Saxophone artist Kenny G earned a degree in accounting. So did former ultimate fighting champion Chuck Liddell, actor Bob Newhart, novelist John Grisham, Home Depot co-founder Arthur Blank, and world-famous financier J.P. Morgan.
But none actually earned fame as accountants. Instead, learning the ‘language of business’ opened the doors to a variety of career and business opportunities beyond the classroom.
Perhaps the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants summed it best: “…there’s one degree that gives you the education to succeed at just about anything in the business world. It’s an accounting degree. Accounting opens doors in every kind of business coast to coast. It can give you the foundation you need to go on and become a CPA. It can prepare you to become a partner in an accounting firm, to pursue a career in finance or corporate management, to work in government, or even to become an entrepreneur. In fact, no matter what you decide to do, having an accounting background can open doors wide.”
Take Michelle McKenna-Doyle, for example. The Enterprise, Alabama, native earned a BS in accounting at Auburn in 1987 and immediately went to work as a senior auditor at Coopers & Lybrand, now PriceWaterhouseCoopers. Today, she is Chief Information Officer at the National Football League – making the leap from the grid of a spread sheet to the grid of football field.
“If you can understand the financials of a company you can dig deeper to understand what is driving those results and learn how to impact them positively,” said McKenna-Doyle, who oversees the league’s technology strategy, its application and implementation. “When you do that, companies will give you a shot at running any number of initiatives or lines of business. I received a strong cross-section of the business world by working for a big public firm. Ultimately, I transitioned.”
Bob Broadway, owner and founder of Huntsville, Alabama, commercial real estate firm The Broadway Group, holds an Auburn accounting degree (1991) but has never held the title “accountant.”
“When I got out of college, I realized that while I enjoyed the course work and enjoyed accounting, I really didn’t want to be an accountant,” said Broadway, who specialized in commercial real estate lending at Barnett Bank in Jacksonville, Florida, after college. With accounting, you’re not pigeon-holed into being an accountant. I think it opens more doors than any other business major.”
The Broadway Group – which helps clients select appropriate business sites, assists in the permitting phase, and performs site construction and development -- is one of the largest in the Southeast. He recognizes that the business person with an accounting background has a leg up on the competition – and the respect of his or her peers.
“When somebody with accounting skills is at a conference room table with other people in the room who are not accountants -- that person’s opinion is going to be elevated,” he said. “If they deliver their opinion in a convincing way, then everybody feels good about that.”
Broadway added that the accuracy of a company’s financial statements often dictates a company’s growth.
“With the constant changing accounting rules, there is a perception that the only people who are going to know the answers to these questions are going to be accountants,” Broadway said.
Auburn accounting alum Donna Gallagher, now Executive Director at The Collaborative of North Carolina, in Raleigh, N.C., agreed.
“The language of revenue and expenses -- and how we get to those end-of-period numbers -- are driven by the specifics of the business,” said Gallagher, who has held her position since 2008. “But at the end of the day the financial statements tell the story —whether it is a one location small business in North Carolina, or a large multi-national corporation. Accounting provides consistency as we address a variety of audiences and stakeholders, whether we are talking with potential funders for a non-profit business, providing information to management, talking with bankers, or presenting to shareholders. Everyone understands profit and loss.”
Gallagher spent 15 years in the banking industry before pivoting to the non-profit sector. Why?
“I wanted to be home more and decided to pursue work with a statewide child welfare organization – Children’s Home Society of Florida,” she said. “Having a degree in accounting and a CPA opened that door for me and my first job there was as an accountant. Now, my work is mostly developing and delivering programs for low-income families, based on the research into what best works to move families up the economic ladder.
“My accounting education continues to provide the foundation for how I view our agency, and I always go back to the numbers and how changes in our programs and the costs associated with those changes can both benefit our clients and be a wise financial decision for our agency.”
Gallagher said business people must ‘be able to view the whole business.’
“That is something unique to accounting majors,” she said. “The systems process, systems design training, the information technology training – all of those pieces fit together in a way that you are able to coalesce a picture of what’s actually going on? Everything being equal, I like the ability for people to bring the overall systems perspective to an issue. There are things you know, or there are things you don’t understand well, but an accounting major in their education process has been trained to look for those unknowns and just not assume that on any given day at any given time that what is presented is the entire picture.”
The next time you’re in the drive-thru line at a Taco Bell, think of Auburn accounting alum Doug Augustine. ‘What could accounting possibly have to do with Meximelts or chili cheese burritos?’ you might ask. As President at Georgia-Texas Enterprises in Newnan, Georgia, Augustine owns 11 Taco Bell franchises and two under-construction Einstein Bagel franchises. He could not stress enough how important his accounting skills play out in today’s business landscape.
