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 ideal business accountant


Finding the ideal business accountant can feel like a daunting process, and it’s often been turned into a punch line, like the joke about when you interview an accountant and you ask how much is two plus two? And they say how much you want it to be, that’s who you should hire.

Well, today’s guest, retired CPA Maxine Stern says not so fast. As a certified public accountant Maxine has seen a lot and done a lot. She’ll give us the truth about how to choose the ideal business accountant for your business.

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What You’ll Discover About the Ideal Business Accountant (highlights & transcript):

* What is a Certified Public Accountant (CPA) [2:02]

* 5 Ways the ideal business accountant can help your startup business [4:59]

* 7 Ways the ideal business accountant can help an ongoing business [9:41]

* The best way to utilize your accountant’s expertise [17:55]

* What to consider when selecting accounting software [18:59]

* What factors to consider when selecting the ideal business accountant [20:56]

* 5 Non-obvious factors to consider when hiring the ideal business accountant [26:47]



Hanna Hasl-Kelchner: [00:00:00] Finding the ideal business accountant can feel like a daunting process, and it’s often been turned into a punch line, like the joke about when you interview an accountant and you ask how much is two plus two? And they say how much you want it to be, that’s who you should hire. Well, I guess my next guest says not so fast. She’s a retired certified public accountant who’s seen a lot and done a lot. Who will give us the truth about how to choose the ideal business accountant for your business.


Announcer: [00:00:30] This is Business Confidential Now with Hanna Hasl-Kelchner helping you see business issues hiding in plain view that matters to your bottom line.


Hanna: [00:00:41] Welcome to Business Confidential Now, I’m your host, Hanna Hasl-Kelchner, and today’s guest is Maxine Stern. Her background is in business, finance and accounting, general business management, as well as grant and contract administration. She’s worked for Duke University in a managerial position and has led her own financial consulting business. But unlike most accountants, Maxine has a Ph.D. in sociology, and that knowledge of human behavior and relationships adds a valuable dimension to financial analysis, as well as the work she’s currently doing as a certified mentor for SCORE, the nation’s largest network of volunteer expert business mentors dedicated to helping small businesses get off the ground, grow and achieve their goals. Maxine has been on the show before. The last time we talked about business, financial statement, mistakes that you need to avoid. So I’m really excited to have her back. Welcome to Business Confidential Now, Maxine.


Maxine Stern: [00:01:41] Well, Hanna, thank you so much. It’s really great to be talking with you. And I hope I can help some small business owners in their process of their financial management and in general business management using their financials to help them run their business.




Hanna: [00:02:02] Well, I’m sure you can, Maxine. You know, because most startups and small businesses don’t have much experience with professionals in the accounting field. And that’s why I think it’s important for them to understand what a certified public accountant is. What is it?


Maxine: [00:02:18] Well, first, let me just back up and tell you what a person has to do to become a CPA. As you know, there are many people in your community who work on taxes. And when we think of a CPA, the first thing we think of is someone who can prepare our taxes. But I hope I’ll lay out for you so many other ways that a CPA can help your business. There are many other people that can help you if you just need tax preparation. But I think all businesses could use the experience that CPA have had doing their work.


Maxine: [00:03:02] So the qualifications to become a CPA vary by state. They are generally the same, but each state will have the details a little bit differently. First, there’s an educational component. There are courses that all accountants take in accounting rules and procedures, auditing, management, accounting, tax law, general business, law, finance, and a very important one in business ethics.


Maxine: [00:03:34] And I believe that’s a more recent addition to the curriculum, because there’s been an emphasis in the more recent years on having a profession that’s much more honest and open to people looking inside and seeing what they’re doing anyway. There’s an educational component these days in many states you have to have a master’s degree to become a CPA. That was not the case until recently.


