Discovering a better answer
As AICPA chair, Bill Reeb will urge members to embrace alternatives to compliance work that’s increasingly being handled by technology.
By Ken Tysiac
Bill Reeb, CPA/CITP, CGMA, grew up believing in tenacity.
His father, a chief warrant officer in the Air Force, taught him that the main difference between people was that some of them give up when they encounter a challenge, and others are not so easily discouraged.
Reeb never met a fight he wasn't willing to take on, according to a comment his martial arts instructor made to him many years ago. But after about 30 years of practicing martial arts, Reeb is looking first for harmony rather than conflict. And he now feels that tenacity must be paired with wisdom and judgment to achieve its best effect.
"With every door that closes, I believe two or three windows open," Reeb said. "And I think you waste a lot of your life trying to kick down a door when there's an easier answer and it's a better answer."
This perspective makes Reeb an ideal person to help lead the accounting profession as the 2019—2020 AICPA chair during this time of change. As Reeb prepares for his inauguration as AICPA chair on May 21, doors seem to be closing on some of the work CPAs perform. Technology is being developed to handle many of the compliance tasks that accountants have skillfully managed for years. Repetitive tax compliance processes, inventory counts, and confirmations are among the many duties that increasingly are being performed through technological means.
But Reeb sees opportunities for CPAs to enjoy new work that will be even more valuable and satisfying than some of the responsibilities or types of engagements they have historically fulfilled. Fortunately, CPAs already have a reputation for performing this kind of work — that of being clients' and employers' most trusted business advisers. There are increasing opportunities for CPAs to provide more companies and clients with valuable advice in areas such as strategy and implementation planning, tax planning, personal financial planning, technology and infrastructure planning, and many other areas.
"As a profession we have been very successful converting complex data into valuable information, whether a tax return, or an audit, or a financial statement," Reeb said. "We have gotten comfortable because the work is mostly technical and we are paid well to do it. We are so busy just getting the products out that this has become the end game. It's not.
"It's just the beginning. And it is critical that we don't pay lip service to being advisers but look for every opportunity every day, starting today, to provide an advisory component to what we do."
FACING EVERY CHALLENGE
As is the case with so many children in military families, Reeb moved every two or three years as a child. Each move required Reeb to prove himself, to find his place, and to fight the boys who were inclined to ridicule the new kid in town.
"The new guy got picked on until you basically held your ground and people realized that you would hold your ground," Reeb said. "All you were looking for is to be left alone. You weren't looking to be king of the hill or something. You're just trying to be left alone."
As an adult, Reeb has turned fighting into a discipline and has earned a black belt in six forms of martial arts. His willingness to confront every challenge has helped him forge a successful career as a consultant.
His path to the CPA was a nontraditional one. He worked 40 hours a week driving a beer truck and later a milk truck while he attended college full time. After graduating from what's now known as Texas State University, Reeb worked for IBM in sales in the late 1970s. He left IBM, taking three of his peers with him, to start his first entrepreneurial venture and started a computer consulting firm that quickly landed multiple Fortune 500 companies as clients.
Reeb has founded seven small businesses — the computer consulting firm, two women's clothing stores, a computer software store, a software development firm, a CPA firm, and finally Succession Institute LLC, his current management consulting firm. He has written or co-authored numerous magazine articles, newspaper columns, and books (two on succession and one on improving your trusted adviser skills), including his newest book, The Overachiever's Guide to Getting Unstuck: Replan, Reprioritize, Reaffirm.
He earned his CPA in 1986 after observing and admiring the work that accountants performed as auditors, tax preparers, and advisers to his clients while Reeb was leading software development projects. Although the accountants didn't provide services in the area of work he was performing, he was impressed by the respect the CPAs had earned and the desire of his clients to seek their opinions as either advisers or confidants on almost every topic of importance.
The CPA credential has served Reeb well while consulting during his career as he has traveled throughout the United States and Canada to give speeches and advice to executives and CPAs.
"He always wants to make sure that we as a profession are staking out our position in the marketplace," said Dom Cingoranelli, CPA, CGMA, Reeb's longtime partner at Succession Institute. "He's very dialed in to that. He keeps an eye on it and is constantly looking at what we in the profession need to do to stay relevant as we go into the future, and to prepare our members for it."
Reeb lives in Austin, Texas, with his wife, Michaelle Cameron, Ph.D., MBA. His daughter, Cheri Martz, and daughter-in-law, Letitia Liamero, live nearby with his grandson, Marco Martz, who has inherited Reeb's skill and affinity for martial arts. "In 40 years of our school, we've had one kid black belt ... and my grandson may be the second if he stays with it for the next three or four years," Reeb said proudly.
Reeb's goals for his time as chair revolve around preparing CPAs to change the priority of the services they offer so that they will be better positioned to take the profession to the next level of success in the future. He is encouraging CPAs to:
Embrace new skills. "Let go of what you think you know," he said. That is one of the mantras stated every day in class by his martial arts master, John Blankenship. "And if you start there, then you're going to be open to different ideas," Reeb said. "You will be more comfortable changing the way you work and what you do. Nobody grows when they already believe they are as good as they need to be."
