Ralph Thomas is retiring as head of NJCPAs — but he’s not changing his focus

Longtime CEO and thought leader offers views on state of profession — and new way he wants to influence it

Ralph Thomas. (File photo)

It’s no surprise that Ralph Thomas has his retirement plan all mapped out. After all, he is an accountant.

Of course, if you know Thomas, it’s also not surprising to learn that his retirement plan involves accounting. Or, more specifically, working to improve the profession and those who choose to pursue it.

Thomas, who is announcing Wednesday that he is formally retiring as the longtime CEO of the New Jersey Society of Certified Public Accountants, is hoping to find a role where he can mentor the next generation of the profession. A generation that he hopes will include more people of color.

Thomas would like to move to the Raleigh-Durham area of North Carolina. A region that not only is home to many of he and his wife, Valerie’s, longtime friends, but also a number of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (including North Carolina Central, North Carolina A&T and Winston-Salem State).

“I think maybe I could be an executive in residence with a business program or an accounting program,” he said. “That’s one of the big pushes that we have been doing at the society, trying to get more folks of color and ethnicity engaged in becoming a CPA and majoring in accounting.

“I think if they saw somebody that that looks like them, someone who had a nice career in the profession, that would be helpful.”

Thomas, whose last day will be next June 30, still has time to get ready. Of course, he’s been preparing for some time.

Thomas has been selected for the last eight years by Accounting Today as one of the “Top 100 Most Influential People in Accounting.”

He also has been a big supporter of the NJCPA Scholarship Fund, which has awarded more than $7 million since its inception in the 1960s, while improving diversity, equity & inclusion in the accounting profession.

Under his leadership, the scholarship program was expanded to assist additional students of color through the Deloitte Minority High School Scholarships, the introduction of sophomore awards to attract interest from those students attending two-year colleges, and other awards in conjunction with the American Institute of CPAs and the Northern New Jersey chapter of the National Association of Black Accountants.

More than that, Thomas has been the voice for more than 13,000 members, speaking externally at panels and in the media on the importance of the profession — and speaking internally to the members about how they can have greater impact and relevance in the business world.

Thomas, who took over the CEO role in November 1999, recently spoke with ROI-NJ about all this and more, in anticipation of the announcement. Here’s a bit of the conversation, edited for space and clarity.

ROI-NJ: Talk about how the profession has changed since you became the head of the NJCPAs.

Ralph Thomas: The profession is changing a lot. When I came into this position, 22 years ago, we were really viewed as tax and audit people. The profession is now much more than that. I see us as strategic advisers to firms and their clients. We’re helping them make decisions.

ROI: Those advisory services are going to more than just business clients. Under your leadership, NJCPAs has become a trusted source of information for elected officials, too. How did that come about?

RT: I really wanted us to be viewed as a real resource, so I focused on being a resource to the Legislature and other organizations. I think that’s something we’ve done a good job at.

We were the only organization on the Path to Progress committee with former state Senate President Steve Sweeney. I think that made people in the Legislature and the administration understand that we could be a real resource to them on economic issues.

Firms now have large advisory services groups. There’s really been a dynamic shift in terms of what CPAs do in today’s environment. And it’s come at a pivotal time.

ROI: How so?

RT: You’re seeing big changes. Private equity firms are coming in because they realize we are not just tax and audit services. That’s a big difference from when I entered the profession back in 1977. I’m not sure how that is going to impact the profession: Are they buying in because they see an opportunity, and if the opportunity starts to dwindle, are they going to get out? I think it’s just a wait-and-see situation.

‘The Accountant’

Ralph Thomas, the soon-to-be-retiring head of the New Jersey Society of CPAs, wants desperately to change the narrative around the accounting profession. Hollywood isn’t helping. The 2016 film, “The Accountant,” starring Ben Affleck, is not what Thomas has in mind.

“He’s an accountant — and an assassin,” Thomas said with a laugh. “I’m not sure that’s how we want to be portrayed.”

We’re also seeing a tremendous amount of mergers. That’s probably a good thing. Back in the day, firms used to compete, and they were probably their own worst enemy, because they would ultimately be bidding down the price. That’s changed. Now, there are a lot of bigger players. There’s always been the Big Four, but now we’re in the environment where we have seven firms that are in the billion-dollar revenue range.

You will always have the small one-, two- and three-man firms, but I think we’ll see some more mergers in the future.

ROI: If these firms can find accountants to work. Talk about what firms need to do to attract the next generation?

RT: I think we need to tell a different story about being a CPA or being an accountant. That old story about not seeing your family for months during tax season is not going to cut it. That’s not the narrative that we need to portray. We need to show a career that is exciting and has growth possibilities.

Firms are realizing they need to be more competitive with their starting salaries and they are realizing that today’s generation doesn’t want to wait 10-15 years before they get into the partnership. If the opportunity exists, they need to be rewarded sooner rather than later.

The good thing is that we have more firms now stepping up to the plate, trying to change the culture. They realize they are competing with private industry — and other professions. We need to address that.

ROI: How do you do that?

RT: I’m not aware of any middle school that has an accounting program or talks about being an accountant. But they talk about being a doctor or a lawyer or any number of other careers. By the time they get into high school, a lot of them have chosen a different route.

We’ve got an initiative before Congress to include the accounting profession as a STEM initiative. I think that’s one area where we know we lose out, because young people today who are in these STEM programs get exposed to other opportunities earlier.

ROI: This takes us back to the beginning — and your continuing efforts to build the profession. Especially with people of color. The legal profession now has the Mansfield Rule, in which firms pledge to have a greater representation of women in their firm and in leadership roles. Does accounting need something like that for people of color?

RT: I think it does. The diversity numbers have been the same since 1968, about 3% or 4%. I was the first person of color to head a state society when I started in 1999 — and there’s only been one more since. It’s just unbelievable.

That’s why we need to do a better job of articulating what CPAs do in today’s environment. That’s why I will continue to work to change the narrative.