Adding it up: N.J. Society of CPAs’ Thomas reflects on his leadership tenure as he prepares for his next step

Ralph Thomas. (File photo)

We didn’t come here to stay.

That’s a favorite adage for Ralph Thomas, who credits it to his mother. It’s what he starts off with when explaining why now’s the right time to leave behind his role as CEO and executive director of the New Jersey Society of Certified Public Accountants.

He served in that capacity for 24 years. His time there set the table for a once tucked-away trade group advancing the interests of a niche industry to become the state’s largest professional organization, one that holds sway among the state’s biggest power players.

That might be enough reason to stay. But he’s not going to.

The accounting group announced last fall that Thomas would be retiring as of June 30. ROI-NJ caught up with Thomas before the end of his tenure with the organization and had him reflect on his time there, as well as what still lies ahead.

ROI-NJ: How do you feel about the state of things at the organization you’re retiring from? What do you view as your legacy during your time there?

Ralph Thomas: I feel good about where we’re leaving the organization. When I came, we were viewed as just a tax and audit group. We didn’t have a seat at the table. That was one of my major goals, to ensure we were having our voices heard as an organization, like the (New Jersey) Chamber (of Commerce) or the (New Jersey Business & Industry Association).

We’ve done a pretty good job in that regard, and earned great respect from the members of the Legislature and, frankly, the administration, because they’ve come to us to ask our opinion on things and we’ve given it.

What helped was doing these member surveys to get feedback about what was happening with our members’ clients and sharing that with state leaders. That’s where we’ve built a great bond, particularly with the former Senate President (Stephen Sweeney) and his staff. There was an information exchange between them and us, who they felt was an objective organization, not out to twist anything or promote a particular agenda. We made sure when doing surveys to give them an opportunity to weigh in. And they asked when there were things happening if they could get a touch-point with our members. That’s been great for our members, who feel more valued and that voices are being heard through the state society.

We’ve also gotten a seat at the table with the chamber. I’m on the board there. There hadn’t been a member from the society on it previously. And we’ve worked with them very religiously on things we’re looking at.

ROI: What was one of the biggest challenges your organization, and the profession as a whole, faced while you were at the helm?

RT: Looking at the profession as a whole, it’s no secret (accounting student) enrollments are way down. One thing we’re going to have to work on is having a different voice, if you will, about what today’s CPA profession is. What people come away with is that it’s just about tax. They don’t always understand other things done in today’s accounting environment. So, our colleagues nationwide are all working on the question of: ‘How do we do a better job of attracting young people to this profession?’

Because we have stiff competition with something like technology, where everyone wants to be. That’s why we’re trying to get this considered a STEM initiative, which would allow for the help, like the financial support on a federal and statewide basis given to those other disciplines, for those majoring in accounting.

There’s a lot of work to do. In fact, I was just down in (Washington) D.C. last week talking to members of Congress about the decline in accounting enrollments and the effect that will have. Hopefully that’ll resonate and they’ll be supportive of legislation that’s pending on that issue.

ROI: What does the future hold for you … and does it involve a lot of golf?

RT: You’ve hit the nail on the head there. People have approached me about doing certain things, but I do want to work on my golf game, as a big fan of it.

I do also want to make sure that folks have a better understanding of the profession, as I said before. One of my goals is to get more students of color interested in the profession. If you look at the businesses in New Jersey that will make up the CPAs’ client pool — especially among small businesses, there’s going to be a lot of women and people of color who want people to serve them that look like them. But there needs to be an impact made on getting more folks of color and women of color in the profession. Women have done great, and the amount of accountants who are women has grown a lot since data has been taken. But folks of color have not. Accounting organizations have surveyed this going back to 1968, when only 3% of CPAs in the industry were folks of color. And guess what? It’s still the same number today. To me, something is not working.

So, that’s what’s inspiring me to get out there promoting the profession, letting people know that this profession, more than audit and tax, is about being strategic partners with those clients CPA serve. We still have, unfortunately, generations of folks of color whose parents haven’t gone to school. And I think that’s one of the things I want to work on. Everyone’s asking me, ‘What do you want to do next?’ I want to make a dent there. I want a double-digit percentage of folks of color who are CPAs.

ROI: As you depart the role you’ve been in for more than two decades, is there work left unfinished that you expect will remain organizational priorities past your time there?
RT: I hope we’ll continue to be viewed as having a seat at the table down in Trenton. As I said some time ago, when Stephen Sweeney was still president of the state Senate, ‘If you really want to know what’s happening in the state, who better than to ask CPAs?’ We touch pretty much every constituency in the Garden State. We were straight shooters, and came with data. He appreciated that. That was all a result of ending up on various committees in Trenton.

So, I hope that legislators will continue to reach out to us about what we’re thinking and what we’re hearing, as a strategic partner. We’ll have to continue to get more kids more interested in being accountants. Numbers are down now. But we’re hoping to change that dynamic by some of the innovative things our profession is doing today.

(New NJCPAs CEO Aiysha Johnson) is a dynamic individual and I think she’ll do an outstanding job here at the society. And she’s an African American female. She’ll be the first African American female in the country to head a state society, just as I was the African American male back 24 years ago. So, we’re making some progress.