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Can a Sole Practitioner CPA Jump to CFO?

Welcome to the two-outof-three-groundhogs-can’t-be-wrong edition of Accounting Career Emergencies. In today’s edition, a CPA with nine years experience as a sole practitioner has CFO aspirations but isn’t having any luck landing interviews. Does her near-decade of running her own shop hurt her desire to rejoin the corporate ranks?

Need advice on your career? Got a co-worker saying nasty things about you? Getting impatient while you wait for the perfect time to start your embezzlement scheme? Email us at [email protected] and we’ll save you from yourself.

Back to the boss:

I am a female CPA in my mid-40s who has been a sole practitioner accountant for the past 9 years. I’m confident, aggressive and customer-focused. Prior to my accounting career, I worked 12 yrs in the Technology industry, for companies like AT&T and Motorola – in positions of increasing responsibility – my last 2 jobs were VP-level. I also have an M.S. and B.S. in Mathematics.

Here’s my dilemma, I would like to re-enter corporate America but this time on the finance side as CFO or Sr. Controller of a private company. I’ve just started talking to accounting/finance recruiters and I’m getting a luke-warm reception to my background. They return my calls, tell me I’m “unique”, but I’m not getting any interviews. I’m wondering if being a sole practitioner is holding me back?

My question for the guru is: what is the perception in the finance & accounting industry of a sole practitioner – are we considered to be a “lesser” form of CPA, unable to perform as a CFO? I’m also wondering how my “accounting as a second career” is perceived? It does appear that most accountants are kind of “born that way”, rather than deciding mid-life to become a CPA, like I have. But what can I say, I always had CFO-envy in my first career, so I decided to pursue my passions, start my own business, get my CPA, and go for what I wanted – one would think that would be looked at positively?

I’m really hoping you can provide some insights. I don’t have any CPAs to talk to, since my main interaction with my peers has been when I take business away from them. And I tried to get career advice from a female mentor program sponsored by my state CPA society – but all they wanted to talk about is flex-time and work/life balance!

In need of a reality check,

Dear In need,

So it sounds like you’re tired of being the boss without having anyone to boss? Or maybe you miss the friendly confines of corporate America? Whatever your motivation, we have a simple question for you: are you nuts? What do you hate most about having your own business? The flexibility? The money? Not having to deal with stupid co-workers? Sigh. Forget our questions, we’re here to help.

Nine years is quite a stretch to have your own practice and from the sounds of it, you’ve been successful and you had a decent run in the corporate world prior to that. Regarding the tepid reaction from recruiters, we’re curious if you’ve pressed them for reasons for the lack of interviews. These people are working for you, don’t forget, and any failure on their part doesn’t reflect very well on their abilities. Get some straight answers out them.

Now, then. The perception that the F&A industry has of sole practitioners is, well…they don’t pay much mind. We’re guessing you’re preparing plenty of tax returns, maybe a few small audits and providing financial advice to your clients. Anyone looking for a CFO wants someone that can lead and run the finance and accounting departments. Despite the twelve years of experience you have in the corporate world, your most recent experience has been working for yourself and serving clients. Not much management experience (from an f&a function or employee perspective) there. It’s not that you’re “unable to perform” but your track record doesn’t really demonstrate that you’ve been working towards that goal. Furthermore, small company CFOs these days are taking on more responsibilities including IT and HR decisions. Chances are most companies will hold out for someone with the total package. Or at least a package more complete than yours. We’re not trying to discourage you but we do see a disconnect between your experience and the position you desire.

That said, there is no shortage of small companies that need CFOs and controllers. Be sure you’re using an executive recruiting firm to assist you in your search and ask them honestly if your background is problematic.

One other thing to consider: maybe shop around to the CPA firms in your area that wouldn’t mind having your book of business. Perhaps they’d be interested in admitting you as a partner in their firm. It’s not exactly in line with your goals but it could pave the way if your CFO search runs into a dead end. Good luck.