Maxine: [00:04:08] Now, there’s also an experience component which varies by state and a national exam. And then when a person qualifies by passing all those areas, they have to register with their state licensing board to keep an active license. You have to renew it annually. And in North Carolina, I think it’s great that everyone has to do 40 hours of continuing education so that it keeps you up on all of the laws. And in addition, you have to attest that you’ve had no convictions in the court of law and no ethical breaches in the past year. Given that you might want to hire a CPA, that’s what you’ll be getting.







Maxine: [00:04:59] I’d like to go over the ways a CPA can help you in your business. When someone starts a business, a CPA can be a huge help. If you have an idea for a business or you think of what you want to create, one of your first conversations should be with a certified public accountant.


Maxine: [00:05:23] As many of you know, everyone really needs to keep track of the business finances. But there are many other ways that the CPA can help you. First of all, along with an attorney, the CPA can help. You think about the best structure for your business, that is whether you want to set up a limited liability company or a partnership or a corporation, and the CPA should have experience so that he can he or she can say, well, if you set up a partnership, these might be your problems down the road or if you set up a corporation, are you sure that this is what you want to do for the future of your business?


Maxine: [00:06:13] So that’s a very interesting conversation.


Maxine: [00:06:17] And once you decide that the CPA can help you in making a business plan, particularly the financial analysis, because it’s very important to figure out all aspects of the startup of the business and projecting the business into the future. So I would really recommend that.


Maxine: [00:06:41] And then the CPA can also provide you with advice on the type of accounting software you might want to have in your business. And when you decide on a CPA, it may be important to have a conversation about whether that your software will interact with the one that the CPA firm uses so that tax preparation will be quicker and more accurate and much cheaper. That’s a very important thing to decide.


Maxine: [00:07:21] Right in the beginning, of course, when you start your business, you have to open a business bank account. The CPA can help you in the business. make sure that all of your procedures for your money and for the revenues coming in and the expenses going out are set up so that they’ll be easy to track and so that they’re set up in a way that minimizes the possibility of fraud because the business owner is usually not the one who has his or her hands on all of the business procedures, for example, payroll, for example, paying bills.


Maxine: [00:08:06] And in the accounting world, the procedures that will help you protect your assets and the business are called internal controls. And so are your procedures are set up in a particular way it makes it much more difficult for anyone handling your finances to steal the money of the business. I know that when you go into business, you don’t think about that. You don’t think about an employee or a friend of an employee taking advantage of the good business that you have. But this is very, very common, particularly in small businesses when you have a one person performing multiple roles.


Maxine: [00:08:57] I just think it’s extremely important in the beginning to have a CPA. Just look over what you set up and give you some pointers. Putting that extra time and money into setting up the business might help you protect thousands of dollars in the future.


Hanna: [00:09:18] Absolutely. So it does help to have somebody put you on the right track to help put the systems in place, because after all, when you’re in a startup mode, you’ve got a clean slate. Anything’s possible. But you want to make sure that it’s set up in a way that is going to get redone later, but also in a way that you can build and grow on.




Hanna: [00:09:41] And so when a business is in regular operation mode, you’re past the startup phase. What can a CPA help a business do at that point? What advice would they be giving typically?


Maxine: [00:09:54] Yeah, there are so many things that the CPA can just give you pointers on. These things don’t take a long time. They in fact, they get to be routine, but they’ll be issues right from the beginning, particularly in small businesses, about when you hire someone.


Maxine: [00:10:13] Is it appropriate and legal to hire someone as an independent contractor, or should a person who you want to hire become classified as an employee? This is something that the IRS looks at because they look at it in terms of small business, but also large businesses. Sometimes the IRS will audit the business just to look at whether the employees are categorized correctly.


Maxine: [00:10:47] The CPA also will help you know how to read your financial statements. They will help you figure out if you have a profit or a loss. And that should be obvious for the business owner. But believe me, it’s not. I’ve worked with many clients who for some reason think they’re making a profit because they forget a whole bunch of expenses. And when you add all those things together, all of a sudden they have a loss. And they’re so surprised.


