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Celebrating our 70th: Gerald “Jess” Wills reflects on OFWF, accounting history; looks forward

We at O’Donnell, Ficenec, Wills & Ferdig are celebrating 70 years alongside our valued clients and community partners – our “extended family.” In this notable year, our leadership is reflecting on the firm’s history and industry changes, an extensive past that informs our present-day growth and positions our organization well for the next 70 years and beyond.

Gerald A. “Jess” Wills, CPA and partner

When Jess started with what would evolve into OFWF, Dwight Eisenhower was president, a respectable home could be purchased for $12,000, the iconic “Twilight Zone” aired for the first time, and Alaska became a state. Back then, the firm founded by Joe Ficenec and Cecil O’Donnell was just eight years old.

“I shared a room with another accountant, using a ‘ten-key’ adding machine, with pencils, and five- and 13 column-paper,” Jess recalled.

Today, this process would be the very definition of “manual” bookkeeping. Paper ledgers were used to record debits and credits, and revenues and expenses. The “printing calculator” supported accurate data entry and recordkeeping. For centuries, the process of accounting had remained largely unchanged until the 1800s when the earliest machines to make calculations were first widely used.

Undoubtedly, computers represent the technological innovation that Jess characterized as having made the biggest positive difference in terms of client service and the ability to grow the business.

But, when the north-central Nebraska native onboarded, the ubiquitous use of such technology was at least two decades away. The first accounting software package was reportedly introduced in 1978, to complement the earliest personal computers. Prior to this point, firms that had the resources to do so, relied on proprietary software. Global software firm, MYOB, in its The Accounting Journal series, noted that software was “bespoke, painstakingly handcrafted literally byte by byte over the course of months.”

What Peachtree (now Sage50cloud) did with its groundbreaking product was to automate the accounting for a fraction of the cost of what could have been done in house by yesteryear firms, which at the time meant paying thousands of dollars instead of hundreds of thousands of dollars!

“It would say it was more face-to-face meetings with clients,” Jess said of the environment for accountants in the metro in those earliest days for the firm. “[It was] a slower pace – there was no email, fax machine, cell phones …”

When asked about the industry “health” at the time, it certainly wasn’t ailing – as long as one concentrated on the service aspect, according to Jess.

The United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs supports this assertion; for those who weren’t alive at the time or who don’t remember their history classes, the U.S. was coming off of the most significant post-World War II recession in 1957-1958. The recovery was in full swing, and the World Economic Survey review for the year reported “new peaks in world production and incomes.”

That environment is certainly worlds apart from what the international community has experienced in more recent years. For Jess, the onslaught of COVID-19 has meant more employees working at home, and limitations on the meetings with clients that so characterized his early firm and industry experiences.

Evolving alongside our community

Prior to working at the firm that would later bear his name, Jess served in the Army. He was stationed in Guam for two years before returning to Nebraska, where he would go on to graduate from Creighton University. As his bio succinctly sums up: “He went to work at OFWF at that time and never left.”

Some processes have come and gone since then. But transformative computer technologies have, as Jess notes, placed the results of operations into the hands of clients faster.

“It means the client can make current decisions for the future,” he said. “Even in the bookkeeping department, for keeping the books current and balanced.”

Specific to the firm, he indicated the relocation of OFWF from downtown to West Omaha has had a transformative effect on our team, and the ability to serve and support clients.

“I think [the move] was one of the best decisions our firm made years ago … just for parking and accessibility to the office,” Jess said.

Formerly, OFWF was based out of the historic Keeline building in the Old Market. Recently, the “Ferdig” in our name, Ron Ferdig, recalled his memories of working out of the sixth floor of the landmark. He described it as “quite a change” from working for a then-“Big 8” firm, based out of Kiewit Plaza.

Today, our “nerve center” is located at 11404 W. Dodge Road, in the First National Tower and just off of 114th and Dodge streets. We encourage our friends to stop by and say “Hi,” and it’s certainly convenient to do so!

Many of our client-friends have partnered with us for years. We have experienced the ups and the downs, the victories and setbacks, together and as extended members of each other’s teams.

“I am not going to mention the names of any clients,” Jess said, “but I have a very long-term client that, even after receiving government loans, is going to close shop due to the economy.”

He continued: “I refuse to predict where the accounting field is headed in the next five to 10 years. With the computer, and the ‘cloud’ and new improvements, who knows?”

Those who do the prognosticating project that employment of accountants and auditors will grow by 7% over the next eight years (to 2030), with 135,000 available positions slated for each year, resulting from the “need to replace workers who transfer to different occupations or exit the labor force, such as to retire.”

A native of Emmet, Nebraska, Gerald A. “Jess” Wills also graduated from St. Mary’s Academy in O’Neill. He works with small businesses, providing income tax guidance, tax planning and consultation on business strategies. Outside of the profession, Jess enjoys reading, golfing, and playing cards.

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