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January 9, 2017 Focus: Professional Services

Top business lobbyist takes reins of CT CPA Society

PHOTO | Pablo Robles Bonnie Stewart, incoming executive director of the Connecticut Society of CPAs.
Art Renner, Connecticut Society of CPAs.

Looking back on his 20 years at the helm of the Connecticut Society of CPAs, Art Renner realizes how much has changed in his industry. “When I got started [with the Society] in 1996, the internet was in its infancy,” Renner recalled. “Today, the volume and speed of information in our industry is light years different than back then.”

And, like many business sectors, those new realities and increasing consumer expectations are driving changes to an accounting industry — and a Connecticut CPA association — that's trying to keep up. They are challenges that Renner says his successor, longtime Connecticut Business and Industry Association (CBIA) lobbyist Bonnie Stewart who succeeds Renner this month, will need to address moving forward.

Key among those challenges is technology. In fact, a recent report released by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants noted the importance of the accounting industry staying current with mobile technologies and social media to enhance interactions with clients and colleagues with real-time financial information.

“Technology can help us work smarter, quicker and more efficiently,” Stewart said. “And that's an important part of attracting today's Millennials [to the industry] who place a premium on work/life balance and flexibility.”

But technology has also introduced a new layer of competition into the sector that makes it imperative for organizations — like the Society of CPAs — to demonstrate their value. “In the mid-1990s, our members might call each other to get insights,” Renner said. “Today, they might start with a Google search for an answer.”

And the need for answers — even among CPAs — has grown significantly over the past 20 years as the tax code has ballooned to more than 77,000 pages. “The industry is as complex as it has ever been and demand for specialized knowledge, especially among more sophisticated clients, is increasing,” said Renner. “It's important to find a niche today.”

And in a globally interconnected economy with multinational clients, Stewart said, it's not just U.S. tax laws CPAs may need to understand. “[In some cases], it's important to be aware of accounting rules and standards in other countries,” she said.

It is, in part, the complexity of the accounting industry that attracted Stewart to the Connecticut Society of CPAs. “The organization, under Art's leadership, has a strong history of advocacy, community, and education,” Stewart said. “And those are three areas that are passions of mine.”

In a world of increased time pressures among CPAs, Stewart said she understands the need to continue to offer programming that has a strong return on investment. “I want to help our members expand leadership skills and strategic planning,” she said. She also is looking for opportunities to groom the next generation of public accountants. “There's a lot of outreach [in the profession] to colleges,” Stewart explained, “but I'd like to see that expanded to high schools like the manufacturing sector has done successfully in Connecticut.”

For his part, Renner is confident that the organization he is leaving behind and the accounting sector in general are well positioned for future growth. “The Connecticut Society is one of the best in the country and I'm proud that over the course of my 20 years, we've removed some of the impediments to being a CPA in our state,” he said.

Two decades later, Renner is encouraged by the state of the accounting sector. “There is strong demand [for accounting services] and that's good for full employment [in the sector],” he said. “But Connecticut still has among the highest fees to license a CPA practice in the country, so work remains.”

And he hopes that the state's Society of CPAs will play a lead role in that work. “The organization has to help people get back to basics, and help young people understand the value of a good network,” he said. “It's more than just retweeting an original tweet.”

With nearly 35 years in the industry, Renner has some advice for the next generation of public accountants who will enter an industry vastly different than the one he started in. “Identify an area of accounting where you're happiest and most satisfied and be your best at that,” he said. “If you're too broad [in your focus], it'll slow you down.”

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