In my 30 years of being a CPA, I’ve gone from a family small business accounting practice to being a head of tax at a multinational corporation. Both—in fact, all—accounting positions require an extraordinary investment of time and an honest assessment of one’s strengths and shortcomings.

Finding the Right Path

Many CPAs work both in and out of public accounting during their careers. Such has been my journey, including tenures in the family practice and corporate operations.

I believe that the key to my success has been acquiring particular expertise at each position I have undertaken. In college, I gained a solid understanding of basic corporate, partnership, and individual taxation—supplementing the record keeping, reporting, and sales and payroll tax skills I learned working with my father.

My first three years out of college found me in a New York City–based regional accounting firm involved with large audit attest engagements, tax research and preparation, financial transactions modeling, and accounting systems implementations. Many of the firm’s managers wanted me for their jobs and research projects. Good managers recognize and reward good talent, and young staff should recognize the value of these relationships.

Due to a family emergency, I left the path I was on to join my father’s practice, this time as a college graduate with outside experience. I was tasked with the reconstructing of destroyed paper records, and then moving the former processes to computerized records and tax preparation. This was not something that I had planned on or desired, nor was it an easy task for someone of my experience.

When working for my father in the family practice, several of his homegrown clients had become leaders in their industries. As a staff accountant, I had gathered a basic understanding of how to help these growing businesses minimize their tax burden and implement the accounting systems needed for reporting.

At the time, tax preparation programs and web-based tax research products were in their infancy. As an NYSSCPA member, I was granted access to another firm’s tax research library and was able to gather the knowledge required to prepare several consolidated and combined tax return groups. Such expertise at the time was mostly limited to firms larger than ours, and I was able to provide these services at a fraction of their fees.

After an 11-year tenure in the family practice, I sought expertise in international tax and finance. My skill set enabled me to accept freelancing assignments to expand into publicly traded and international tax matters. These experiences led me to my first in-house position as a U.S. tax manager of a multinational corporation. This opportunity enabled me to apply my skills to a single concern, and continue to learn the big picture from senior tax professionals. These experiences added invaluable knowledge in the areas of transfer pricing, intangible properties, global team-work, and enterprise reporting systems.

Due to my employer’s struggles in a difficult economy, I returned to public accounting to start a practice with the former managing partner of my former employer. I was back on familiar ground, building a tax practice from the ground up and co-managing a small firm that serviced mid-market businesses and their high-net-worth principals. I was able to apply sophisticated international tax knowledge to these expanding clients. It was at this stage where I had learned how to truly service clients/business partners and gain respect through good communication skills and professional integrity.

A long-term public accounting career is not for everyone; one needs to find a technical niche as well as a home to practice it. One trait of many accountants is the need to solve all of the problems, all of the time. Continuous tax and audit seasons cannot be undertaken without the commitments of these professionals. Like a doctor in practice, these CPAs enjoy assisting and serving many different clients. Although I found being the go-to person for clients very rewarding, I found I was spreading myself too thin.

As had occurred before, at this juncture a respected colleague presented me with a new and challenging opportunity—building a tax department again from the ground up, but this time for a multinational corporation. Its household name brands were historically owned by larger companies and had never had a dedicated accounting/finance/tax department. This became my first corporate head of tax position, with responsibility for all the corporation’s tax-related matters for the United States and Canada. Today’s CPA brings a skill set that needs to fit the expectations of a demanding, ever-changing, international business environment. All CPAs are responsible for getting the word out that accounting is a great career, now and into the future.

Richard Kellner, CPA is the head of tax at Jaguar Land Rover North America, Mahwah, N.J.