In Memoriam

Remembering Sid Kess

On Sunday, September 17, many in the accounting tax and accounting community lost a longtime expert, mentor, and friend: Sid Kess, who, among his many distinctions and accolades happened to be a member of The CPA Journal’s Editorial Advisory Board and regular columnist. In recognition of all he meant to this publication, the New York State Society of CPAs, and the wider professional world, the editors assembled this section of reflections and tributes from just a small sample of those people whose careers and lives he touched. He will be sorely missed and dearly remembered

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Since Sid Kess’s funeral, I have been reflecting about what I wanted to write about this CPA giant, mentor, and special friend. He meant so much to me personally and many others. Having served the profession for over 60 years, at age 97 he was ready to moderate this October’s annual NY UJA tax conference and finalize next summer’s AICPA ENGAGE sessions.

There have been tributes in the Trusted Professional, Accounting Today, and many other places about Sid’s accolades, having earned every award the world of taxation and especially tax continuing education have to offer, edited the New York Law Journal’s tax column for 50 years, and written and edited hundreds of books. But Sid’s impact on the CPA profession was greater than awards and accolades. He was one of the profession’s foremost innovators, constantly brimming with new, practical ideas, always leading the delivery of education using the latest technology. From audio cassettes, to the AICPA’s iconic video “Kessettes,” to today’s webinars, Sid was a technology pioneer. He was also a master marketer.

Everyone who knew him was lifted by his intellect, wisdom, and friendship, and that smile. He treated all, from billionaires to doormen at his Rockefeller Center office, with the same warmth, kindness, and respect. It was not unusual to have a meeting in his office and being asked to wait by his assistant Sherry Eisner and later Rose Ann Beni. The wait would often be for Sid helping someone, perhaps preparing a building employee’s tax return at no charge.

His contact list was enormous, including experts in every relevant field, friends, fellow Harvard Law graduates now in key places in business and government, and so many more. When Sid asked an expert to speak at a Kess conference, almost all said “yes,” no matter how famous or busy. He loved discovering and advancing new expert speakers. There are so many now-renowned experts, names we all know, whose speaking careers began at a Kess conference. He loved finding people jobs. When I worked at the NYSSCPA, I would periodically get a call from Sid asking if I knew someone who could be a quick emergency replacement speaker or telling me about a CPA who needed a job and asking if I would help find the right firm. The answer was always “yes.” You did not want to say “no” to him.

He motivated everyone he met to do their best. When Sid first spent meaningful time with someone, he would learn enough about that person to use his uncanny ability to understand that person’s strengths. He then recommended customized approaches each person could take towards career advancement, including mine. I was on an NYSSCPA committee, but was never active beyond that. He set up a meeting with legendary Executive Director Bob Gray, who then went out of his way to make me more visible at the Society. Several years later, Bob asked if I would temporarily leave practice and help him accomplish some things at the Society that we both cared about. This temporary stint became 14 years, culminating with Governor Mario Cuomo’s request to Bob and me for the Society to participate in a public-private revenue estimating partnership to enact an LLC law. With the participation of over 1,000 NewYork CPAs plus government officials, the Society was able to “certify” the revenue neutral estimate, enabling the LLC law’s passage. Sid’s encouragement throughout this process helped us get across the finish line.

Sid recognized skills in people they didn’t see in themselves. After several years at the Society, he told me he knew I could help Bob create important Society professional programs. With Jim Craig, Jim Woehlke, and other CPAs on staff, Joanne Barry directing communications, and so many great CPA member leaders, we built a great team. At minimal cost, we created great programs that helped members. One of my favorites was working directly with Sid in the creation of the late 1990s’ “Survival Issue Workshops,” presented to almost 3,000 CPA partners and sole practitioners. It concerned how CPAs could deal with the major regulatory, competitive, and other changes that affected CPAs in firms of all sizes (and still do). The concern we shared was how CPAs in local firms could maintain the mantle of both the most trusted and most relevant advisor to clients, in light of these changes. The packed full-day workshops were presented in all 11 Society chapters, with Sid moderating those in Manhattan, Westchester, and Long Island. Sid was instrumental in having the AICPA create several videotapes, including some in which he participated, that were used in the session. Working directly with him in executing a large project was a great experience.

A storied conference I missed, but is memorably recalled by so many attendees who conveyed the experience, was his September 11, 2001, UJA tax conference. As it began, the World Trade Center was attacked. Manhattan public transportation was shut down. Attendees agreed that the conference should go on and it did. Sid gave updates between the sessions, being the “right” reporter the situation required.

For Sid, this all started in the 1960s when the NYSSCPA’s only tax committee, a prestigious invitation-only group consisting of CPAs at the peak of the New York, national, and even international tax world, decided there should be a quality tax seminar for local firm practitioners. Before then, only the largest firms offered quality live continuing education. The managing partner of New York’s Lybrand, Ross Brothers & Montgomery office (now PricewaterhouseCoopers) said he had a CPA on staff, also a Harvard Law graduate, who created a CPA Exam review course and presented it well. The committee accepted the recommendation. Sid “stepped up to the plate and knocked it out of the park.”

New York local firm CPAs had never seen anything like the two-day individual tax workshop that Sid developed and presented, attended by hundreds of practitioners in and out of New York when word got out, well before CPE became mandatory. A companion two-day corporate workshop was developed. The well-organized, three-inch-thick manuals served as primary research tools. For most common tax questions, and even some esoteric ones, if Sid put the answer in there, you “knew” it was right. These manuals became the model for all of the profession’s subsequent tax, and non-tax, continuing education.

My first experience seeing Sid was attending one of those early tax conferences with my CPA dad at age 16. I was starting to learn some tax rules. With my mom in public relations, I knew I was watching a master communicator at work, making the most arcane tax law rules clear. He had an innate ability to make each of us feel important—never talking down to us, and giving the impression he was talking to each of us individually—in a packed hotel ballroom.

The AICPA took note. It asked the NYSSCPA if they could offer Sid’s sessions to the other state CPA societies, and the Institute took over course administration. (The NYSSCPA received special pricing in exchange.) Sid became a partner in Hurdman & Cranstoun (later merged into KPMG) to provide the technical and additional administrative support this enterprise required. For decades, beginning early November in New York and ending mid-January in Hawaii, Sid lived out of suitcases, taking his legendary boxes of technical materials with him to dozens of cities. Every airline check-in person greeted him by name before seeing his ticket and always made sure that his suitcases and boxes arrived at the right place for the next city’s workshops. For the next several decades, there were over 1 million attendees of his workshops and the other conferences he ran–for the AICPA, the UJA in New York, and his beloved Baruch College (at the behest of his close friend, tax professor Sam Dyckman).

In and outside of the CPA profession, Sid had more friends than anyone I ever met. He was also so proud of his four children, as well as many grandchildren and great grandchildren. I had met just some, but knew a lot about more of them from the stories he would share. At his funeral, we learned that he loved each one “the most.” In this day and age to listen to a great-grandchild describe looking forward to introducing a friend to a 90-plus-year-old great-grandfather was really special. We also heard that he met someone in a hospital who could not afford a burial plot. Sid bought a plot near where he was buried, promising that he and his children would keep visiting her grave.

We often hear the phrase, “With this person they broke the mold,” and in Sid’s case they truly did. We are not likely to encounter another quite like this special friend, whom I will dearly miss and always remember.

Walter Primoff, CPA/PFS, CGMA, is a director with the Perelson Weiner CPA firm in Manhattan. He is a past deputy executive director of the NYSSCPA and a former contributing editor of The CPA Journal.