Long gone are the days of accountants tediously tallying row upon row of ledger entries. Today, most accounting firms offer more than bookkeeping and tax services—and use tools more complex than a pencil and paper.
Jim Marberry of Marberry, Miller & Bales said the biggest things to happen to the accounting world have been the advent of personal computers and the improvements made in software throughout the last 25 years.
Not only do computers and software help companies to serve their clients more accurately and efficiently; they also offer new ways to communicate with clients, such as through e-mail or Web portals, Marberry said.
“Our accounting systems are much more accurate than 20 years ago—and many, many times more efficient,” Marberry said.
Computers also allow for electronic reporting of income directly to the Internal Revenue Service, which may mean fewer audits but increases the amount of correspondence for the person doing the reporting, Marberry said.
Bob Gerding of Gerding, Korte and Chitwood said firms work hard to keep up with changing tax laws and the impact of changes in audit requirements, all the while dealing with a shortage of accountants entering the field.
“I think the lack of availability of staff is because, to become a CPA, students are required to have a master’s degree and 150 hours of required college credit. That scares some people,” Gerding said. “In order to keep a qualified staff, we’ve spent more money on continuing education and staff training, offered more financial planning services and have strengthened our auditing skills and presence to meet the needs of clients.”
Gerding said the firm is seeing more and more interest in financial planning as clients age or encounter other life changes.
“I’ve seen an increased desire for them to get their financial house in order as they approach retirement,” Gerding said. “We’ve also spent a lot of time in divorce work and forensic accounting, investigating and proving income. And we also have added counseling clients through the sales and purchases of businesses.”
In fact, Gerding said his firm has grown beyond the bookkeeping business into the financial planning part of the business, which he sees as a good thing. Many firms, including Marberry, Miller & Bales, even have added investment services for clients.
Certified public accountants always have been available to advise businesses about ways to streamline operations and cut costs, but today firms take an active role offering more in-depth consulting services. CPAs now analyze data through the auditing process, looking for areas for improvement, but also offer internal controls so businesses can maintain quality.
Some firms have taken the place of accountants on staff at companies, performing duties including writing checks and making deposits, which saves small businesses the money they might spend on a salary.
Improvements in computer software have enabled companies to perform the day-to-day recording of their financial records in house, but accounting firms say they haven’t seen a reduction in clients as a result—in part because more clients seek consulting services. Many clients use accounting software but still rely on accountants for help.
“Software is really data processing,” Gerding said. “It still requires a bookkeeper to enter the correct data and then a CPA to analyze that data.”
Garry Weiss of Landers, Weiss & Company said the influx of new technologies and laws has forced firms to expand to other areas.
“For example, we have expanded our services to include investment services and business evaluation services,” he said. “The financial services have worked out well because it goes hand in hand with our knowledge of our clients’ financial positions and tax situations. Clients spend a lot of years accumulating assets, and part of our responsibility is helping them find the best way to distribute the assets in retirement.”
Because tax and finance laws have become more complex, some accounting firms have begun specializing in particular areas, the way lawyers and doctors do, said Russ Starr, managing member of Williams-Keepers, LLC, Columbia.
“We’re the largest firm in central Missouri, so we offer a full array of services,” Starr said. “Therefore, we offer a fairly broad range of resources, such as accounting services, auditing services, tax services employee benefit services, management consultation, business consultation and financial services, and we have people specialized in specific areas.”
Since the company is associated with Raymond James Financial Services, it can offer a total package of wealth management services, including financial investment, estate planning and employee benefits consultation, Starr said.
As with many companies, the clients of Williams-Keepers often keep the core records themselves and seek advice to help them utilize that information, Starr said.
“We have individuals who specialize and work extensively in the small business community and advise clients based on the needs of the business,” Starr said. “I think the thing we try to do is have enough resources and professionals to do what clients need to get done. We really have to have professionals who specialize in certain areas rather than having one person who wears many hats.”