Joel Konts was told over and over again during college that if he didn’t sit for the CPA exam and work for a public accounting firm after he graduated, he wouldn’t have the best of luck making a career in accounting.
“I also knew that if I didn’t go for my master’s degree right after graduating with my bachelor’s, I might not have the motivation to [take the CPA exam],” he said. “Instead, I decided to work on my MBA with a concentration in forensic accounting, get an entry-level position in industry, and then I’d pursue the typical accounting course of studying for my CPA and getting in with a public firm.”
But it was as a staff accountant for a Boston-area software company when Konts realized he didn’t need to go into public accounting to have a successful accounting career.
“The CFO at that company took me under her wing right away and made me want to learn more and work harder to take any promotion I could take. I moved up quickly there because of this,” he said.
And because Konts chose an MBA concentration in forensic accounting and fraud examination, becoming a Certified Fraud Examiner was a better fit for his career aspirations than becoming a CPA.
“Through that coursework, the CFE was a designation that was brought up on numerous occasions by professors, and I decided I would study for the exam, obtain the CFE, and have the chance to broaden my opportunities,” he said. “A CFE gives a more in-depth understanding of fraud and forensic accounting—both of which lead to a better understanding of accounting principles.”
Now controller of Manchester, N.H.-based Global Plastics LP, a company that specializes in the distribution of thermoplastic resin, Konts said the CFE credential helps him understand what needs to be done to prevent fraud, better organize the accounting department, and what to look out for when it comes to “iffy” transactions and changes in accounts.
“Just the studying for the [CFE] exam alone really helped provide me with a better general understanding of the field, which I could apply directly to my day-to-day workload,” said Konts, whose ultimate goal is to be a CFO.
Like Konts, there are a plethora of corporate controllers who bucked conventional wisdom that says newly minted accountants should get their CPA and go into public accounting after graduation. Instead, they started their careers in industry accounting and finance roles, and opted for professional certifications, like Certified Fraud Examiner, Certified Management Accountant, and enrolled agent.
“I believe that the CMA is growing in stature as a credential and will continue to as the number of CMAs increases, as they have in the last five-plus years,” said Wayne Ledbetter, CMA, CFM, controller of Furniture Services Inc.
Here are the stories of six other controllers who’ve had successful accounting and finance careers without being a CPA:
Melissa Adams, MBA, CMA, Danos
“My career journey didn’t start out like most. I had a lot of luck along the way, as well as really good mentors who put me on the right path,” said Melissa Adams, corporate controller at Gray, La.-based Danos, a family-owned and managed oilfield service provider.
After serving as a facility watch supervisor in the U.S. Navy for five years, she began working as a financial analyst at Kinko’s corporate office.
“I quickly realized that finance and accounting were two very different worlds that were integral to each other,” said Adams, who has an MBA in finance. “I moved up quickly in finance; however, I was very interested in gaining experience in accounting as well. My career aspirations were always to be a controller and a CFO one day, so I would need strong experience in both accounting and finance.”
Adams said the best decision she made was “to take a step backward in my career and move from a financial planning manager to an accounting manager at Danos.”
“I felt this would give me the edge I would need in the future,” she added. “I now truly enjoy both the accounting and financial role that I play for Danos.”
A mentor, who is a CMA, convinced Adams that she, too, should pursue the CMA.
“He felt that with my MBA, this credential would give me an advantage,” she said. “The CMA credential doesn’t only focus on higher-level finance and accounting principles, but it also teaches you how to be a leader as a management accountant. It was a difficult few years to pass these exams and I was proud once I finished.”
Adams said the biggest advantage of having both the CMA and an MBA is that she can look at the organization from a broader view, not just the debits and credits.
“I can think more strategically and help the organization to not only process the monthly close but to budget and forecast effectively in order to solve problems and look into the future,” she said.
Anne Bronchetti, CMA, Velocity
When Anne Bronchetti was in college, the only accounting career path she remembers being discussed amongst the students and professors was the CPA track. There was no talk about the CMA program, accounting and finance opportunities in private or public companies, or even the government sector.