Evolve from compliance to advisory roles in their service offerings. "It's more rewarding," Reeb said. "It motivates you to get up in the morning. It's challenging, but exceptionally enjoyable. But most important, you make a difference every day for the people you engage with."
Prepare the next generation with mentoring and reverse mentoring. "We have to do a better job of taking the people we have and developing them," he said.
Reeb has always believed he needed to make his own opportunities. He decided he wanted to write for the Austin American-Statesman newspaper in Texas, so he called up the editor and volunteered. Soon he was writing a Sunday column on business issues. Later, he called the local TV station to say he wanted to do a weekly business segment on the evening news. It wasn't long before he was hired to do that, too.
Now, as a consultant and an adviser, Reeb strongly advocates to every CPA, with the exception of auditors limited by independence requirements, regardless of whether they are in business and industry, education, government, or public practice, that their road to future promotions and success — due to technology's continually usurping much of the compliance work being done by the profession — will need to come through advisory skills.
"The good news is that they are either currently ready to do this work, or they can quickly skill up to do it, as soon as they make delivering advice a priority," he said.
"Our skill set as an adviser has never been more valuable or more needed in the marketplace."
FRANK DISCUSSIONS AND A BIG HEART
In his consulting work, Reeb devotes himself to his passion for helping others succeed. His CPA practice management services help firms navigate the difficult issues related to partner and employee accountability, billing, change management and strategy, partner compensation, and leadership. As the name of his firm suggests, he is especially eager to help firms and businesses create and execute effective succession plans, particularly at a time when members of the Baby Boomer generation are leaving the workforce with a leadership void that needs to be filled.
Although this is enjoyable work, it's not for the faint of heart. It requires frank discussions with firm and business leaders about what they need to change. Reeb is not afraid to tell people his opinion even when it is in direct opposition to what they want to hear, and he is happy to share the steps they need to take to improve. But he also doesn't pretend he knows everything or has a magic crystal ball. One of his favorite sayings is, "I am wrong all the time." His transparent approach of not running away from obstacles while also trying to find solutions in harmony with the firm's culture creates a level of trust that leads many of his clients to consider him a close friend.
"He comes across pretty directly, pretty in-your-face at times," Cingoranelli said. "At the same time, he's a man with a big heart — he cares about people. He's a wonderful human being."
When Reeb enters the martial arts studio, he sees two prominent signs on the wall. One says, "Be Silent." The other says, "Be Serious." The signs describe the demeanor everyone is expected to adopt as they practice. "Before I start to work out and engage with my martial arts family, I meditate to make sure my mind and body are committed to the level of concentration and intensity required, with my heart in the right place," Reeb said. He is a senior black belt in the tao wu hsian hua (way of infinite transformation) system, which incorporates comprehensive aspects of tae kwon do, karate, hapkido, kung fu, and tai chi. His practice of these arts carries through into his work as a CPA and consultant.
"He has an incredible focus and probably more emotional intelligence than anyone I know," said Tommye Barie, CPA, a former AICPA chair who recently joined Succession Institute as a partner. "And the discipline he learns through his martial arts training to me is evident in every aspect of his life."
Reeb said students attending Blankenship Martial Arts, where he is one of the instructors, are taught to take advantage of whatever opportunities present themselves, which applies in combat as well as every interaction in life. For example, in a physical confrontation, a larger combatant determined to use size to his or her advantage might find size converted to a weakness as the smaller competitor uses quickness and precision to neutralize the bigger opponent. Or a competitor who decides to start a conflict intending to pin an opponent's arm is likely to become vulnerable to many different, match-ending countermoves as soon as the attempt is made to pin the arm when it was not in position to be compromised in the first place.
"What you have to learn is another mantra within our school, 'Take what's given,'" Reeb explained. "You can easily be so focused on executing your plan in a vacuum that you end up missing opportunities that are far better and easier to exploit to your advantage. Keep your eyes open, look at what is happening around you, don't let fear get in your way. Stop trying to prevent what is coming directly toward you, and start harnessing the existing momentum of change that can take you to a new level of success."
Reeb has a similar message for CPAs. If the evolution of the business world takes away the chance to perform some of their most familiar and comfortable services, it also offers other opportunities to take their place. It may take some retraining and acceptance of change, but the evolution can easily result in a better future.
He believes embracing change and becoming change agents for the profession is a responsibility for those who consider themselves leaders of the profession. And while Reeb knows successfully traveling the road ahead will require tenacity and courage, he also believes that CPAs need to "let go of what they think they know" and "take what is given," so they can provide the kind of vibrant, resilient, respected, and opportunity-rich profession that previous CPA leaders transitioned to the current generation.
"If you aren't embracing the change that is clearly upon us and committed to being part of the evolution we need to make as a profession, then you are saying to those who follow you that you are OK with leaving them a profession in far worse shape than what you inherited from the courageous leaders before you," Reeb said. "I am not OK with that message. This isn't about us as individuals; it is about us as a profession. And we need to be as tenacious and courageous as those who came before us to ensure the sustainable success of our profession."