Maxine: [00:11:21] If you learn how to read your financial statements and know how to look periodically to see whether how the business is going and if all of a sudden it’s not going well, try to figure out why it’s not going well. And if you have a problem, if you have a good relationship with the CPA, this is what you can just work out in a phone call.


Maxine: [00:11:46] So the CPA also can oversee your payroll and your payment processes. Now, that person is probably, I would say, too expensive to run your payroll, but they can look over the payroll, make sure it’s done correctly and everything is working OK.


Maxine: [00:12:08] They can also make sure you’re paying your estimated taxes and that you at the end of the year, send all the required forms like the W-2 and the1099 forms to your employees and contractors. They’ll help you close out your books at the end of the year and then create financial reports which you can use for your taxes. The taxes, I would say, are the most routine things, but you might ask the CPA for advice on particular things.




Maxine: [00:12:42] I’d have some old clients, I’m kind of trying to retire, but I’ve had some clients for a long time and all of a sudden I get an email from one of them about, “oh, can I take this as an expense?” And someone just emailed me the other day asking about how to correctly categorize an expense. It just seemed like such a simple question.


Maxine: [00:13:07] When I thought about it. There are three ways, at least for her to categorize this expense. And I told her that the way you decide what is appropriate is the rationale you have for the expense. So that was because I had not only the training but experience with a number of companies. And I could understand that if you just expense something that might create a question with the IRS, why didn’t you depreciate or with this case the person had an office in the house. And why did you say that this was an expense fully of the business when in fact it could have been interpreted to be an expense that benefited the whole house?


Maxine: [00:14:01] So a lot of things that kind of can be seen as almost simple minded, because that was my first reaction when she emailed me, you realize are a more complicated situation, which if I didn’t have experience with other businesses, I don’t think I ever would have been able to answer her in an adequate way. And that’s the case.




Maxine: [00:14:25] The one other point I wanted to make here is that the accountant in helping you set things up correctly can prevent you from getting audited. I haven’t met anyone who says the audit isn’t excruciating, but it’s worth understanding that if you do something one way rather than another, you can prevent an audit, which is a painful part of the business process and expensive for the business owner.


Hanna: [00:14:57] Absolutely. Some things are red flags for the IRS. And that doesn’t mean that you couldn’t take an expense depending on how you classify it, as you mentioned, and home offices in particular is something that the IRS understands people take advantage of and abuse. And so it’s something they take a closer look at. Right. That’s just the way it is.


Maxine: [00:15:20] Yeah.


Hanna: [00:15:21] So, yeah, definitely having an accountant that you know, like, and trust can save you money and can help you in a variety of ways, especially if you don’t have any kind of background in accounting or finance, and especially if you find it hard to balance your own checkbook.


Hanna: [00:15:40] So it’s always good to have an extra set of eyes that can help you kind of look over your shoulder and say, here’s the way a business is supposed to be run. Here’s the way you should be set up, your accounts receivable, your accounts payable, your payroll, all that kind of framework for how a business keeps score and then understanding the score cards, which are the financial statements. It’s really important.




Hanna: [00:16:05] And even when it comes to selling a business, there’s, again, a whole bunch of stuff that a buyer will want. Being able to provide reports in a proper format and being able to present the business properly is again something where an accountant can help in addition to the actual transfer of business assets.


Maxine: [00:16:26] I mean . . .


Hanna: [00:16:27] Yeah, exactly.


Maxine: [00:16:28] That is really important. We often think about asking for his right advice when we want to grow a business, make it larger. If we have a restaurant, we want to have another maybe one in another city. But of course, a CPA can help in that case. But when, for example, the owner wants to retire or the owner wants to sell a business, or bad times come along and they want to make a business smaller, it’s an important time to just have that conversation.


