Reliable counsel

How often do CEOs need to talk to their accountants in order to effectively manage their company’s finances? Obviously, this question can’t be answered with a simple blanket statement: “X times a year for a total of Y hours should do the trick.” There are too many different types of businesses, each with different amounts of expertise and unique needs of their own.

But if you talk to even a small number experts in the accounting field, a couple of themes emerge. One is that when CEOs are contemplating unusual transactions, it’s always better to err on the side of having too much contact with their accountant than not enough. Another refrain is that any time a CEO has any doubts or unease about an upcoming transaction, it’s definitely time to call your accountant to let him or her know you have something you need to talk about.

“Typically, in a larger company, the CFO would take on that role,” says Mark Koziel, vice president of firm services and global alliances for the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants. “But what about the CEO who doesn’t have the C-suite and the finance function inside their organization? That’s where, in particular, we talk a lot about being the trusted business adviser for that CEO. Especially in family-owned businesses, you see this a lot. You need that financial adviser, but you may not need them full time, so you can lean on your CPA on a regular basis throughout the year.

“They should be there for part of the strategic planning sessions. If the CPA knows what’s going on throughout the year and is present for discussions about important things like expansion, employment and succession, then they can be better informed for when they do the year-end planning and consulting.”

The benefits of touching base periodically with clients throughout the year, not just at year end, is a common theme among those with experience in the accounting field.

“When you meet with clients during the year, you can go over their financial statements, among many other things,” says Sharon Cook, president of the National Society of Accountants. “You can make sure they are doing everything properly. And you can make suggestions about some of the other things they need to do, for taxes and for other financial purposes.”

Think, talk, transact

Talking to your financial team throughout the year enables your experts to make suggestions in advance of key transactions that can greatly alter the tax and financial impact of those decisions.

“When you get to year end, depending on what the CPA is doing for you — if it’s a compiled financial statement, an audited financial statement, a tax return — there are definite tax implications that could be affected,” Koziel says. “And maybe some decisions would have been made another way if the CEO had considered the tax implications of what they were about to do.”

Making assumptions on your own rather than asking professionals for guidance can lead to unpleasant surprises. Accountants come across these types of situations frequently in their daily interactions with clients.

“A situation that I find clients often have problems with is, for example, in a year in which they’re expecting a large profit, they want to be able to reduce that,” Cook says. “So one of the first things they think about buying is a car, because they think they’re going to be able to write that car off in full in the first year. Then, by the time you get the books and you’re ready to do the tax return, you have to tell them, ‘Guess what — you’re not going to be able to do that. You’re going to have some limits in terms of what you can deduct this year.’”

For many types of nonroutine transactions, getting advice beforehand from your accountant or finance team is almost always the wisest course for business executives to follow.

“Some of the types of transactions that should be discussed ahead of time would be, for instance, any type of big-dollar purchases that they’re looking at,” Koziel says. “Buying versus leasing is one that needs to be looked at carefully, such as whether you want to buy or lease a building. Another important one is business expansion: If they’re looking to buy a business or even sell their business, the whole M&A transaction and how that will take place is a very important thing to consider.

“Major investment decisions along the way could have significant impact. And succession of the business — that’s another huge issue. You should be having big-time conversations about that early on.”

Other nonroutine transactions that should be reviewed carefully ahead of time include borrowing money, major equipment purchases and like-kind exchanges.

“Before you do a like-kind exchange, you should definitely talk to your accountant to make sure it’s done properly so it won’t be disallowed somewhere down the line,” says Cook. “There are many types of like-kind exchanges. It could involve property that they own. A lot of times, especially in smaller businesses, it may involve cars or equipment that they have around, where they can exchange it and therefore not pay the tax that they would have had to pay if they had sold it directly to someone else.

