How Two CPAs Ended Up Back in College As University Controllers

university controllers

Robert Kuehler and Alan West have a few things in common: both are CPAs, both started their careers in public accounting, both have accounting degrees, and both went back to college—not as a student or professor but as a state university controller.

As associate vice president/university controller at the University of Colorado, Kuehler oversees a staff of approximately 30 individuals. The University of Colorado System has four campuses, each with its own accounting staff with separate reporting lines, he said. The Office of University Controller is composed of five departments:

  • Accounting Services
  • Payroll/Benefit Accounting
  • Tax
  • Finance and Procurement Business Services
  • Financial and Reporting Systems

“While I do not directly interact with students or with researchers working on projects that potentially improve people’s lives and result in breakthrough scientific discoveries, I know that by doing my job to the best of my ability, I am contributing to the mission of a great university,” Kuehler said. “Helping to improve a company’s profit is an important job. For me, helping an institution so more funds can be focused on teaching and research is a calling.”

West, assistant vice president and university controller at the University of Florida, oversees approximately 160 full-time employees in the Division of Finance and Accounting, which comprises several departments:

  • General Accounting and Financial Reporting
  • Asset Management
  • Payroll and Tax Services
  • Treasury Management
  • University Bursar
  • Cost Analysis and Construction Accounting
  • University Disbursements

“I was drawn to the controllership position because I wanted to have a positive impact on the university, and there are so many opportunities for me to learn and be engaged,” said West, who also is the current chair of the Florida Institute of CPAs. “There is never a dull moment around here.”

During a recent interview with Kuehler and West, I asked them about how their public accounting experience has helped them in their current role, what expectations they had when they first took over the university controllership, and what type of person should consider the controllership at a state university or other state government institution. Some of their responses have been edited for length and clarity:

Going Concern: Can you tell us a little bit about your public accounting experience and how you wound up as the controller of a state university?

Robert Kuehler: My first engagement at KPMG was a community college. As time went on, I focused on the public sector because I believed in their missions. I started in the Amarillo, Texas office, transferred to Denver, then to Dallas. While in Dallas, I was asked to temporarily relocate to New York City to work in KPMG’s Department of Professional Practice, focused solely on the public sector. This was a tremendous experience, both personally and professionally.

After my two-year rotation ended, I was promoted to partner in the Denver office in the Public Sector practice. My main client base included public and private higher education entities, cities, counties, performing arts, hospitals, and other not-for-profit and public-sector entities.

During the Great Recession, KPMG downsized the partnership and I separated from the firm in April 2009. Having focused on the public sector for almost all of my 20 years in public accounting, and knowing the culture of these entities, I knew that I wanted to have a role of some kind in this area. By extreme good luck, the University of Colorado System controller position opened up at about the same time. After a number of panel and one-on-one interviews, I was fortunate to be selected for the position, which I started in July 2009.

Alan West: I started my career in public accounting doing auditing. I encourage everyone to start their career in public accounting if they have the opportunity because it will help you develop excellent analytical skills and become receptive to feedback about your work. Being humble and open to other people’s ideas and suggestions can have a very positive impact on your career.

After seven years in public accounting, I moved on to work for the University of Florida Foundation. The Foundation is where all of the gifts for the university are received, and I learned a great deal about endowment accounting and interacting with donors.

After seven years at the University of Florida Foundation, I moved over to the university to oversee Treasury Management and the University Bursar. After about two years in that role, the opportunity to be the university controller opened up, and I accepted the position in July 2015.

GC: Robert, why was it important to you to pursue the controllership at the University of Colorado?

Kuehler: As I said earlier, I was drawn to the public sector because of their missions. Working on publicly-traded companies is a key focus of the big accounting firms. For-profit enterprises are obviously important to the economy and do many things for individuals. However, I needed a closer connection, or at least as close a connection as I could get being an accountant, to those entities focused directly on the public good.