“Lenders and franchisors are more involved in the financial health of a company than ever before,” said the 1994 Auburn accounting graduate. “Without a background in accounting, I would struggle to read my income statement and balance sheet and know how to compute the financial ratios required by my lender and franchisor. I owe my financial knowledge to my degree in Account at Auburn University.”
Immediately after college, Augustine worked in the audit division of a CPA firm. But the lure of the family business changed his career forever.
“I had a unique opportunity a couple of years later to come work for my father (the late Gene Augustine, who opened his first Taco Bell in 1987) as his Chief Financial Officer shortly after he acquired six existing Taco Bell Corp. restaurants in Atlanta, giving us a total of seven restaurants at the time,” he said. “My degree in accounting, and auditing banks right after college, gave me a huge leg up in understanding my father’s business.”
Accountants can be corporate insurance attorneys, too. Brian T. Casey, an Auburn accounting alum of 1984, is co-leader of Atlanta-based Locke Lord’s Regulatory and Transactional Insurance Practice Group.
“I’m shocked when I see business lawyers that don’t know how to read financial statements,” said Casey, who earned his law degree at Ohio State in 1987. “In mergers and acquisition deals, I need to be able to understand how the client is pricing it. To write it up in the contract, I have got to understand the financial concepts to draft it accurately.
“I need to walk the walk with my investment banker contacts. In my world, insurance has its own statutory accounting, which is totally different compared to GAAP (Generally Accepted Accounting Principles). We call it SAP. I would have struggled to learn SAP if I didn’t understand the basic concepts of GAAP, which I learned at Auburn. You deal with securities offerings – all kinds of financial statements. You’ve got to understand interest concepts and capitalization of interest, draft provisions and financial covenants.”
John Bell earned his BS and Master’s degrees in accounting from Auburn. Though he spent much of his professional career as an accountant or in the financial sector, he is now CEO of FireRock -- a building materials company in Birmingham.
“I pretty quickly had a desire to move into an industry where I could drive financial performance as opposed to measure other people’s performances,” he said. “I got an opportunity to work with a venture-backed start-up in Seattle, and quickly found there to be a huge need in the private equity world for a risk-oriented accountant to get a lot of responsibility at a young age. The experience I had in a number of companies and situations ultimately prepared me to be the senior leader at FireRock.
“Every business owner and manager requires reliable and timely information to make decisions. A great accountant who can deliver that is invaluable to his organization. Most people, including accountants, don’t fully understand or appreciate that.”
Times are changing, and the accounting profession is no exception to the rule. We’ve seen our share of technology advances, heightened government regulations, tax law changes, and globalization of business.
“I cannot stress enough how important a good understanding of your business is and with a degree in accounting or having an accountant on staff helps facilitate all the different pressures being applied to your business -- not to forget government regulations with the new Obamacare law and increased pressure to raise minimum wage,” Augustine added.
Having a common language around the operations of any business through accounting is important no matter what industry we are in. Why have accounting majors become so powerful in today’s business world?
“Having a degree in accounting is a huge advantage in the business world today because banks and lenders, along with the franchisor (in my business), want to make sure you understand how to keep your business healthy by understanding certain ratios and being able to decipher your financial statements,” Augustine commented. “Also, when acquiring more businesses, restaurants in my case, understanding where you can gain improvement by looking at an income statement allows one to ask informative questions and find ways to improve margins in the middle of the profit and loss statement.”
Gallagher believes that those with accounting skills are better trained in the broader business perspective, which is reflected in financial statements.
“Successful businesses benefit from all the business disciplines — marketing, strong management, human resources, finance, operations, and information technology — and each area has their unique perspective,” she said. “But it is the accountants that are armed with the skills to bring the entire enterprise view to a bottom line of not only how the business profits, but most importantly how a variety of strategies and possible alternatives affect the existing and future operations. Without the information analysis based on all the factors—the demand for the business’s products or services, the market share and the costs of growing that market share, the locations’ economic landscape, costs related to investments necessary to add new products or services—sound decisions for the organization’s future are not possible. Accountants are trained and skilled to provide the metrics that capture the core operations, and at problem-solving. If the CEO or management poses questions, accountants can offer and analyze potential solutions, based on their intimate knowledge of the business.
“Accountants are uniquely able to do the analyses that help organizations thrive as our operating landscape changes. I’m living proof.”
So was Liddell, in case that ultimate fighting gig didn’t work out.