COVID Crisis Separates the Winners from Losers

Bill Reeb, 2019-20 AICPA chairman, explains how today’s coronavirus crisis is transforming the profession – and the world – forever.


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By CPA Trendlines

Today’s coronavirus cataclysm is changing the ways CPAs in both the public and the private sectors do business, revamping in a few traumatic days what would have taken five years, says Bill Reeb, the 2019-20 AICPA chair, in a video interview with CPA Trendlines.

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“It has already had an amazing effect,” Reeb says. “We have fast-forwarded the technology by at least five years. The use of technology has skyrocketed. And people are starting to say, Okay, we got to get people working at home, and we’ve found ways to communicate with each other during the day.”

But the costs are still to be tallied, in sickness and death, in business failures and political fallout, and in millions of painful personal and professional decisions made every day.

The AICPA, even Washington insiders say, has taken an early and forceful leading role in rescuing small business owners and employees, but how much can it do? And for how long?

“The association put together a coalition that went to the Treasury, the SBA, to banks, to Congress, and said, We need to find a way to get businesses – small business – back in business, as soon as this is over. And they formed, if you will, the basic ideas. What came out is the PPP plan [the Small Business Administration Paycheck Protection Program], which is going to put eight weeks of salary in the hands of the worker around the country.”

AICPA staffers and volunteer leadership, Reeb says, “are pushing the envelope every day. Why? Because they feel like if we don’t take action with our members, if we don’t get our members focused, if we don’t get our member to help their clients, if we don’t get our members and industry back in business, then the economic realities will be devastating.”

“It’s critical that our membership, the CPA profession, is on the front line,” Reeb says, “reminding people that we can get through this. We can get through it together. And if we just start taking action, a little bit of action, if we just start moving forward, we will be fine.”

“Our members are the ones that are, in many cases, the small businesses that are working with the PPP loans,” Reeb says. “And they’re the ones that are working with the SBA. And they’re the ones that are making sure that they are setting themselves up to survive tomorrow.”

“That’s why this is so important to make sure that our army of accountants, whether they’re in industry or public, are working hand-in-hand to drive home: How do we return to economic normalcy? How do we get ready for when this is considered cleared so that we are ready for the demand that will happen? There is pent-up demand from consumers that have stayed home and sheltered at home and, and not been able to get out and to do some of the things they wanted to do. So this is going to be about how fast small business can ramp up to support demand as it comes back online,” Reeb says.

But these are trying times, to say the least. Accountants in public practice, Reebs, admits, “have been very frustrated.” Adding, “It wouldn’t surprise me if you had a number of CPA firms – very small CPA firms – decide it’s time for me to hang up my shingle. We’ve had many, many, many of our sole proprietors say, I’m gonna stay around and do a couple more years. But this may be the year that they say, I’m done. And that could change the marketplace. I’m not suggesting that it should be, I’m just saying it wouldn’t surprise me because the changes taking place require people to think differently.”

“For example,” Reeb continues, “Many firms that were never cloud-based, that didn’t want to go cloud-based have said, I need to be cloud-based. Because, How am I going to have remote workers if I don’t have in a different structure in a different environment? So it’s requiring people to make investments, so they can have remote workers, so that they can have an environment that is more resilient to changes like these. And there will be organizations that say: I just don’t want to do that. I’m good where I am. I’m not sure I want to go through that. But the environment is making everybody look and say, How do I structure my organization to compete in this likely new world? How do I make sure that we can provide the level of services required to make a difference?”

If, as the adage says, crisis also produces opportunity, what opportunities does Reeb see? He mentions the AICPA’s lead in developing dynamic audit solutions, that are now more relevant and needed than ever. He mentions CPA Evolution, the AICPA effort to broaden CPA skills into technology, data science, and artificial intelligence.