“I kept thinking, ‘Why do all of these people want to do the same thing, and how can there possibly be enough jobs out there for everyone to do it?” she recalled. “Conversations about the CPA track always came with phrases like ‘competition,’ ‘long hours,’ ‘paying your dues,’ and ‘tax season.’ It didn’t sound all that inviting to me. I wanted to do something different in the accounting field, something that would involve me with the organization rather than utilize my services from the outside.”
Bronchetti graduated with a bachelor’s degree in business/economics and was preparing to take the CPA exam, but she changed course and decided to go back to school to get a master’s degree in accounting. The master’s program was less focused on the CPA track and more focused on a holistic view of business, management, and accounting, she said.
“While at grad school, I had come across the CMA program, and soon after took a new position in which I reported to a controller who had passed all four parts of the CMA at once, the first time! I felt that the CMA focused less on tax, which I disliked, and more on financial reporting and management,” Bronchetti said. “I then decided to pursue the CMA, as I realized this would be the perfect complement to my growing interest in corporate accounting.”
She said the CMA gives her a professional advantage because it’s different and makes her stand out compared to her CPA peers.
“The depth and scope of the program prepared me for many areas of accounting, including many that I had not yet encountered, and gave me a very well-rounded background of knowledge,” said Bronchetti, who currently is controller of Velocity, an Albany, N.Y.-based company that specializes in print, promotional products, and warehouse/fulfillment of marketing essentials. “There have been many articles recently addressing the idea that controllers are no longer only expected to manage and control finances, but also to support or readily engage in the areas of insurance, banking, investing, human resources, forecasting, and analysis. The broad scope of the CMA supports this new definition of controller.”
Tracy Gale, EA, Quality Plastics
With a business management degree already in hand, Tracy Gale decided to go back to school at the age of 40 to get an accounting degree, with the intention of becoming a CPA. Gale did earn her accounting degree, but she decided to pursue a different professional designation.
“In the state of Nevada at that time, it was required to complete 750 audit hours under a CPA to get the CPA license. I wasn’t interested in working for a CPA firm for minimal pay to complete that portion,” Gale said. “My interest was in tax and managerial accounting. I wanted to be self-employed and didn’t feel that a CPA license would benefit me more than the EA designation.”
So, after she got her accounting degree, Gale took the Special Enrollment Examination to become an enrolled agent and passed. She then spent several years as a sole proprietor, providing tax preparation and personalized QuickBooks-based bookkeeping services, and was co-owner of a firm that specialized in accounting, bookkeeping, and consulting services for small and medium-sized businesses.
During her time as co-owner of Gibson, Gale & Associates, Gale and her partner, Marie Gibson, had many of the same responsibilities as a controller. That experience helped put Gale in position for the controllership at Quality Plastics, a Sparks, Nev.-based plastics manufacturing company.
“I was working as a part-time, full-charge bookkeeper at Quality Plastics to learn the business and the plastics industry, with expectations that the controller was going to retire,” said Gale, who is currently studying to become a CMA. “I knew I had the experience and qualifications to be a controller without having a CPA designation.”
As a controller, Gale said her experience as an EA and bookkeeper gives her the advantage of “knowing the small details of an accounting system and its reports versus only seeing the financial statements at their completed stage.”
“I believe a good controller needs to be very aware of the data-entry portion so they can better evaluate the finished numbers,” she added.
Wayne Ledbetter, MBA, CMA, CFM, Furniture Services Inc.
While Wayne Ledbetter’s fellow accounting graduates were pursuing jobs with, at that time, the Big 8 firms, he had entered the U.S. Air Force through the ROTC program.
“My career path in the Air Force was in the accounting and finance realm as a budget officer, which meant preparing budgets, reviewing spending against budgets, and recommending courses of action,” Ledbetter said. “It was much more of a managerial accounting role than what you would find at a CPA firm, especially as a recent graduate.”
After separating from military service after four years, Ledbetter chose to go into industry rather than public accounting and joined a manufacturing firm as a staff accountant. That firm was actively involved in the National Association of Accountants, which would become the Institute of Management Accountants (IMA) in 1991.
