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Accounting Panel Puts Alumni in Front of Students

“People think public accounting is boring,” said Bill Messerle ’97, “But we’re here to tell you, public accounting is never boring.”

Messerle, a partner with PricewaterhouseCoopers, was one of six alumni who sat on the Williams School’s Oct. 6 Accounting Panel. The annual event, chaired by accounting professor Elizabeth Oliver and hosted by the Department of Accounting and its chapter of Beta Alpha Psi, helps Washington and Lee students evaluate careers in public accounting. Over 100 students attended the evening event.

Greg Hendler ’03, a senior manager with Ernst & Young, kicked things off by defining public accounting, “When you’re with a public accounting firm, you’re providing a company with peace of mind. You’re going in and telling a CEO, a board of directors, or senior management that what they’re doing is okay. To do that, you’ve got to understand the company from top to bottom.”

When Professor Oliver asked the panelists about the benefits of a career in public accounting, panelists were quick to cite travel, job security, the chance to work on tough problems, and significant growth potential.

“You’re highly marketable in a very short period of time,” said Victoria Raabe ’10, a senior associate in CohnReznick’s Baltimore office.

John Oliver ’87 agreed. “Even through the 2008 and 2009 downturn, it was the accounting firms that were still hiring. There are only so many people who can do what we do. There’s a great demand,” said Oliver, looking out into the audience, “and you’re the supply.”

For students just taking their first or second accounting class, it was helpful to hear about the different career tracks within the profession.

“Everyone thinks tax is all accountants do,” said Elizabeth Amoni ’05, a director at PricewaterhouseCoopers. Amoni started her career in PwC’s McLean office doing compliance work but moved into a consulting role with their D.C.-based mergers and acquisitions division after several years. “We’re providing advantageous advice. It’s exciting. A company might be acquiring a business, changing its operations, or moving some business offshore, and we propose solutions that will help them do it in a tax advantageous way. There’s a lot of problem solving, and also a lot of writing.”

Tom Tagle ’93, a partner at Baker Tilly, also specializes in consulting and has developed a niche working for government contractors, a heavily regulated industry. He credits the CPA credential with opening doors and minds because people tend to trust accountants to be honest brokers.

Messerle, who works in PwC’s risk assurance practice and is a certified information systems auditor, agreed that most people think tax is the only option for would-be accountants, “My entire family has no idea what I actually do.” In risk assurance, Messerle supports external audits and conducts internal ones. Everyone needs accurate data and it’s big, complex systems that provide it. According to Messerle, risk assurance is a little bit accounting, a little bit IT, and a lot of creativity. Messerle and his teams make recommendations on how companies can improve their processes.

John Oliver came up in the audit side of PwC. “When you hear ‘auditor,’ you think IRS agent showing up at your door and wanting to see your tax returns for the last five years. But auditors are what your parents and W&L have taught you to be. We’re your conscience.”

Federal regulations that came about in the 1930s following the Great Depression required companies to hire independent firms to look at their financial statements and confirm that their numbers were right. The introduction of those requirements marks the birth of the audit profession, Oliver explained.

“It requires guts and honesty to sit in an executive’s office and say that, while you know they meant to get it right, they got it wrong,” said Oliver.

The panelists addressed practical concerns like how and when students should sit for the CPA exam and whether to try to meet the 150-credit requirement at Washington and Lee, in a one-year master’s program, or once they’ve started working. Short answer: there’s no one right answer for everyone.

All of the panelists are committed to combating stereotypes surrounding the accounting profession and to seeing more W&L students enter the field.

“We don’t wear green visors anymore,” said Tagle.

“Things change,” said Amoni. “I was definitely not the envy of my friends when I took a public accounting job out of W&L. But my friends see that I’ve had a very stable career where I’ve progressed very quickly. That’s impacted how my peers view my job.”