Editor's note: As we celebrate our 90th anniversary, longtime writer and editor-in-chief Sid Kess brings a rare perspective from the CPA Journal and NYSSCPA: While I may not remember the early years, I'm one of the few members to have lived through it all nine decades of publication of the journal. I have seen the profession grow and develop over the years and have been at the forefront of a number of changes that have developed in the world of accounting.
Lessons from the Great Depression
My first contact with the accountant profession was as the young son of an accountant who worked during the Great Depression and then World War II. My father first worked as the controller of the Bank of the United States, a large bank that failed during the Great Depression. My father lost his job when the bank was liquidated in December 1931. Then he made tax returns and tried to work for the accounting firms typical of the time.
In those days, the world of accounting was very different. Often during the tax season, companies acted as sweatshirts that exploited employees during the high season and made people work 75-hour workweek with the promise that they would receive substantial rewards for this overtime after the high season ended. After the tax season ended, employers used all kinds of formulas to give unfair amounts to workers who had worked so hard when the companies were busy. Often times, when employees found they were not going to get the promised compensation, they would get angry and start looking for new jobs. However, there was little work in the off-season so people were often unemployed for months. When the busy season approached next November, companies would start recruiting again. Employers looked at résumés and wondered why workers had left their positions, implying they were to blame. Nobody recognized the exploitation that was taking place.
I remember my father buying The Times on Sunday to get the help search ads. He sent letters to all companies that advertised vacancies. I remember how much it meant to my father to be interviewed. The money was so tight. A social worker came from the US government to teach my mother how to stretch a chicken so it could feed a family of five for a week. The GP would not take payments for visits and would encourage my mom to use the money to buy shoes instead.
Obviously things have changed since the Great Depression. In addition, the laws in the books now protect employees from uncompensated overtime as well as from the racist and religious discrimination that was widespread at this time. Many other practices are now in place to aid the staff. Companies try not to lose good employees after the tax season, with some granting paid time off and others sending employees on retreats after the tax season. Many accounting firms give their employees meals or pay to drive home. In addition, many companies started donating money to training courses. This is especially important as there is so much more material to master now than in previous years.
A career based on teaching others
I studied accounting at Baruch College in the late 1940s and then went to Harvard Law School at GI Law after fighting in Europe during World War II. Lybrand, Ross Brothers and Montgomery (LRB & M) came in 1952 to interview students at Harvard. Since I wanted to specialize in taxes, this was a good place to start. LRB & M gave me my first job and from the beginning I looked for creative ways to improve the company and the profession.
The name LRB & M was a little unwieldy and most people didn't know what the initials stood for. I sent a memo to the chairman of the company, suggesting that the Lybrand name make a bigger carbon copy. It wasn't long before managers agreed and the operator started answering calls with “Lybrand” instead of “LRB & M”. Our newsletter and diary have also received new monikers. I became known as an "idea generator".
Lybrand's tax training courses seemed too technical and code-oriented. I suggested that they be presented more simply in the “language of the accountant”. As a result, the company asked me to develop a new course. After that, I was asked to create a reference file for all the memos written in the tax department. Finally, the national bureau asked me to collect, organize, and perfect all of the forms and checklists developed by each bureau. I've developed a company-wide tax guide that benefits the entire organization.
While working in Lybrand's tax department, I heard from a Commerce Clearing House (CCH) representative about a newly acquired computer service called Computax. I told him that practitioners needed to be trained in how to use the service. It wasn't long before CCH hired me to host “user conferences” in several major cities to train hundreds of people with Computax.
The concept of promoting further education motivated me. Over the years I have developed numerous training approaches, including workshops, audio cassettes and the video "Kessettes", to explain new tax laws. I had the idea for an estate planning newsletter. The President of CCH didn't think there would be enough material to fill a newsletter, but over 40 years later it's still going strong. The Estate Planning Guidebooks became so successful that they evolved into a tax service, and I developed three more newsletters with CCH. For half a century, I analyzed every major tax law every year and published it by CCH as the Kess on Each Major Tax Law.
I got involved with the NYSSCPA early on. The society asked me to speak about tax research at a summer conference in the 1950s. I felt like a lot of accountants didn't know how many helpful tools there were. After examining forms and checklists to help practitioners manage their tax practices, I developed a daily tax research course for the AICPA. I also helped organize the Association of CPA Candidates and developed several guides to help CPAs pass their exams. At first I volunteered to teach. After David Levites passed away, I took over the Levites CPA coaching courses and led one of the most successful CPA coaching courses in New York for the next 10 years. I would estimate 1 million CPAs have taken my courses over the years.
For the past 50 years I have conducted corporate and individual tax filing video programs for the AICPA and edited the CPA Client Bulletin and CPA Client Tax Letter for 10 years. I have also been involved in the publication of many books on tax planning as well as books on managing a profitable practice. My book on the Tax Reform Act of 1969 sold 50,000 copies.
Nothing I've done in my career has been brilliant; I have just seen needs arise in the world of accounting and constantly innovating to meet those needs for practitioners. I believe that every time the law changes, everyone is on the same starting line – whether it's a young practitioner or a seasoned tax professional. The more complex the tax changes, the greater the challenge and the greater the opportunities for young professionals. In addition, with new technology and the availability of material on the Internet, it is possible to access huge amounts of material for free.
It's important to keep up with changes and stay one step ahead of everyone else. Every CPA must commit to continuous learning throughout their career. The original Internal Revenue Code was 27 pages long; 100 years later, the Tax Reporter (with Code provisions, relevant committee reports, regulations and legal opinions) is 25 volumes and approximately 80,000 pages.
When something new develops in the accounting world, any practitioner can become an expert and make himself indispensable. Sometimes I fondly remember accounting in the “old days” when I started at Lybrand and most tax advisors were “generalists” who knew all aspects of taxation. Things are so complicated these days that people need to become experts in specific areas like compensation, inventory, valuation, depreciation, trusts and trustees, international taxation, forensic bookkeeping, tax disputes, financial planning, corporate restructuring, estate planning, and state and local taxes.
It's a new world. We have seen so many changes in the law. I was trying to make the changes understandable to the average accountant and to do that I had to understand them myself. Every year people came back for updates. It's been over half a century now and I believe I have enabled many to adapt to important changes in the world of accounting and taxation. I am sure that I have added value and helped many people with it. Isn't that what life is all about?
Sidney Kess, JD, LLM, CPA is a consultant to Kostelanetz & Fink and a senior consultant to Citrin Cooperman & Co., LLP. He is a member of the NYSSCPA Hall of Fame and was awarded the Society's Outstanding CPA in Education Award in May 2015. In 2020, he received the NYSSCPA's Distinguished Service Award in recognition of his dedicated service to the Society and outstanding leadership for the profession. He is also a member of the Editorial Advisory Board of the CPA Journal.