“But one of the things,” he says, “is we’ve got to move to the trusted adviser side. When you start talking about opportunity, there is an endless amount of opportunity. When you start talking about how this environment allows our members to be the front line – whether you’re in industry or whether you’re in public – of making a difference to get our businesses back operational, to get our operations back to profitability. We couldn’t be in a better position to be able to make a difference in today’s economy.”

“Yes, CPAs are trusted advisors,” he says, and “it is time for us to step up and be exactly that – every single one of us.”

“I think we will come out of this as a profession better, faster and stronger than we are,” he says. “I think it will help us make the changes we know we should have made all along.”

“So I don’t see this as something that has to necessarily have a huge negative impact on our profession, and quite frankly, could help our profession jump a level or two over the course of the next year, because we will push ourselves to be better than we’ve ever been.”

Let’s hope he’s right.

 

Here’s a lightly edited transcript of the conversation:

 

Rick Telberg 

Bill Reeb, chairman of the AICPA, these are unprecedented times. What’s the AICPA doing?

 

Bill Reeb 

Well, they are unprecedented times. And when you start thinking about the change in routine, the change in what will eventually be the economic state.

When you think about the changes in what is considered normalcy, this is an unprecedented event.

When you make the comment, what is the AICPA doing about it?  Their Resource Center and quite frankly, the AICPA has been touted by a number of organizations outside the CPA profession as having one of the most extensive Resource Centers out there trying to keep it current.

I would also tell you that the Association put together a coalition that went to the Treasury, the SBA, banks, to Congress, and said, We need to find a way to get businesses – small business – back in business as soon as this is over. And they formed, if you will, the basic ideas.

What came out is the PPP plan, which is going to put eight weeks of salary in the hands of the worker around the country.

 

Rick Telberg 

The AICPA has indeed been incredibly busy, marshaling all of its forces, its members, its contacts. A mobilization like that, how was that put into action?

 

Bill Reeb 

One of the things that I think I’m the most impressed about is the fact that I already worked very closely with the professional staff of the Association and, quite frankly, I would say that they work about 18 hours a day, six days a week already, and to think of what they’ve been doing has been really pretty close to 24/7.

You want to talk about how they’re marshaling it. When this started going on, and we started talking about what the plans were, and the amount of resources they would have to put together, the amount of time it would take. It was actually frightening to think where could they get those resources. They already were operating and pushing themselves.

To think they could come up with even more energy, my biggest concern, and I tell them on a regular basis, is burnout. They are pushing the envelope every day.

Why? Because they feel like if we don’t take action with our members, if we don’t get our members focused, if we don’t get our member to help their clients, if we don’t get our members and industry back in business, then we feel like the economic realities of this normalcy will be devastating.

 

Rick Telberg 

Well, let’s start with how bad is it among ACPA members. Who are suffering the most?

 

Bill Reeb 

When you think about who’s suffering the most, I’m going to have to say the small business and the small business worker. I think they are the ones the most affected. And we have basically treated our members as the army that needs to be contacting those small businesses and saying, Hey, Here’s a plan. Here’s how we can get everything back operating and running. And how do we push that forward as fast as we can?

When you get in a situation like this, it’s easy to – I don’t want to say get depressed – but it’s easy to start looking and having hope fade a little bit. It’s critical that our membership, the CPA profession, is on the front line reminding people we can get through this, we can get through it together. And if we just start taking action, a little bit of action, if we just start moving forward, we will be fine.

One of the things that comes up a lot is how this will affect us long term. And the first thing I want to say is that it has already had an amazing effect. The first point I would make is that I think we have fast-forwarded the technology world at least by five years.

So, the bottom line, is: The use of technology has skyrocketed. And people are starting to say, Okay, we got to get people working at home and we have to find ways to communicate with each other during the day.

 

Rick Telberg 

Members in industry are on the front lines of the financials at their companies. What’s going on there?

