CP-A-is-for-anywhere: Alloy Silverstein has realized that where accountants crunch numbers doesn’t really matter, as long as they do it well

    Ren Cicalese, managing shareholder at Alloy Silverstein. (Alloy Silverstein)

    Accounting firm Alloy Silverstein used to get resumes from accountants down the street — or maybe a township or two over.

    Today, the cover letters it receives could double as postcards.

    That’s because, now, it’s welcoming applicants from all over the country. The remote working situation that everyone’s had to accept during the spread of COVID-19 has been the basis of an epiphany for Ren Cicalese, managing shareholder at the small CPA firm.

    “Over the past five or six months, I’ve come to the realization that there’s no difference in an accountant working from Medford, New Jersey; Medford, Massachusetts; or even Medford, Oregon,” he said. “I’m comfortable with someone working anywhere now.”

    The latest job postings from Cicalese’s firm are asking for 100% remote workers. And, if he had to guess what’s going through the heads of others in the industry, he’d expect he’s not alone in considering a come one, come all approach to hiring in the accounting field.

    “I think, especially in accounting, remote working is one of those things where, once staff has started doing it efficiently, people aren’t going to want to go back to working in an office,” he said. “Regardless of what your personal opinions are about remote working … COVID-19 let the genie out of the bottle.”

    In some respects, it shouldn’t be a surprise. Accounting trade associations have been anticipating a shift to remote working in the profession for years, and some of the industry’s more prominent players have touted their work arrangement flexibility for just as long.

    But what has changed — as has happened with trends in many industries — is that the pandemic immensely sped up the timeline of what was expected to be a gradual shift.

    The fact that firms such as Alloy Silverstein have so swiftly embraced remote working comes with implications, including that it’s still paying for an office made to fit a base of employees that don’t live potentially thousands of miles away.

    “I’m paying about $22,000 month to month in my Cherry Hill office for literally four to five people who are actually working there right now,” Cicalese said.

    Cicalese added that his lease would be up for renewal within two years. He could see himself downsizing to about a third of the space he’s currently paying for. And he expects that’ll be true, whether coronaviruses are still dominating the news cycle or not.

    How could he turn down the opportunity to hire top-tier job applicants? He says he’s gotten an impressive array of resumes after opening up the remote work floodgates — often from candidates the firm might not have attracted several years ago.

    “I’ve gotten a lot of good resumes from this,” he said. “The only problem is, they don’t know where our office is located on a map. They think you’re close to New York, so they want New York wages. But that’s not the case in our market.”

    Recruiting is a big deal in the world of accounting. For some smaller firms, it has meant the difference between continuing to stay in business or being procured by a larger firm. Cicalese said the latter option has been a popular choice, leading to a “merger mania” over several years.

    “There’s more partners leaving firms than there are new students coming in to replace them,” he said. “There’s also a middle tier of staff that’s missing. You have high levels of experience at the top end, and some amount of inexperienced staff at the bottom. But that middle layer — the person who has been in the industry for five to seven years — is hard to find.”

    When a partner leaves a smaller firm and there are not enough accountants lined up to take that person’s place, that’s usually enough to start conversations about finding a merger, Cicalese said.  Alloy Silverstein has a couple of accountants in their early 30s that Cicalese expects to hand his keys over to at some point.

    Having remote workers in accounting firms wouldn’t necessarily forestall that trend, but it does have the potential to fill gaps for smaller firms in need of talent that’s regularly in short supply in the industry.

    It’s also not just smaller firms nabbing qualified staffers a couple of layovers’ journey from New Jersey.

    Paula Ferreira of Mazars USA. (Mazars USA)

    At larger firms, remote work arrangements were becoming an increasingly common sight before the pandemic. Paula Ferreira, managing partner in the New Jersey office of global accounting firm Mazars USA, said they’ve embraced this way of working over recent years.

    “Prior to the pandemic, we did have some employees that moved out of the state, and we accommodated and set them up to work remotely in other states,” she said, adding that the firm has “seen a very positive ability to move forward without an impact (with remote work arrangements).”

    They’re skipping the part now where someone starts off in a Garden State base and then continues working as a transplant elsewhere. The firm’s leaders are now comfortable bringing in workers based somewhere else from the start … if only for certain jobs.

    “We do have some positions that require a presence in New Jersey, so it depends on the position,” Ferreira said. “But, especially when it comes to tax positions, we can now hire someone with the right skillset regardless of where they’re located.”

    Ferreira explained that the hiring process, including interviews and onboarding, all has to be done virtually anyway right now. And, when you can weigh resumes against an entire nation of talent, it’s just another reason hiring an all-remote accountant just makes sense.

    That’s not to say accounting firm leaders will find it as easy to manage someone several time zones away as an employee next door.

    “But there is a way to successfully manage a workforce remotely, if you do it right,” Cicalese said.

    Filling the CFO role

    It goes without saying that the pandemic interrupted cash flow for businesses. Cheryl Mucha knows something about that … she wrote the book on it (literally).

    Cheryl Mucha of CFO Your Way LLC. (CFO Your Way LLC)

    The longtime accounting professional and author of a primer on cash flow for business owners also runs an outsourced accounting and chief financial officer consultancy firm, CFO Your Way LLC. And she’s growing her business at a time when many aren’t.

    That’s because, with the pandemic’s impact creating a feast or famine (and mostly famine) environment for businesses, the company she founded in 2012 has a stronger pitch than before: Ditch the six-figure, full-time CFO and let us handle that work.

    “When businesses are having resources run out and having to look at their costs, some are finding they don’t need full-time, on-site accounting services and are choosing to save costs by having firms like ours do the work just as well, or, in some cases, better,” Mucha said.

    Mucha’s small team of five employees offers outsourced CFO services to mostly family-owned businesses with revenues between $3 million and $30 million that need help with bookkeeping and other tasks.

    The upshot of remote work’s proliferation is that on-site accounting tasks have come to a halt — leveling the playing field for outsourced services such as CFO Your Way. The Pompton Plains-based company had already been performing work remotely, through digital accounting platforms.

    And, for small businesses that didn’t have dedicated on-site financial professionals before, the pandemic shutdown has some business owners reconsidering whether they should at least be employing some part-time, virtual help for that work.

    “This has given our target client the time to pause and look at what they’re doing and how they’re doing it,” she said. “And in most cases, they’re realizing that they’re not doing perhaps as well as they should on the financial accounting arm of their business.”