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Accountants leaving "nerd' image behind

(ran SP NP TP CI PT editions)

Forget the stereotype of the accountant with the green visor, the little lamp on the desk and the "arm protector" worn to prevent pencil lead from getting on his shirt. Accountants aren't what they used to be.

Ed Applegate says he has a pretty good idea of the image that people conjure up when he tells them he's an accountant.

It involves a green visor, a little lamp on the desk and an "arm protector" worn to prevent pencil lead from getting on his shirt.

In short, it's the picture of a quiet, boring, antisocial nerd.

"Obviously that stereotype is someone who is strictly analytical and not always a good communicator, one that doesn't think about the big picture sometimes _ someone who's just stuck in the numbers," said Applegate, senior manager of entrepreneurial services for Ernst & Young.

But it's a stereotype that he says is undeserved, especially when it involves a profession that has evolved so much in recent years.

"There are so many different aspects to my daily job besides just working with numbers," Applegate said. "There's a lot of people interaction."

The old stereotype became cemented in the public mind when the bulk of an accountant's job was working on tax returns and audits, said Tom Hall, chairman of the accounting department at the University of Texas at Arlington.

But these days, accountants do much more.

"It's shifted from mainly audit and tax work, along with some bookkeeping work, to consulting and financial advising, things that probably play to our strengths in terms of analytical skills," Hall said.

"Frankly, most of what we do is not numbers. Most of what we do is interpretation and analysis," he said.

Accounting also serves as the language of business, Hall said. And people who earn accounting degrees often understand the workings of business better than other professionals, he said.

Still, the public hasn't changed its perception of accountants. So the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants has created an advertising campaign designed to buff their image.

The group's radio and television ads urge small-business owners to "never underestimate the power" of a CPA, touting their strengths in consulting and financial planning.

"What we're trying to do is say, "See us differently,' " said Jim Smith, chairman of the external relations steering committee for the Texas Society of Certified Public Accountants, which is participating in the campaign.

"It's the change we're trying to communicate to our own members _ that this is where the value in what we do lies, and if you're not doing this, you're going to be left in the dirt," he said.

Smith, managing director of the Dallas accounting firm of Smith, Jackson, Boyer and Daniell, said the nationwide campaign also has shed light on another problem: that accountants didn't realize they were so valuable.

"What we discovered," Smith said, "is that the first people we had to sell the new image to was ourselves."

Smith said he conducted a focus group with some clients to determine how to change the image of the nerdy accountant.

The response, Smith said, was, "You can't."

The focus group told him the best thing he could do was remove the term "CPA" from his company's letterheads and business cards.

At the same time, however, surveys have shown that people trust their CPAs sometimes as much as their doctors, Smith said.

Applegate of Ernst & Young says he sees accounting's image changing one client at a time. And he says he makes sure he doesn't fit the stereotype.

"I play on a men's ice hockey league," he said. "It's not really one of your stereotypical activities as an accountant."