"You must be good with numbers." Phillip Cheung, a Maryland-based CPA, has heard the common refrain, but the work of accountants and auditors can't be boiled down to those six words.
"You do have to be good with numbers, but there is a component to this that affects the calculation of numbers, and it’s the memorization of tax law, so you know how the numbers will calculate."
Cheung, a managing member of Gregory & Associates, LLC in Ocean City, Md., told ValuePenguin: "A lot of times, in my line of business, I know what I’m expecting an outcome to be, but it’s that show-your-work mentality that usually loses a lot of people."
Cheung gave us a run-down of the path to becoming a professional accountant, and we did our best to follow along.
*This interview was condensed for clarity.
It was the 11th grade in high school, when I had a beginning bookkeeping class. Being that I already really did have an enthusiasm for math, but I don’t think I had that enthusiasm to take me in the direction of shapes, into geometry. I was more into statistics. I didn’t have that interest as much as knowing that the accounting realm was good with numbers and that everything had its place.
There were always the inherent checks and balances in the system that has been tested over time. A deduction here equals… the double-entry system is what drew me in on the bookkeeping side. We had a teacher that, I think, had a reputation that things have to be done a certain way, and I was up to that challenge.
Knowing that, what was your college plan?
I thought, having two years of preparation for accounting, that college was going to be just an extension of that. But I actually had to take a step back and think, it’s not as easy. So college did offer, or present itself, different challenges in the learning environment, which I think is what adapted my whole personality, in that there is something to learn every day.
I chose Salisbury University and declared my major right away. There were some times where you felt like, "Man, is this really what I want to do?" Like you’re butting your head against a brick wall. But it was definitely something that you had to persevere and really evaluate, "How bad do I really want it?"
You start with the theory, or Accounting 101. It’s basically a review of what I had taken in high school, so it was coming pretty easy to me, and I was getting the confidence in college in those early-level classes. As we then progressed to the next level, that’s when the challenges began. Knowing that you’ve really got to get serious with this studying if you’re going to do every accomplishment and graduate on time.
There were some mid-level classes with another teacher whose reputation was, "I’m going to put you to task, you’ve got to get through me to get to the finish line." And I made it through, and it definitely feels better on the other side of when you pass that class, knowing that now you’re another step closer to your goal.
Of all the options, how did you choose the tax side of accounting?
Funny you should mention that, because I’m actually considering a different specialization that would very much complement the practice that I have built so far in my career. I think the key to success — long-term success in a career path — has always been, knowledge gets you in the door, but specialization is going to help keep you progress and become more of a key player in a firm atmosphere, in a team atmosphere.
Early on in college, I was introduced — and, again, this goes back to the core curriculum for satisfying the needs to get the bachelor’s degree — to the idea that you had to be exposed to the education requirements for auditing and government accounting. I wasn’t really interested in the government and the auditing aspect, as I was with the tax aspect. That’s why I chose to continue through and pursue my career through the tax realm of accounting.
How different or similar was the educational path for the interns and junior accountants who work for you now?
The last few years, I know that our profession, and the advocates for our profession with the AICPA [American Institute of Certified Public Accountants], has guaranteed, or has raised the bar, so to speak, with the educational requirements. Mandating that there are a certain number of core curriculum hours in the accounting education curriculum, that the accounting students, in order to achieve their Bachelor’s degree, have to endure.
Basically, it requires, if you’re going to go the CPA route, the colleges, in order to get an accounting degree, require the five-year degree. So it's back to the adage that every day presents a learning experience, and I feel that these students that are going through the accounting program today are better prepared for the working world.
Back to your path. After graduating in 1997, what was your next step?
That next step, after walking across the stage and receiving my diploma, ended up becoming an entry-level junior staff accountant with a local, small CPA firm. That gave me more in-depth knowledge on that hands-on experience, and getting to the point where I can relate to things I studied in school but apply them in the professional setting.
My university, Salisbury University, prepares its students for that next step after graduation with a nice program for relating business-track minded students with after-college scenarios and relationships. And that’s the biggest thing: they’re already pairing the students up with potential mentors for down the road.
I now experience this on the employer side. This past year, the incoming business students were treated to a tour of a local business here in town, and a speech from a panel of business owners in town, of which I was one. We got to be able to speak to the incoming freshman students that are accounting-minded, or marketing-minded, or just small business administration-minded, to talk a little more in-depth in a more one-one-one atmosphere.
And there are times where we would bring on a student from the university to serve as an intern here with us at certain times of the year.
Back in the day, what was your experience gaining your CPA license?
Going through college, knowing that the track was going to be with my office and preparing more in the realm of taxes, I knew I wanted to achieve, or to gain the CPA accreditation. It was a very tough process, and preparation is key. Just like when you’re approaching graduation from the university, preparation is key. Taking a lot of the preparation courses so that I could successfully pass the exam. Back when I had to take the exam, it was more manual in nature, with lead pencils and Scantron sheets, where you fill in the bubble, A-B-C, and handwriting the answers to the questions.