“At that time, I started pursuing an MBA degree and learned that the [CMA] exam covered many of the same topics,” he said. “The CMA also at that time covered operations management, management skills, and finance, which I felt would be needed as I moved up in the organization.”
Ledbetter, who also is a Certified Financial Manager, has served as controller for several organizations throughout his accounting and finance career, including Furniture Services Inc., a position he has held since late 2016. This is his second go-around with the Elgin, S.C.-based company, which provides rental and retail furnishings; he served as its accounting manager from 2002 to 2004.
“I utilize aspects of my CMA and CFM credentials on a daily basis, whether I’m dealing with banking, insurance, financing, or accounting-related issues,” Ledbetter said.
And as an IMA member for more than 30 years, Ledbetter said he has built up an expansive network of professionals with whom he can call “to bounce ideas off of or, in some cases, utilize ideas that they bounce off me that have an impact on making our business more profitable or efficient.”
Eric Vahle, CFE, Riebes Auto Parts
After graduating with a bachelor of science degree in accountancy information systems (a combination of accounting and computer science), Eric Vahle wasn’t sure which direction his career would go.
“I had one interview with a public accounting firm in my last semester of college and felt the environment was not for me,” he said.
But during his final year of college, Vahle had a paid internship with a forensic accounting firm, and he loved the work. Vahle started his professional career as a staff accountant, but as his career progressed, he still had an interest in the forensic accounting field and stayed current.
“In 2012, I was qualified to take the [CFE] exam and passed it. The certification just sort of happened. I was qualified and saw it as a value-adding certification,” he said.
Vahle felt the need to grow more as an accounting and business professional, so he served as controller for a few different organizations before landing at Riebes Auto Parts, a Rocklin, Calif.-based auto parts and accessories retailer, in 2014.
“Because I’ve always seen myself as a quick learner and more of a ‘see the forest for the trees’-type thinker, the controller position was a good fit and is a steppingstone to a CFO seat,” Vahle said.
As a CFE, Vahle believes he is well-positioned to serve as controller of a company in the retail industry because he can spot the many various forms of fraud.
“From cash embezzlement to inventory fraud, it’s always a concern for any controller or loss prevention profession,” Vahle said. “While the CPA exam touches on some areas of fraud, the CFE provides a much more in-depth understanding of the problems some companies are facing.”
Nicole Walters, MBA, Riviera Bronze Inc.
Nicole Walters never wanted to be a CPA. After she graduated college with a bachelor of science degree in management science, Walters fell into a controller position with a fast-growing orthopedics practice in the Los Angeles area.
“They needed someone cheap and fresh from school to help with the books. So, they hired me right out of college,” she recalled. “While working, I decided to get my MBA in finance because, well, why not? And then the role took off and I became their lead finance person, which later developed into their CFO.”
As her role continued to grow, Walters wanted to know more about the accounting side of the position “so that I could make the books as clean as possible for our outside CPA firm.” She ended up going back to school to earn a professional accounting certificate from the University of California, Santa Barbara.
“I figured it couldn’t hurt and would only make me more valuable,” said Walters, who’s currently controller and head of HR for Riviera Bronze Inc., a manufacturing company based in Ventura, Calif. “If I had more time, I probably would’ve taken the CPA exam, but the CMA exam is still something I want to do and is a goal of mine. It’s much more in line with what I do every day.”
She said her MBA has taught her how to balance full-time work and school, and to work with other like-minded professionals to problem-solve and learn new skills.
“The MBA was also very valuable in that it taught me time management and stress management,” Walters added.
The professional accounting certificate allowed her to learn new professional accounting skills, such as tax, and it provided her with the necessary semester units to eventually take the CMA or CPA exams, if she so chooses.
“It has helped because I know exactly what the CPA firm needs from us and important dates, and I now feel very on top of that side of things here,” Walters said.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of this article in which the controllers I spoke to offer advice to budding accountants on how they can become a corporate controller without being a CPA.