Maxine: [00:17:10] And as Hanna said, of course, if you’re going to sell a business, you not only have to provide the reports, but you have to start thinking in advance and think, how do I want my financial statements to look when I want to sell?


Maxine: [00:17:27] How am I going to prove that my sales are at a particular level? You know, they can think through with you for a small business what is the buyer going to want? Is the buyer going to want you to have a smaller inventory or is the buyer going to want you to have more money in the bank? It’s just a whole variety of things. It’s a lot. It’s really a lot.




Maxine: [00:17:55] But, you know, over the course of a year, I think the best way to use a CPA is have them, if you have your financial data set up accurately, they can do the taxes pretty easily. But I think it’s very beneficial for business people to meet either quarterly or semiannually with their CPA. During that period of time, just write a list of questions that you have and talk about, you know, look at my financial statements. Should I be continuing the way I am or should I be changing the things that I sell or should I be trying to grow or trying to reduce the size of my business? So I think quarterly meetings or periodic meetings, I should say, even though that’ll cost you something, you might end up saving a lot of money in the long run.




Hanna: [00:18:59] Let me ask you about software accounting, because some people think that software accounting QuickBooks® is very popular for small businesses, that it’s a substitute for accountants. What are your thoughts about that?


Maxine: [00:19:12] No, I don’t think so, because they serve a different purpose. Every business, I would say, should have some kind of computerized software or else, I mean, it’s going to save you so much time and accuracy and give you information that you couldn’t get any other way. You know, it’s something that someone has to have, but it doesn’t really give you the advice that an accountant can help you with any business insight or any ways to move from one year to the next.


Maxine: [00:19:50] I know some businesses will try to get along on their own, but I think they’re missing something. I think it’s really important. And once you get set up with an accountant, I mean, aside from the taxes, it really doesn’t cost that much more. And while you’re spending money with lots of different things in your business, it’s silly not to use all that business information and getting insights, talking about them with someone that has the experience and has worked with you for a while and knows about your business. I just think it’s important.


Hanna: [00:20:29] Yeah, I agree with you. I think it’s valuable because they’re more than just a numbers person. They’re a business adviser being able to tap their expertise. Granted, it focuses on the finances, but that is an important way that we keep track and score of how well a business is doing, but it can provide a valuable perspective and understanding. So I thank you for that.




Hanna: [00:20:56] So having established that, having an accountant somewhere in your cabinet of advisors is a good thing. How do I go about finding one?


Maxine: [00:21:07] It’s an important question, not the easiest question, actually. I would say number one, ask people that you know for recommendations. Ask people that you might not know so well who are in similar businesses or ask your other professionals, your attorney or other people in your community for their opinions, their recommendations, both the pluses and minuses. That’s what I would do to start.




Hanna: [00:21:40] What do you ask them? OK, so you got a couple names and you want to interview them. What should you be asking for? What do you zero in on besides you really a certified public accountant?


Maxine: [00:21:51] Well, say you have a list of three or four people you want to talk with and many of these people will talk to you for a period of time without charging you. And I think you should definitely ask for, you know, just an introductory half hour on the phone or in person.


Maxine: [00:22:09] The one thing I would suggest it comes from an experience I have is go to your state licensing boards website to be sure that the person who says they’re a CPA is definitely licensed at the time because I had a situation that I could not believe.


Maxine: [00:22:30] There was a man I have heard of and I knew several of his customers. And he called me one time when he was very busy and he said, could you please help me out and work a few hours every week? I thought about it and I went there to talk to him and I thought, well, maybe I’ll do this. I don’t know, I wasn’t crazy about him. And then I looked him up on the website and he had lost his license.


Hanna: [00:22:59] Oh!


Maxine: [00:23:01] He had to sign up in front of his office that said CPA. In his office he had the certificate up. I was just taken aback. But people do that and he was doing it to me. He probably thought I was really stupid.


Hanna: [00:23:17] Well, he needed somebody to fill in while he was trying to get his license back.


