Accountants: Going beyond bean counting and pocket protectors

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They’ve been called boring bean counters. They get asked if their favorite fashion accessories are green visors and pocket protectors. They are the butt of jokes on countless websites and their work traits are now slogans on T-shirt and coffee mugs.

They are accountants.

“I’m damn proud of it,” said Tad Goodenbour, certified public accountant and partner with BKD accounting firm, who has worked as an accountant for 30 years and has heard it all.

He must be boring. He must be a hermit. He must be a mathematics nerd.

He’s even heard the jokes: “Why did the accountant cross the road? To bore the people on the other side.”

The profession of accounting has been around since the days of ancient Babylon. And, it seems so has the image of the fastidious accountant poring over spreadsheets and punching buttons on adding machines.

But hey, accountants are people too.

“They are very personable.” said Carl Smith, a retired businessman who had worked with accounting firms for 30 years. “They play golf, they hunt, or whatever most of us do for recreation. The profession has evolved from bookkeeper to CPA, which means they are well versed in tax implication — I guess they were forced out of their shells.”

Boring is not how Cheryl Solze saw her fellow accounting majors back in her college days in Kansas.

“I thought they were the cool people and I wanted to join them — That’s how sick I am,” she said. “They were my kind of people.”

They still are. Solze is a senior tax manager at Stockman Kast Ryan + Co., one of Colorado Springs largest firms, and she loves what she does

“It’s not all black and white,” she said. “There is creativity in it.”

If accountants are viewed as the serious, dry types, it’s because they are dealing with serious issues — people’s personal finances. Accountants are the ones tallying the assets, liabilities, equity, income and expenses. And it all has to add up.

“There is a perverse logic about debits and credits and being able to balance — there is an order to things — that I like,” Goodenbour said. “There is something intriguing about that.”

So, no matter how many lamp shades accountants don at parties in hopes of shaking their old fogy image, there is some truth to the stereotype.

“I tried to leave the profession of accounting a few times,” said Jeff Schneider, accountant with Auer Woodley Hilderbrand & Sanders LLP. “But, I came back — I realized I liked numbers better than people.”

Kerry George, finance manager for the Better Business Bureau of Southern Colorado, said her college accounting classmates were mostly on the nerdy side.

“And, I didn’t have much in common with them,” she said.

She vowed she would not become the visor-wearing type, but, she loved the numbers and solving problems so she happily joined their ranks.

“My husband is an engineer and people have said to us, you must be the most boring couple on the planet,” George said.

She laughs it off and notes that at least she and her husband aren’t lawyers.

Chris Blees, president and CEO of Biggs Koffard Certified Public Accountants, feels there is an underlying compliment in the jests. As the stereotype goes, accountants are obsessed with details. Blees said he’ll take that label.

“The good news is we come across as reliable and trustworthy,” he said.

It’s never funny talking about the current financial hardships of individuals and businesses. And, there hasn’t been much in the financial world to spark a laugh. But, accountants find that there is room to be fun, to laugh about their fuddy-duddy image.

Some accountants even feature the accountant jokes right on their web sites along with financial advice and tax information.

Carolyn Sundahl, a CPA and president of Sundahl and Associates, started her recent presentation in front of the Business Networking International group with some good ol’ accountant humor. “What do you call an accountant seen talking to someone? Popular.”

“Accounting can be dry,” she said. “It can be a hard thing to bring a light mood to.”

It’s true, she said, there are a lot of introverts in the profession. It’s one reason why she got so active in many professional accounting organizations. Accountants, she said, were not very social. She wanted to change that.

“That was my thing, I said, let’s change the world,” she said. “Let’s be more relationship oriented with the clients.”

The dull accountant stereotype is starting to fade, Sundahl said. In recent years, accountants have come out of the back room offices and have taken seats at the table in the corporate environment. Social media is helping the introverts get more interactive with clients too, she said. She’s even met accountants who have embraced the “bean counter” slogan in their marketing campaigns.

“You laugh at yourself,” she said. “You turn it around.”

Blees has used the workaholic stereotype to his advantage. People assume he’s busy in tax season and they lay off with requests, for example, to volunteer.

“It’s March, you can’t expect me to volunteer for that — you know I’m an accountant,” he tells people.

“I get more ski days because of that,” he chuckles.

Maybe Colorado Springs accountants just buck the age-old introverted image, Goodenbour said. In a smaller community like the Springs, he’s met a lot of accountants that aren’t afraid to let their hair down. On casual Fridays, he’s even been known to take off his tie.

“We’re in high demand at parties,” he said.

Ok, he conceded, “Only because they want free advice.”

But, it may be accountants who have the last laugh. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts a 22 percent jump in employment opportunities for accountants between now and 2018.

That’s great news for the record 68,639 U.S. accounting students who graduated in 2010 who are destined to get ribbed for their career choice.

“The stereotypes don’t bug me,” Goodenbour said. “I’ve been called worse things than an accountant.”