“Any time a CEO wants to make a big expenditure on any kind of equipment, they need to talk to their accountant to make sure they’re getting the benefit of everything they have, especially if they want to borrow money to pay for it. Because if they want to borrow money, they’ve got to figure out, ‘What is that going to do to my bottom line? Is this something I really need to do, and is it right for me?’”

Multifaceted advice

An accountant’s value to a CEO or a client company isn’t limited to figuring out the tax effects of transactions before they’re entered into. There are many other types of general business issues for which an accountant can provide valuable advice.

“Strategic planning is a big one,” Koziel says. “One of the best services a CPA can provide to a CEO is to just get them in a room for a day and sit down and talk about the business. Do a strategic planning session. Make it formal, kind of like a board of directors meeting.

“Having frequent conversations throughout the year is useful in many ways. The beauty of the CPA environment is you gain a lot of knowledge about particular industries. Take construction, for example. Typically, the CPA has more than one construction contractor client, so they see good habits and bad habits that are out there, based on other businesses in that market. And they also can sometimes translate things to other types of businesses. Maybe it’s a customer service strategy in a certain retail business that could be replicated in, let’s say, a not-for-profit that you might have as a client.

“The ability to observe how a variety of different businesses operate and being able to assess the good habits from the bad habits and recommending the good habits to other types of businesses that are in their client base — these are valuable services that CPAs are in a position to offer.”

Another important service that accountants can provide is keeping tabs on key financial line items to watch for significant changes, then investigating those changes to determine the factors that are causing them, and, if needed, recommending ways to counteract the changes.

“If you keep in close contact with your clients, especially if they’re doing their own accounting in-house, one of the things you can do is review their gross profit percentages,” Cook says. “Are they staying consistent? Are they changing dramatically from one period to another? What’s the cause of that? And you can sit down and go over that with them and see if there’s a problem. It may be in their inventory control, if they have inventory. Or is the cost of their regular purchases going up? And if so, what do they need to do to offset that? Does that mean that they need to find a way to increase sales? Or do they need to have better controls on what’s in inventory and how it’s coming out of inventory?”

The definition of trust

One of the accountant’s main goals is to achieve trusted business adviser status with his or her clients. It’s a prestigious standing, and it must be earned over time.

“It’s about giving your clients the absolute best service you can provide,” Cook says. “To be able to review and make sure they’re handling their affairs properly, to produce good financial statements, to have the best possible relationship between the accountant and the CEO, and ultimately, to make sure that their business prospers. That’s the key. That’s what you aim for.”

Koziel concluded by telling a story — “the ultimate story of a CPA as a trusted adviser,” as he calls it.

“I was at lunch with a CPA friend of mine about a month ago, and he says to me — because he’s heard me say time and again: ‘Trusted adviser, trusted adviser’ — he says, ‘You know, I never really understood the meaning of “trusted adviser” until just this past weekend. I got a call from the wife of a client of mine. The client is a construction contractor; he owns a construction business.’

“This guy was a huge car buff and had a warehouse full of antique cars. He was in the warehouse tinkering one day, and he fell to his death off of a ladder — changing a light bulb, of all things. So he says to me, ‘I’m sitting there last weekend, and this client’s wife calls me. … A little while later, I’m in her living room. It’s the wife, the two daughters, the two son-in-laws and me.’ He says, ‘That is the trusted adviser relationship. That’s exactly what you’ve been talking about. The only one that they felt comfortable enough with — the only one they felt confident enough with as the outside consultant to the family — was me. It’s almost like I was part of the family.’

“That’s the type of relationship that you start to see in these businesses with their CPAs,” Koziel says. “And as a CEO, if you don’t have that trusted adviser relationship now — well, we’re talking about your life’s savings. Whether it’s invested all in the business or whether it’s held in other types of assets — these are your life’s savings. Who are you going to trust with those types of decisions? And you’d better have that person with you year-round, to help you make better decisions all along the way.”

HOW TO REACH: American Institute of Certified Public Accountants, www.aicpa.org; National Society of Accountants, www.nsacct.org