Maxine: [00:23:23] And I think it was because I think it was because he didn’t pay his own taxes.


Hanna: [00:23:29] Well, there’s a good one. Right. So besides verifying that they’re real?


Maxine: [00:23:35] You want to look for experience and expertise depending on your business. So if you have a technical business, if you’re in a special area where you need patents for the products you’re developing or you’re selling, then you need someone familiar with that specialty.


Maxine: [00:23:54] If you’re in other kinds of technical fields in the medical field and an information technology field, you want someone who not only knows the subject area, but works with other businesses in that field because, you know, there are specialized laws that are relevant only for some kind of businesses.


Maxine: [00:24:16] I know that some accountants have lots of restaurant clients, so it doesn’t have to be high tech to need someone with experience in your area. I mean, most accountants have general business experience and can do well with most businesses. But I just think it’s important to get an idea from other people that you know who might have similar businesses for someone who has technical expertise as well as all the other things I’m going to talk about.


Maxine: [00:24:49] So then, of course, after you find out if they’re so-called “qualified to handle your business,” you want someone both with good accounting knowledge, with good analytic skills, but someone who you feel comfortable with, someone you can feel honest with, because sometimes you’re going to have great years and sometimes you’re going to have terrible years.


Maxine: [00:25:13] So you have to have someone, a business relationship with someone who you can boast with and say, I’m doing really great, but then you can come into and say we’re doing terribly. Can you please help us pivot next year to maybe figure out how to set our course straight? You want someone who’s honest and will talk straight. But someone who gives you that respect, even if you’re not doing well, if you’re doing great or if you’re doing poorly. They want to be there to help you, and that should be their role.


Maxine: [00:25:51] It shouldn’t be someone you feel you have to think you’re doing well with and think you’re getting rich with someone who you want to help you no matter where you are. So, of course, you want them to be compatible and congenial, but you want to be trustworthy and you want to have someone who you just can sit down with and feel comfortable. I can’t emphasize how important that is.


Maxine: [00:26:18] And sometimes, you know, you picked the wrong person. It happens all the time that you change from one accountant to another. I would certainly say if it’s someone who you find as judgmental about how you’re doing; I would try to find someone who is helpful. Anyway, but in general, that’s the kind of personality I would look for. And sometimes it’s hard to tell right at the beginning. So hopefully you’ll make a good choice.





Maxine: [00:26:47] And then there are a bunch of other things that people don’t think about that I think are very important. As you work with someone, for example, something so simple as where the office is. Is it at a convenient location for you or are you comfortable the way the CPA communicates if they’re only going to communicate through email and you want to communicate, say, on the phone or in person, then that’s something which can make communication harder for you. And you want to do something that’s convenient for you.


Maxine: [00:27:26] You want to know that if you have an odd kind of business and you’re not available, say, during regular business hours, is this person available on your schedule? That becomes very important.


Maxine: [00:27:41] Of course, if your first language is not English, just be sure that you can communicate well with this person and with others in the accountant’s office, because if you can’t communicate, you’re not going to get any help from this person.


Maxine: [00:27:58] The only other thing that I thought of is does the office, the CPA office, seem to work together as a team? If you call, can the person who answers the phone be helpful to you? You can’t always get all of those things, but it’s important to look.


Maxine: [00:28:17] And after you’ve been with someone a year or two, you can tell whether it’s working well. You don’t pick up everything initially, but it’s like anything else. The longer you work with someone, the more you can tell whether things are going smoothly.


Maxine: [00:28:34]  And the main thing is accounts are not cheap and you’ll be paying a good deal. So you really need to get the best out of it. I think accountants charge a huge range from maybe a hundred dollars an hour, some in very big firms and big cities could charge three or four hundred dollars an hour. So it gets expensive. But I would definitely say it’s of value to you. And if you’re paying that much, you might as well be sure you’re getting something out of it.