Nowadays the tests, I feel the students are more prepared for the exams. It’s more accessible for today’s students; more frequent testing times, whereas back in the day when I took the exam, the test was only available twice a year.
Was the difficulty of the exam comparable to college tests you had taken?
It was a very intense exam. The amount of information that was on the exam covered every facet. It was five parts at the time. So you had to pass the five parts that were offered within a two-day window, or two-and-a-half day window. Whereas, today’s exam is focused on one part: you schedule your exam time, you choose the part you’re going to sit for; if you pass, you pass.
But I believe that today’s exam is much more in-depth than it has been in the past. And our profession has become much more global in nature. There’s a lot more content than just what happens in the U.S.
For me, it was one of the barometers in the steps of my profession: "How bad do I want it?" And it wasn’t an easy road. Once I got the grades — that I had passed the exam — it was quite a relief. There was a mentor of mine who had just told me, "You’ll be so much happier when you pass the exam. Just put your life on hold and get it done."
I put my life on hold for it, but I can remember, because I was working for a tax firm, I can remember getting up at 6 a.m.; going to work; working until 8, 9, 10 p.m; driving home; studying until 12, 1 a.m.; getting back up, and repeating the daily events. And on Saturdays, I'd study for the exam for four, five hours a night, and on Sunday afternoons.
How did you transition to managing member of Gregory & Associates?
When I first started at the firm out of college, I had a great mentor who helped me along the way. Every step along the way, I defined some goals for myself, knowing that the tax profession is where I’d like to have a long career. An opportunity arose, here with this firm, in that I started in at a little bit higher than entry-level position, since I already had five years’ experience. The promise, with my interview here at this office, was that the sky’s the limit; you can go as far as you want, we will support you.
That’s where, in five years, I became a junior partner at the firm. I kept growing, and growing, and doing more, taking on more responsibility for the office, and managing our clients, and working together in collaboration with our team, with all of our client needs. Until one day I became the major partner, the managing partner, of the office.
How has a day in your work life changed as you've moved up the ladder?
As a junior-level accountant, you’re instructed, "Here’s the work that needs to be done, do it in this manner." You walk in the door — especially during tax season, January through April — you walk in the door, you have your tasks all ready to go for the day. You may be just sorting through paperwork, organizing paperwork so that it flows seamlessly on a tax return; and that would comprise most of my day.
As I became entrusted with more and more responsibilities, I was able to actually speak to clients. When I had a question or a need, I was able to pick up the phone and talk to the clients. I became more responsible on a client satisfaction basis. They found security in my advice, so that the personal service aspect of the accounting services that we provide became, I think, more of a priority in our clients’ eyes.
That’s what I really enjoyed doing so much, that clients were happy working with me. They were able to come into the office, we were able to grow our practice, and able to bring in more junior-level accountants to do what I had done, and to be successful, give them the opportunity to be successful, to take a career as far as they would choose.
How do you promote similar growth in your entry-level accountants?
On day one, we provide an employee manual that describes our positions here in the firm. We have a junior and we have a senior — junior accountant, senior accountant — then a manager, then we have a junior partner. Along the way, the employee manual always defines, what are the titles and what are the expectations? I think you’d find that across the board in all professions, not specific to accounting.
And I think communication is really the key in a good working environment. I know that we, all too often, are working 60, 70 hours, 80 hours a week, January through April, to get tax filing done. Along the way, you still have to communicate to be able to keep a direction, and keep a goal in mind, as an organization.
How is continuing education done in your office to ensure that your accountants maintain their CPA status?
Our licenses are issued by the state, and the states require CPAs to have 80 hours every renewal period, which in our state is two years, to renew your license. Because we do not want to put ourselves in a bind for not being able to renew our license, we mandate a 40-hours-per-year continuing education requirement.
We also want to look at the character and the content of the continuing education, to make sure that we are being able to better prepare ourselves for our clients’ needs every year. So if it’s a class towards estate taxes, or trust taxes, we will do that. Tax law changes every year — or we can expect tax law to change every year — so we want to make sure that we’re up to date on our tax law education.
But there are some changes in some of the other services that we provide that have been impacted by some of the changes that have been happening globally. And so we want to make sure that we’re up to date on those requirements as well.
It should be said: I chose the CPA path for my career, but there are plenty of other folks that may go the college route that might not decide the CPA route is best for them. There is a place here for them in the field, with different responsibilities and different tasks.
We even have some employees that did not go to college, but they’re here. Every person here is very critical. They have their role, and they take their role seriously. The one goal in mind is that it’s providing a service for our clients, with professional integrity, and with the professional courtesy that the CPA umbrella covers our office.