 

Bill Reeb 

We have to find ways to get people comfortable working remotely and many, many organizations didn’t do that. They didn’t have a plan to do that. Why? Because things were going fine. And then you talk about the resilience of so many people out there – restaurants who are closed down, who then said, You know, I’ve got food, why don’t I become a supply chain partner? Why don’t I actually sell raw food? Why don’t I create nothing but to-go orders, since I can’t open for business. And it’s been amazing how people have had to rethink their strategy and come up with a different way to do business. And my point to all that is: That is going to stay with us.

This isn’t a one-time event, and then all of that just goes away, and then we go back to the way we were and say that never happened. This is not the last time this is gonna happen.

But it’s not a time to be scared. It’s a time to start thinking where we are going as a society, to act different, and to be different.

When it comes to our members in industry, they are on the front line of all of this. And, quite frankly, what’s interesting about our profession is that half our profession supports the other half of our profession. So, bottom line, our members in industry are the ones that are, in many cases, the small businesses that are working with the PPP loans, and they’re the ones that are working with the SBA, and they’re the ones that are making sure that they are setting themselves up to survive tomorrow.

But that’s why this is also important to make sure that our army of accountants, whether they’re in industry or public, are working hand-in-hand to drive home: How do we return to economic normalcy? How do we get ready for when this is considered cleared? So that we are ready for the demand that will happen. There is pent-up demand from consumers that have stayed home and sheltered at home, and not been able to get out, and to do some of the things they wanted to do. So this is going to be about how fast small business can ramp up to support demand as it comes back online.

 

Rick Telberg 

This is a time of transformational change, as you’ve noted. How will the profession be different on the other side of this?

 

Bill Reeb 

The idea that we’re going to have more remote working is certainly going to become more than a concept. The idea that we’re going to do more communications virtually, I think is going to be more of a constant. The reality, though, is that it’s not like technology will replace everything. It’s not like we won’t interact as humans together anymore. It’s just that we have other choices.

When you had the way we’ve always done it, it was hard to get everybody on board to say, You know, we could do this a different way.  But we have families eating dinner today, in a virtual setting. We have people having virtual cocktails. These kinds of things just were incredibly rare before. What our world is finding out is: There are lots of different ways to do the normal things we do.

If you were really trying to frame this, we simply will have jumped five years into the future.

And that’s how we will operate. Except we’ll do it now.

 

Rick Telberg 

The full range of the AICPA is the AICPA-CIMA, which gives you a global outlook. What kind of activities is the AICPA-CIMA undertaking in other countries?

 

Bill Reeb 

One of the great things about where we are as a profession today is many years ago, we started a joint venture between the AICPA and CIMA, and we formed the Association. And the Association is represented in so many countries. And we work with our professionals all over the world. And I can tell you that it doesn’t matter where we are because we are represented everywhere.

We are pushing the same exact message. We’re pushing the same exact message in London that we are in New York, which is that small business has to recover, and we need to provide resources and help them recover.

So what’s great is that we have had – not only a global footprint to make a difference all over the globe – but we also have representation globally, which has made a difference in how fast we can get information to our members, and how fast we can activate our members to be able to make a difference.

 

Rick Telberg 

How has the current crisis changed AICPA plans, particularly for events like AICPA Engage, but many other conferences and activities as well? How has the AICPA adjusted its activities?

 

Bill Reeb 

From an adjustment perspective to what has been going on to service the marketplace, I can tell you it’s been phenomenal the changes that have taken place, so many programs have gone virtual, and they’ve gone virtual very quickly. So many programs are being converted to part virtual and part in person. So you might see something like an Engage where we might do something virtually around the time it would have occurred. And then you might see something in person later on in the year.

The outcome has been all hands on deck. How do we make sure we’re communicating with our members? How do we make sure that we’re taking care of our members, and that we’re not just saying, Hey, by the way, we’ve got problems and we’re busy.

And what we’ve said is, No, we are going to take care of our members, and we’re going to reach out to them. Now, this isn’t just the Association. This isn’t just AICPA and CIMA. It is state societies doing exactly the same thing. Everybody has said, We have to find a way to continue to support our members through this crisis, through this pandemic, and we need to make sure they are ready to come out stronger than they were before.

