Photographer and teacher Dieter Appelt began his career as an opera singer before taking up painting and, later, performance art.

Interview with an Accountant


Photo by Twin Thornes

NAME: Helen Pilgrim, EA, LTC

JOB TITLE:  Accountant

EDUCATION: Diploma of Technology in Financial Management, British Columbia Institute of Technology, Vancouver, B.C. (1977)Licensed Tax Practitioner Certification, Oregon (LTP – 1992); Enrolled to Practice before the Internal Revenue Service (EA – 1993):   Licensed Tax Consultant Certification, Oregon (LTC – 2007)

ADDITIONAL PURSUITS & AREAS OF INTEREST : Organic gardening.  Book group – 1 new novel each month since 1985.

What is your educational background, specific to your profession?

My formal education was in stages over about 15 years. I first earned a Diploma of Technology in Financial Management at the British Columbia Institute of Technology. I started out in Computer Programming but changed to Financial Management when I discovered there was less discrimination against women in the accounting field; keep in mind this was in the early 1970’s. After moving to the United States I started out with some bookkeeping clients, and then earned Licensed Tax Practitioner certification (State of Oregon) at Portland Community College. After working with a national Tax Preparation service, I started working for a Certified Public Accountant. After a few years there I earned my Enrolled Agent certification (national license to practice before the Internal Revenue Service). When I wanted to prepare individual returns under my own business I earned the Licensed Tax Consultant certification (State of Oregon).

What was your most valuable experience, that gave you the tools and insight to working in the field of accounting?

My first accounting boss was a Chartered Accountant in British Columbia. David Dyke was a great mentor. One of the first things he told me was the difference between a bookkeeper and an accountant. A bookkeeper can perform the same tasks over and over again, usually by rote and achieve good results. An accountant can achieve the same results even when some of the data is missing, that is, they know how to understand the data and make educated calculations to skip over some steps. David taught me how to analyze and self-check results as well as how to leave a good trail of what I had done and why.

When I worked with the Certified Public Accountant office, I had two great mentors, Robin Gulde and Kim Wilcox. They constantly challenged me to learn more. When I finally left I had a much deeper understanding of how to provide a client with the kind of information that would help them understand their own business, and also had a greater understanding of how to prepare information for a tax return in a manner that would protect a client in the rare event of an audit.

As a working professional, what changes have you seen in your industry that have significantly affected how you work?

I was lucky enough to have first worked on books totally by hand with a printing adding machine as my only mechanical assist.  When we started to use computer software, I knew what the software was doing “behind the scenes”.   I think this gives me a huge advantage over someone who has only ever used computer software.   Computer software has made bookkeeping so much faster, and then you can take the same data and use it to generate so many reports that develop the information needed to properly analyze.

Over the period of time I have been working in this industry I have seen several economic set backs that have given me a good perspective on what it takes to keep a business healthy.  This last round of challenges since 2008 have severely tested many good companies with many hard working business owners.  I would say that the major item learned is the careful use of credit:  obtain enough credit early enough during the good times, so that you have that reserve when times get bad.  In 2009 it was difficult to get any credit, even though many companies saw a  short term increase in sales.  This over caution by the lenders actually resulted in the termination of some businesses.  On the other hand the companies that had a big enough line of credit, or equity they could borrow against, were able to borrow and keep their businesses going when the economy turned down again in 2010.   I have seen some steady improvement in 2011 and again in the first half of 2012.  My retail clients still struggle, but those in web based development and digital marketing are the strongest.  Everyone has to be cautious and careful with financial outlays.  These are unprecedented times.  Enron and Countrywide have had far reaching impact on the economy as a result of their business practices.  I do hope today’s business leaders have learned important lessons.

With regards to the new generation of bookkeepers and accountants, what are the skill sets that you are seeing?

I find that the new generation have an ability to use computers and software with an almost unconscious ease. They can be very fast at learning new software and taking advantage of new products. However they do not always understand how to read the data they produce, nor are they able to spot when there is something wrong within the results.

What would your advice be to young professionals and to the institutions/instructors that are providing them with the education & “tools” to enter the accounting field?

I do find that accounting instruction does not develop enough practical scenarios. Not everyone will end up working for a very large company with a staff of other accountants to learn from. Especially in Oregon, there are a lot of small businesses. Education needs to provide more hands on examples of real life situations, and more explanation of resources. Also if every accountant had to do a small set of books by hand, they would understand the software tools in a much stronger way.

“My greatest enjoyment comes from finding the right bookkeeping system for my client. No two clients are alike, and the way they use the tools available should indeed be unique to the way they think and work.  I have had Full Charge bookkeeping experience including all fully manual ledgers, that gives me the ability to know what is behind the scenes as we work with bookkeeping programs. I value my reputation for getting things done, enjoying challenges, meeting deadlines. Computer programming experience has made me proficient in bookkeeping, spreadsheet, tax preparation and accounting support programs.  The software available continues to expand and develop, giving greater flexibility in choosing what works for each client.  I am also very fortunate in finding a great business partner in my husband Bevan.  He has great bookkeeping skills and we make a great team.”  — Helen Pilgrim

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