Hanna: [00:29:08] Well, you made some great points about the comfort level, Maxine, because, you know, it’s one thing to have somebody who’s a really good number cruncher and very good with the analytics, but the people skills, because ultimately, like you said, there are ups and downs in business. It’s inevitable you hit some speed bumps along the way. And having somebody that you can confide in, that you can be totally honest with and feel like they’re not being judgmental, that they’re truly here to help you instead of just rack up hours on a meter is very important.


Hanna: [00:29:46] So the comfort level and all these different ways that you’ve described, especially the communication preference, their office help because you may not get straight through to your accountant. Somebody is the gatekeeper. Are they like “no he’s not here, call back, sorry.” Or are they going to be “let me put this note in front of him, he’s with somebody, but I know this is important. Let me see if I can get an answer.”


Maxine: [00:30:11] Yeah.


Hanna: [00:30:12] Or he’s out of town. I mean, whatever the situation is. But somebody who, like you said, the team is working. And that goes to whether or not that particular accountant or firm, what kind of customer service that they’re providing, whether they think that you’re working for them and just paying them or the other way around.


Hanna: [00:30:31] So, Maxine, I thank you. There is some really good information, some nuggets of information that I hope people will take to heart when they interview an accountant, when they realize in what capacity they can use an accountant, and I think most important that you didn’t marry that person, it’s OK to say, you know, we got a breakup. And . . .


Maxine: [00:30:54] Yeah


Hanna: [00:30:56] It happens  . . .


Maxine: [00:30:57] They’re respectful of that too.


Hanna: [00:30:58] Sure.




Maxine: [00:30:58] I mean, most of them have adequate numbers of clients. They know if things are going well. The only thing I wanted to add that over the years I have been in many meetings and many classes with hundreds and hundreds of CPAs, and they are a varied group.


Maxine: [00:31:17] We think of them, or a lot of people might think of them as number crunchers, but it’s really not fair because they come in so many varieties. First of all, they come in different ages. They come in different colors. There are many women these days. They used to be a very male dominated profession, but there are many women and some of them are a little, you know, typically nerdy, but many of them are not. And they can be very well-rounded, very charming people. So there’s a lot out there.


Hanna: [00:31:51] There is. And also for different stages of growth. So the accountant that is with you, when you first start, as your business gets bigger and bigger, you might outgrow them. You might still love them, but that’s a possibility. So anyhow, lots of food for thought. I thank you so much, Maxine. This has been great.


Maxine: [00:32:10] Well . . .


Hanna: [00:32:10] I thank you.


Maxine: [00:32:11] It’s a pleasure.


Hanna: [00:32:12] That’s our show for today. But don’t go anywhere. I have a really easy ask for you. Would you please open your podcast app and give us a five-star review and leave a comment about what you love most about the show? I do read them all and it’ll take you less than a minute. And while you’re at it, share this episode, tell someone about it, because the best way to grow our audience is by word of mouth. And if you want the detailed show notes, links to connect with my guest or stuff that we talked about, even if you want to ask a question, have a show idea. Come on over to


Hanna: [00:32:44] I’ll catch you on the next episode. And in the meantime, have a great day and even better tomorrow.


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Guest: Maxine Stern

Maxine SternMaxine Stern’s background is in business, finance and accounting, general business management, as well as grant and contract administration.

She’s worked for Duke University in a managerial position and has led her own financial consulting business. But unlike most accountants, Maxine has a Ph.D. in sociology, and that knowledge of human behavior and relationships adds a valuable dimension to financial analysis.

He sociology background has also contributed to the work she’s currently doing as a certified mentor for SCORE, the nation’s largest network of volunteer expert business mentors dedicated to helping small businesses get off the ground, grow and achieve their goals.

Related Resources:

Listen to Maxine Stern’s previous interview on Business Confidential Now: Business Financial Statement Mistakes You Need to Avoid.

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