In our 70th year, partner reflects on firm-, industry-wide changes
The “Ferdig” in the O’Donnell, Ficenec, Wills & Ferdig name got his start with our firm in September of 1969. Back then, OFWF was O’Donnell, Ficenec & Nipp. The firm was 18, and Ron W. Ferdig himself was just north of 20 years old– albeit with some good experience under his belt.
“I had been working for a ‘Big 8’ accounting firm for three and a half years,” Ron recently recalled, while reflecting on OFWF’s 70 years of operations. “I had passed three parts of the 4-part CPA exam and was looking for a different environment.”
The “Nipp” that was formerly in our name referred to Pat Nipp, whom Ron said had “one foot out the door.”
Pat was “heading for the big time,” Ron explained, as an executive for a successful client.
“The move from the sixth floor of the Kiewit Plaza to the sixth floor of the Keeline Building was quite a change,” Ron said, while making a reference to our former digs in the historic Old Market landmark. “The new environment suited me well. Lots of challenging work needed to be done, and I liked challenges.”
When Ron was hired, he was the 12th accountant in the firm. Today, the CPA boasts focused expertise in tax planning, prep, audit, and M&A, and has been a partner for nearly 50 years of his 55-year career.
In those earlier days, team members included typists. In fact, there were three such workmates – and Ron said Norma Jean “ran that show” (overseeing the “type department”).
After all, financial statements were typed. Tax returns were copied by Thermo-Fax™, a photocopying technology first introduced in 1950. The Therm0-Fax™ didn’t use chemicals. But it did use heat-sensitive copy paper. When exposed to infrared and heat, the original paper absorbed the energy. Those heated images were transferred to the copy papers, producing black copy images of the original contents.
“You could actually smell the burn,” Ron said.
A perhaps more pleasing feature: What Ron characterized as the firm’s “high professional standards.”
“Debits and credits worked the same, whether at a big firm or a small firm,” he said.
The “Ficenec” that started it all (right alongside Cecil O’Donnell), Joe, was 49 or 50 years of age at the time Ron was onboarded.
“And [Joe] was clearly ‘the boss,’” he said.
For an early-careerist, young enough to be Ficenec’s son, Ron admitted the co-founder was a “bit intimidating.”
“But [he was] immensely practical and spoke my language,” Ron said.
Accelerating positive industry change
Industry-wise in the 1960s metro area, a third year (soon-to-be) CPA commanded a salary of $12,000 a year. According to U.S. Bureau of Labor Adjustments inflation calculator, that $12,000 would be the equivalent of $89,000 today.
“The economy was hot, and inflation was rampant,” Ron said. “Starting wages for new graduates were increasing 10% per year. I don’t remember billing rates, but I presume they were rising accordingly.”
To put this notion in perspective, Ron’s pay starting out as a 20-year-old accountant a few years prior was half that -- $6K annually in April 1966.
“One of the more drastic adjustments in this business was the industry shift to Compilation and Review standards in 1978,” he added.
Before the first version of SSARS (Standards for Accounting and Review Services) was introduced, the authoritative body of the American Institute of CPAs (AICPA), only recognized the terms “audited” or “unaudited.”
“Our firm was called on the carpet by licensing organizations for using words like “‘without independent verification” and “verification’ and ‘with limited independent verification when issuing letter reports associated with financial statements,” Ron said. “To resolve the matter and retain our license, we were required to join what was termed a ‘peer review’ monitoring system.”
“In retrospect,” he continued, “we were on the cutting-edge of where the industry ended up but. But, at the time, we were considered mavericks, and the stress was significant.”
Looking back, thinking forward
The “watershed” moment for Ron, though, boils down to the widespread use of computers. Its effect on income tax laws and associated compliance is unparalleled.
“Computer power has enabled legislative bodies to create laws that could not be complied with without computers,” he said. “In fact, some laws are so complex and cumbersome that the words ‘check with your tax preparer’ may exceed the capabilities and understanding of your tax preparer.”
He said the legislative intent is “laudable.” But the complexity has become an “administrative nightmare.”
“I am concerned that this complexity opens the door for both purposeful and accidental misuse of the laws, and challenges the ability of,” he said, adding that taxing authorities may be challenged to monitor compliance. “If laws can’t be administered clearly and fairly, confidence in the system is at risk.”
Double-entry accounting represents a positive transformation, what Ron characterizes as a “marvelous tool.”
“Done correctly and with proper controls, the information the ‘system’ provides offers an unequaled level of assurance and understanding for the users of that system,” he said.
And, as we celebrate this milestone alongside our clients and the communities that we serve, it is critical to be informed by the past, to reflect on the changes as a means of also looking forward – to the future and with the same pioneering spirit of those before us who had the courage to be “mavericks,” elevating industry standards.
Ron sums it all up with: “O’Donnell, Ficenec, Wills & Ferdig has flourished for 70 years and will flourish for 70 more years, because we provide reliable, fact-based information, derived from the understanding and application of sound accounting principles.
“Yes, we are ‘more than accounting.’ But, first and foremost, we remain professional accountants.”