 

Rick Telberg 

Specifically, members and firms in public practice. How are they handling the crisis?

 

Bill Reeb 

Our members in public have been great through all of this. They have been very frustrated at the same time because, you know, anytime you put together a program that disperses as much money as the PPP program as fast as the PPP program has. (And by the way, you want to talk about unprecedented, that is also unprecedented, which I’m proud to say the AICPA was part of leading that.)

But when you start looking at our members in public, they are small businesses too. And they are being able to react the same way as their clients and be able to get access to the same kind of funding.

It wouldn’t surprise me if you had a number of CPA firms decide – very small CPA firms decide – you know, it’s time for me to hang up my shingle. We’ve had many, many, many of our sole proprietors say, You know, I’m going to stay around and do a couple more years, this may be the year that they say, I’m done.

And that could change the marketplace. I’m not suggesting that it should be. I’m just saying it wouldn’t surprise me because the changes taking place require people to think differently.

For example, Many firms that were never cloud-based, that didn’t want to go cloud-based have said, I need to be cloud-based. Because, How am I going to have remote workers if I don’t have in a different structure in a different environment?

So it’s requiring people to make investments so they can have remote workers, so that they can have an environment that is more resilient to changes like these.

And there will be organizations that say, I just don’t want to do that. I’m good where I am. And I’m not sure I want to go through that. But the environment is making everybody look and say, How do I structure my organization to compete in this likely new world? How do I make sure that we can provide the level of services required to make a difference?

 

Rick Telberg 

If it’s true that crisis produces opportunities. What are the key opportunities for CPAs in this crisis?

 

Bill Reeb 

We’ve got a number of opportunities ahead of us. I am truly proud to say that the Association has been strategically trying to position our profession every year for as long as I’ve been around in the leadership of the profession.

The fact that we made the investment in dynamic audit solutions so that our new audit process can be more virtual and leverages technology puts us in a better position.

The fact that we have been working on CPA Evolution to bring more technologists, people that have a background in data analytics, and are working hand in hand on the assurance side to make sure that we’re not just auditing around the computer but through the computer that processes in place.

These are all things that are strategic in nature that now as you look at the environment, say wow, that that is a fantastic process that we’ve been under because it clearly shows we’ve been moving in the right direction.

But one of the things that I think that we have talked about for decades and that is at the forefront of all the initiatives that we look at from a global perspective is: We’ve got to move to the trusted adviser side.

When you start talking about opportunity, there is an endless amount of opportunity.

When you start talking about how this environment allows our members to be the front line, whether you’re an industry or whether you’re in public to the front line of making a difference to get our businesses back operational to get our operations back to profitability. We couldn’t be in a better position to be able to make a difference in today’s economy.

But it always comes back to some of the basics. And some of the basics are: we need to stretch our comfort zone. And every single CPA, whether you’re in public or industry, or education or government, every single CPA needs to say, How do I act more like a trusted adviser?

Because if I’m not looking and saying, How could we do things differently if I’m not looking and saying, What is it that we’re doing? We ought to stop doing if I’m not pushing people to take an inward look at where we are and where we’re going. And an outward look at the marketplace that we’re serving, then we have failed. And I’m saying to you that this platform that is quite frankly a mantra of our profession that if you ask anybody, they would say, yes, CPAs are trusted advisors, it is time for us to step up and be exactly that every single one of us.

 

Rick Telberg 

It is time for every single accountant to step up. Where do they start? What’s the first thing an accountant needs to do to step up in this crisis?

 

Bill Reeb 

You know the first thing we all need to do to step up in a crisis is to recognize that we need to change. So many people when they start thinking about change, say, Okay, well, you know, if I get Rick to change, then I’ll change, or if I get someone else to change, I get my clients to change that. I’ll change the first place to start is inward. How do I make myself better in this environment? Once you start making moves, you will start feeling more and more comfortable in a new environment. Once you stop saying, you know, I’m scared that I may not be good at this, you’ll find out that you’re great at it because you’ll start moving forward. Change doesn’t happen in a giant, overnight change, we will make changes in an incremental fashion.

