Three years ago, Anne Bronchetti, CMA, had an accounting intern from a local university who had never heard of the Certified Management Accountant designation until she told him about it.
“He knew he wanted to pursue a career in accounting but wasn’t at all sure what path to follow or where he should focus,” said Bronchetti, controller at Velocity in Albany, N.Y. “He also wanted to continue learning—to pursue additional education in order to broaden his knowledge. The option of becoming a CMA was news to him. Within a few days, he had thoroughly researched the Institute of Management Accountants online and came by my office with lots of questions. In that short time, he had even told some other students about the CMA.”
When Bronchetti was in graduate school, she knew she liked accounting, but the job duties of a CPA in public accounting weren’t at all appealing to her. What was appealing was the interaction between the finance function and other functional areas within a business, 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.
Bronchetti is one of seven corporate controllers I spoke to recently who opted for a different professional certification instead of a CPA: three are CMAs, two are Certified Fraud Examiners, one is an enrolled agent, and one is planning to take the CMA exam in the future.
I asked them what advice they would give to a budding accountant who’s considering an alternative to the CPA. Here’s what they told me:
Figure out what’s best for you
Soon-to-be-accounting graduates should take their time to figure out which areas of accounting they prefer, and pursue a certification that’s in line with those particular areas, said Tracy Gale, EA, controller at Quality Plastics in Sparks, Nev.
“Being a CPA has a very broad meaning. A CPA can specialize in one thing or another, but it doesn’t make them qualified in all areas,” she said. “Internships are valuable to make the determination. It’s all about experience. If someone is interested in audit specifically, a CPA is really the only way to go and a great option. However, if an individual is interested in tax, I believe an EA is the way to go. Because the focus is on tax, the experience becomes tax and nothing else.”
Eric Vahle, CFE, controller at Rocklin, Calif.-based Riebes Auto Parts, said in hindsight, the two- or three-year grind of working in public accounting and then taking the CPA exam may not have been a bad way to start his career. But he decided to become a CFE instead of a CPA.
“If you really want a CPA license and there’s zero question that it’s the most requested applicant asset, then go directly to public accounting. It’ll undoubtedly be a grind, but firms offer their employees time to study for the exams, unlike most private industry positions,” he said.
Network and ask questions
If you’re still not sure which certification is right for you, don’t be afraid to reach out to credentialed accounting and finance professionals and ask them questions to get a feel for which certification would best suit you, said Joel Konts, CFE, controller at Global Plastics LP in Manchester, N.H.
“LinkedIn is a great tool for this, and there are many people who wouldn’t mind sharing their opinions and thoughts,” he added.
For those considering either the CMA or the CPA designations, Bronchetti recommended contacting or meeting with members of their local chapter of the IMA, their state CPA association, or the American Institute of CPAs to gain their perspectives.
“Ask them how they made their decision to become a CPA or CMA, where has that led them, and what are the pros and cons as they see them?” she said.
And it’s also OK to want both credentials, Bronchetti added. As of March 31, 2018, there are 5,091 accounting and finance professionals in the Americas region who are both CMAs and CPAs, according to data provided by the IMA. Globally, there are 5,865 professionals with both credentials.
“I have a friend who’d worked in the banking industry for nearly all of his career. He obtained the CMA credential several years ago and soon after decided to also obtain his CPA,” Bronchetti said. “He said the CMA exam was much harder!”
Have the will to learn, and be humble
Knowledge is key to successfully moving through your accounting career path without a CPA license, Konts said.
“Be willing to gain the understanding of real-world accounting practices and how to apply them to actual circumstances. Ask questions, no matter how little you think they are,” he added. “If you don’t understand why a certain entry is being made or why a certain accounting procedure is being done, ask why. No one knows—not even a CPA—everything there is to know about GAAP or IFRS, especially right out of school. Take the time to process what you’re doing in the workplace and fully understand it.”
Wayne Ledbetter, CMA, CFM, controller at Furniture Services Inc., said he is a firm believer in lifelong learning, and whether through a pursuit of one or many certifications or by attending CPE courses, it’s your responsibility to keep current.
“Business and accounting have changed dramatically during my career, as I’ve seen us move from paper documents to fully integrated systems. Certifications and training are a necessity to demonstrate to employers that they will be getting an employee who’s updated on the latest techniques and pronouncements affecting how you do your job,” he added.
Melissa Adams, CMA, controller at Gray, La.-based Danos, also recommended taking advantage of the many years of experience and knowledge that your mentors have to offer.
“They provide insight and valuable experience that you won’t learn in a textbook. Be a humble employee and student, and always remember you have a lot to learn,” said Adams, who also recommended reading books and articles and attending seminars as ways to continue your accounting education.
Look at any and all opportunities
Even though the logical path is to get your CPA and start your career in public accounting, it’s not the only path out there, Adams said. Be open to whatever opportunities are in front of you.
“Make sure you focus on your interests and what drives you to succeed,” she said.
In addition, you should never settle working for a company just because it offered you a position before anyone else did, Konts said.
“I truly believe if I had settled and didn’t look around for the opportunities that were right for me, I wouldn’t have had the same path I’ve been on,” he added. “It’s OK to look around and negotiate. Make sure the people you’re about to work for care about you succeeding. I can’t emphasize that enough—you don’t want to work for someone who doesn’t care about your growth.”
Be prepared for change
As new accounting graduates enter the workforce, they must understand that the only constant in business these days is change, Ledbetter said.
“One of the major topics around today is innovation. Business continues to innovate and evolve at what seems to be a faster pace,” he added. “Sometimes in your career that means you’ll be caught up in downsizing or you’ll make a mistake that’ll result in you losing a job. This is what we call ‘experience.’ Be prepared to accept it and use the network that you’ve developed during your career to land on your feet. The days of working for one company from the time that you graduate until you retire have passed. You must be prepared for change, and certifications and lifelong learning are two of the best means of being prepared.”
Get an MBA
Given that four of the seven controllers I spoke to have an MBA, they feel very strongly about this.
“I obtained my MBA with an emphasis in finance because I felt it would give me the higher-level tools I would need to excel in my chosen career,” Adams said.
“There’s no reason you can’t get this degree while working, and whether you go for a CMA, CPA, or [professional accounting] certificate, having this in your back pocket is key,” added Nicole Walters, controller and head of HR for Riviera Bronze Inc. in Ventura, Calif., whose goal is to become a CMA. “An employer that sees this knows you did a little extra and made an effort when you didn’t need to, and that’s a very hirable trait.”