay late to get it done. Because the person who did it regularly always got it done in two days, they would not pay me for any overtime. My boss then told me he was giving me the chance I had asked for. He also said that if I had big problems with the work, that would be OK, but then I would have to do things his way so I could develop into a “real” accountant. I thanked him and went to the client.
At my previous job I worked super slow and found out that I completed the work faster than the others before me because I did not spend hours looking for my errors. Also at that job I got very good experience working on small clients, mainly doing writeups. Out of 16 clients I went to each month (some were two-day jobs), five were mink coat manufacturers, others were a garment and wallpaper manufacturer, two distributors, a trucking company, a high-class retail gift store with a warehouse outlet, a discount clothing store on the Lower East Side, a client with a jukebox and cigarette vending route, a travel agency, a nursery day school, and a restaurant and nightclub.
This was quite a wide range for a junior accountant. I loved every minute of it and also got to talk with the owners about their businesses. If I had been given the promised raise retroactively, I probably would never have left.
Back to job #3. The client I was sent to was a mink coat manufacturer. I had worked on five of them at my previous job, so I not only knew what work had to be done, but had a lot to talk about knowing people in the industry, including bankers and factors. I introduced myself and was given a desk and the “books.” I spent a few minutes looking everything over, saw there was nothing unfamiliar, and started my routine.
About two hours later it appeared that, barring unforeseen problems, I would be finished by the end of the day, so I started talking to the secretary, who also doubled as a model. The client overheard something I said and asked me a question about the “industry” and how others were doing. I simply repeated what I had heard from the clients at my other job, and before long, the client was thanking me for my insights.
I actually finished everything around 4:30 that day and called my boss to tell him I was done. He got a little nutsy and said he wanted to see what I did and I had to come back to the office right away. He reviewed my work and also asked the regular person on that account to go there the next day to check what I did because it did not seem possible that I got it all done.
Well, I did do a great job. The senior got mad at me because it turns out he did spend two days a month there, but 1) a few hours were spent looking for his errors, 2) a few hours were spent on the phone with calls from his side clients, and 3) he also got calls from the firm’s clients. He told me that if I ever worked on any of his clients again and I spent less time than he did he would “kick my ass.” But that wasn’t an issue because he made up some story about the client not being happy with having an inexperienced junior on his work and he never wanted me on any of his accounts again.
The story about the client not liking me proved untrue because the next month when the senior showed up, the client called my boss and asked why I didn’t come again. I got lucky. I was put on a job where I understood what to do and the industry and I replaced someone who wasn’t so good.
After that incident, I became the replacement on work that more experienced people couldn’t get to, or when they were on vacation, and I was given some of my own clients and also worked with some newer managers on the baby companies.
This is the first time I ever told this story and hope you liked it as much as I did remembering it. There are five takeaways.
- One is that staff people need to speak up and be proactive in managing their careers.
- A second is that clients are hungry for industry and business information, and the accountant who can provide it without disclosing confidences becomes a sought-after advisor, no matter their age or experience level.
- A third is to try to find ways to interact with the client.
- A fourth is that you sometimes need to be lucky.
- The fifth is a repeat one, that working slowly and deliberately reduces mistakes and the time needed to get the job done.