Having worked with clients in higher education while in public accounting, I knew that of all the places I could end up, higher education was at the top. Also, the University of Colorado is the flagship public higher education entity in Colorado, which made the position even more attractive.

GC: How has the experience you both gained in public accounting helped you in your current role?

Kuehler: My time in public accounting helped me tremendously on the technical accounting side, while at the same time provided great exposure to presenting in front of boards of directors. Also, the teamwork element required in public accounting is important in any job. Teamwork in higher education is the basis for success, both individually and for the university.

West: I was very fortunate to have audited various industries early in my career, which gives me a unique perspective in my daily interactions as the university controller. We have so many different sources of money that flow into the university, each with its own unique set of rules and regulations we need to know and understand. Some of the various sources are state appropriations, federal research awards, and donations.

GC: What expectations did you have when you first took over as university controller? Have any or all of those expectations actually become reality?

Kuehler: While my expectations were high when I arrived at the University of Colorado, I found I had not touched the surface of the dedication of its employees. Being tied to a common goal and the common good are the motivators for people who work in higher education or any similar organization. In some ways, for some individuals, this is a far greater source of motivation than monetary incentives.

In addition, I had believed that public accounting provided exposure to a broad spectrum of the clients’ activities. To some extent, I still believe that. However, in my position at the University of Colorado, I not only work with fellow accountants and CPAs, I work with procurement specialists, IT specialists, attorneys, web and graphic designers, human resource experts, regents, and a host of others. And I’ve been able to do things here that would never have happened in public accounting.

A good example is how we transformed our annual financial report a few years ago and introduced an “Illustrated Guide” to accompany the financial statements. As we all know, financial reporting is getting increasingly complex for people who are not accountants to understand. Using the great resources internal to the university and at no additional cost, we developed an HTML version of our financial statements and created an online Illustrated Guide. The guide takes the complexity of the financial statements and replaces it with plain English. Not an easy thing to do!

West: I had three goals when I took over as the university controller. My first goal was to create a more collaborative leadership environment in the Division of Finance and Accounting. A key component of this was to establish a “learning culture” within the division. We are rolling out the first phase of a job-shadowing program in April, which will allow employees the opportunity to learn other areas within the division.

My second goal was to create an accounting internship program for the division. We are in the second year of the program and it has exceeded my expectations. We piloted the program with two students spending a few weeks in each of the areas of Finance and Accounting, with the goal of identifying which areas would be beneficial to both the student and the department. We have received a lot of positive feedback from both students and employees.

My third goal was to establish the University of Florida as a leader in communicating financial information. I have completed two key components of this goal and I am in the process of finalizing the last component. First, we created an HTML version of our audited financial statements that is easy to search and view online, instead of just relying on the boring PDF version. Second, we, too, have created an “Illustrated Guide to Our Annual Financial Report,” designed to help non-accountants understand the financial report. The last component, which is currently in progress, is to create an easy-to-understand quarterly financial report for our board of trustees.

GC: What type of person do you believe should consider, or would be perfect for, a controllership position at a state university or other state government institution? 

Kuehler: If you are an accountant more driven by how your work impacts your community than by how it impacts the company you are auditing, a position such as mine may be right for you. If you are willing to exchange the chance of making lots of money for making good money and having a sense of purpose close to your heart, a position such as mine may be for you. If you are willing to take longer to make decisions so that input can be obtained from a wide range of people and constituencies to obtain a better outcome, a position such as mine may be for you.

West: I think the person needs to have good communication and collaboration skills, especially the ability to explain complex accounting issues to non-accountants. There is little value to the university if I am the only one who understands the accounting issue. It is imperative for me to communicate the issue in plain language so that others, even those with no accounting knowledge, understand the issue as well.

Stay tuned for more from Kuehler and West in a future article where they offer advice to accounting and finance professionals considering a controllership role at a state university.

Image: iStock/bieshutterb

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