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Why accounting is cool

Doing taxes? Crunching numbers? These days, the profession has much more fun.

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One day back in December of 2011, a group of about 100 people stormed a block of Broadway in midtown Manhattan and started dancing to the blaring beats of LMFAO's "Party Rock Anthem."

It was a flash mob — the kind of thing the streets of Manhattan see all the time. This one, however, was different.

The participants were a bunch of accountants. From Jersey.

Jim Bourke, a partner at WithumSmith+Brown, remembers the day well. He took the train into the city with his 100 or so coworkers, and when the firm's managing partner, Bill Hagaman, started jumping up and down to the sounds of LMFAO, so did everyone else.

"Most people are like, 'I can't believe these are a bunch of accountants,'" Bourke recalled with a laugh. "It was really cool."

Yes, it seems accountants can be "cool." No matter what the stereotype once was, accounting is slowly stripping off its nerdy, number-crunching reputation and developing a distinct allure. Sure it's not the high-stakes, high-drama realm of Wall Street, but it's well-paying, reliable work that is much more than taxes and audits.

RELATED: Playing the numbers: From finding fraud to calculating damage, forensic accountants are in great demand

In some cases, that reliability comes with the kind of corporate culture more often associated with Facebook or Google.

At Withum, for example, the flash mob was the firm's way of celebrating a merger with the Manhattan CPA firm EisnerLubin. Withum, a 40-year-old firm with six offices in New Jersey, also produces viral-worthy videos — high on production value, dance music and camp — that pull in anyone from the firm who wants to take part.

And there are other perks, such as a company foosball table, themed Saturdays during busy season (a recent theme called for staffers to dress in plaid) and impromptu putting contests that use the firm's carpeted halls as greens.

"We play hard, and we work hard as well," said Christina Fessler, a 28-year-old CPA at Withum. "It really can be fun. And I think the era of the suit and tie at work every day is over."

And Fessler is not just some young upstart looking to shake things up. The entire industry seems to be embracing young and hip over staid and stodgy.

The American Institute of CPAs has launched a website called Startheregoplaces.com, which aims to educate people about the profession. The site talks about pay (salaries can start north of $50,000, depending on the size of the firm) and opportunities for career growth. But one entire section of that website is focused on assuring aspiring accountants that they will be surrounded by "people just as smart, funny and fascinating as you are."

That claim is bolstered by profiles of guys such as Tim Crowley, a CPA for seven years who breaks every "boring CPA" stereotype: He sports a year-round beard, is in a band, plays several sports and loves meeting new people, according to the site. And then there's Patrick Meyer, who plays flag football and has a tattoo.

The purpose is to convey, effectively and broadly, that times have changed in the accounting world.

Ed Horton, a partner at Citrin Cooperman, has spent 35 years as an accountant — though he jokes that it might as well be 100. When he started, it really was all about the "proverbial number-crunching," he said.

But with the rise of technology and the ubiquity of software such as QuickBooks, clients no longer need people just to crunch numbers. And that has made accounting much more exciting, he said.

"The focus now is a lot more about the consulting aspect of what we do. The client doesn't necessarily need us to add up all the numbers to see how their doing. They need us to help them analyze it, help them to figure out how they can do it more profitably," Horton said. "You get to do something different every day. You get to work with a different client every day. It's all about problem solving."

Of course, the stability of accounting cannot be overstated, especially as the country pulls itself out of a recession that hit white-collar workers hard, said Bourke, of Withum.

"We had a difficult time recruiting in our profession about five, six, seven years ago, and that was really because investment bankers in New York City were making so much money, and there was a lot of press about that," Bourke said.

Now, there's a certain seductiveness to stability.

"In a good economy, being an accountant is a great profession, and in a bad economy, being an accountant is a good profession," Bourke said. "Being an accounting major with a job is a good thing."

Of course, half the battle is getting the word out that accounting is, in fact, fun.

The New Jersey Society of CPAs is starting that process early. Over the past several years, it has sent CPAs into high schools to give presentations about what it means to be an accountant nowadays, through its Pay It Forward campaign. This past fall, those CPAs gave 429 presentations at 178 schools around the state.

Lauren Taguer, a 25-year-old CPA at Withum, said one year, a student was so intrigued by the Withum presentation that she followed up via email about pursuing a career in the field. Taguer eventually learned the student went on to declare an accounting major in college.

And the presentations have resonated beyond the students. One year, a teacher cornered Taguer after class: "She said, 'If I had had this presentation back in high school, I totally would have been an accountant.'"

E-mail to: editorial@njbiz.com
On Twitter: @mjohns422

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