An Interview with Robert Harris, AICPA’s Chairman

Robert Harris, the newly elected AICPA chairman, has found that some AICPA members simply assume he’s from a big firm and brings a big-firm perspective to his new role. In fact, he’s from a small firm in a small town and therefore can relate to the majority of members, he tells IPA.

Harris says he was talking with a member in New Orleans recently, “and this person just about dropped their jaw when they found out I was from a 22-person firm.” Harris is the MP of Harris, Cotherman, Jones, Price & Assoc., in Vero Beach, Fla., but his practice involves defending CPAs all over the country who are involved in professional malpractice cases. That exposure to all kinds of firms, big and small, has given him a broad view of the profession. “I’ve handled hundreds of cases, so I’ve been inside more CPA firms than most CPAs,” he says.

Harris, who was elected to a one-year term during the fall Council meeting in Las Vegas last month, has been deeply involved in the AICPA since early in his career, traveling extensively as a member of various national and state society committees. At his firm this year, he has pledged to take no cases that require him to testify in court, and he will do much of his work electronically while he’s on the road, with the support of the other partners in his firm.

He told IPA that he plans to focus on four priorities during his term:

Sustainability – Harris expected some resistance to his push for CPAs to consider the environmental and social costs of doing business, but got none. Going green, he says, is not just a fad. He wants more CPAs to understand what sustainability is all about and how it relates to accounting. Young people, in particular, are excited about this issue.

International standards – Harris wants to see movement on the question of whether millions of small, private companies will be required to use International Financial Reporting Standards or U.S. GAAP, the much-preferred option by AICPA members. Key decisions will be made this year, he says, but at the minimum, he’d like to have a “road map of where we’re going and what our timeline is.”

Young professionals – While young people are already “in” the profession, they need to get “involved” in the profession, Harris says. Last year, 66,000 young people graduated with accounting degrees. One person under age 35 has already been appointed to each of the AICPA’s committees, which should give all age groups a new perspective while developing future leaders, he says.

Communication – Harris likens the U.S. financial crisis to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Failure of the law enforcement, rescue and intelligence agencies to properly communicate is not unlike the communication failures among the many financial industry regulators who did not foresee huge problems on the horizon. “No one was focusing on what was really going on.” Perhaps fewer regulators can do more, so trends can be more easily watched and analyzed, he says.

Harris believes the financial crisis may result in more opportunities for the accounting profession. “I believe that the growth in reporting and regulation that will come out of the crisis we’re in will create a tremendous amount of new work for the profession.” At the same time, he hopes financial reform will strike a balance between entrepreneurial spirit and fiduciary responsibility.

“We can’t over-regulate to the point where it stifles entrepreneurship in the financial markets. At the same time, we’re dealing with a financial market that is far more complex than the regulations as they’re written today.”

The crisis is global, and the solutions should be global. As he said in his inaugural speech, “Even those who work in the smallest CPA firms, the smallest companies or the smallest governmental or not-for-profit entities are seeing ramifications.” He went on, “During my year as chairman, I will be asking you to think globally about the future of our organization, our profession, and about the most important issues we face.”

Harris has a history of service to the AICPA. From 2003-2008, he served as chairman of the National Accreditation Commission. Harris chaired the 150-Hour Task Force in 1999-2001 and served on the Private Companies Practice Section, Work/Life and Women’s Initiatives, Quality Review, and Life and Disability Insurance Executive Committees, as well as the State Legislation and Finance Committees.