But at the same time, if people start thinking, How can I ask better questions? How can I push the envelope in what I’m asking people about? That will make all the changes if you just sat down with your management group,

You sit down with your client and just say, Tell me where you are. Tell me where you’re going. Let’s talk about the gaps.

If you just let go of the fact that you have to have every answer, then your job becomes, How do I identify the problem?

I will tell you as being a consultant for 30-plus years, answers are a dime a dozen. And everybody wants to make it about the answers. It is not about the answers is about the questions.

If you don’t know the problem you’re trying to solve, you cannot solve it.  So we have to take as our drive, as our focus to say, I am going to – with everyone I’m working with – understand where they are, and understand where they want to go, so that I can help them bridge the gap. And no, I may not have all the answers, but I can be the quarterback to make sure that we’re finding the resources that we need to put together this puzzle into the point that it becomes a clear picture.

 

Rick Telberg 

We’re in a crisis like we’ve never seen before. It’s worse than the financial meltdown of 2007-2008. It’s worse than the dot-com crash of 2002. And in each of those instances, the profession lost about eight to 10 percent of its jobs and took three to seven years to recover. This could be worse. What’s your prediction?

 

Bill Reeb 

Number one, I think we will come out of this as a profession better, faster, and stronger than we are. I think it will help us make the changes we know we should have made all along.

As a matter of fact, if there’s a comment I made to many of our clients, is, You’ve known you needed to change. But you were doing so well, you didn’t. And you’ve known your clients needed to make changes, but they were doing so well, they didn’t.

Now we’re an environment where you need to step up and say, What should I be doing? And how do I move forward? What’s great about our profession is that we and the role we have is integral to making change in any business.

I don’t see this as a scenario where we don’t have opportunity. What I see is a scenario where some of our people, whether you’re in industry or public, decide not to leverage this opportunity.

I would tell you that the opportunity is great because we have a lot of people struggling and we have a lot of people that need help. We need to step in and make that difference.

So I don’t see this as something that has to have a huge negative impact on our profession necessarily. Quite frankly, it could help our profession jump a level or two over the next year because we will push ourselves to be better than we’ve ever been.

 

Rick Telberg

Bill Reeb, chairman of the AICPA, I hope you’re right.

 

2 Responses to “COVID Crisis Separates the Winners from Losers”

  1. Mark

    This is a great, thought-provoking article. Regarding the “trusted advisor” goal – I have read these exhortations for years now and I have made changes to get to this level with my clients. I do not disagree with the goal. However…. I do think that we have come a long way from the standard and well-defined services that CPA’s used to offer. Extending ourselves into very murky areas of our client’s businesses exposes us to new areas of legal risk that are not adequately addressed by articles like this. Is anyone else not greatly concerned about the magnitude and volume of snap decisions that were made related to PPP funds? Witness – the public shaming of Ruth Chris, Shake Shack, etc. Will it ultimately be public information for all entities that accepted PPP funds? What about churches taking PPP funds – will there be long-term reputational consequences of these decisions? Being involved to the degree that CPAs were forced to be with the PPP loan process – it gave me pause every day that this was not the cautious approach that CPAs have employed for generations.

  2. LM Hubbard

    Let’s take this opportunity to address the dinosaur system and processes at the IRS. Single tasking on only the economic impact payments is not good enough. There are many essential workers at the IRS that this nation needs to be working right now… not cowering from fear from home. The IRS standing down during this incredible time is unacceptable. 40 year old technology being used instead of world class technology should make all the leaders at the IRS over the past few decades ashamed. This lack of prioritization and leadership of the good men and women who work for the IRS is shameful. Where are the leaders? The AICPA should be focusing more light onto our failing IRS.