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Ernst & Young Executive Gives Perspective on
Current Landscape of Accountancy, Post Sarbanes-Oxley

 

Jim Cook, partner, Ernst & Young.Jim Cook discussed the practical impact of the 2002 Sabanes-Oxley (S-O) legislation in a presentation to accountancy students in early March. Cook is global director of retail and consumer products and director of industries for Ernst & Young (E&Y), one of the Big Four accounting firms. His talk paralleled information provided in a comprehensive Ernst & Young brochure about the legislation.

Cook started his presentation with a review of the six key areas included in Sarbanes: disclosure, roles, conduct, enforcement, penalties, and relationships. He focused his comments on those sections of the act that are having the most significant impact in the early years of enforcement.

More Active CEOs

Section 302, which deals with management certifications, has significantly increased CEO involvement in financial oversight. Because the quarterly and annual financial statements required by the section are not "stand-alone events," the work and supporting systems required to fulfill the legislative requirements are being integrated into routine business performance reporting and financial reporting processes. CEOs are increasing their involvement in financial reporting processes, and they are sending a strong message about accountability and responsibility across the organization. "Accountability is moving down into organizations, driving dialog and increased correspondence," Cook noted.

Enhancing Communication

One goal of the S-O legislation was to increase the frequency and quality of communication within companies. Although the section 302 management certification applies to the most senior staff, the impact is being felt at operational levels as CEOs require statements from managers and others verifying data from their units. Section 404, which deals with the evaluation of internal controls, has also increased communication. Audit committees are requesting periodic status briefings from management. Similarly, external auditors and the audit committee are engaging in more frequent and open discussions as required by section 204. One change that Cook noted was the participation of CEOs in audit committee meetings, something he did not see often prior to the passage of this landmark legislation.

Audit Committees and Compliance

Audit committees have taken on new stature under S-O. Section 202 calls for the audit committee to pre-approve all services provided by an auditor. As Cook noted, this is true no matter how small the commitment of time. Section 202 also requires that companies keep track of auditing services, which has created a need for internal controls for these services. "This is a big deal," said Cook. While such paperwork might seem simply bureaucratic in character, crossing the line can require an auditing firm to resign as an auditor.

Section 404 has also pushed companies to invest in tools and to rethink methodologies, causing, according to Cook, "a lot of work for our clients." He used Whirlpool as an example, noting that the company has a team of a "a couple of dozen" people working on S-O compliance with additional work from people not directly on the compliance team. Whirlpool has also acquired software to help them accomplish their goals.

"A lot of people did not understand the significance of this section," said Cook. "It is an ongoing exercise to meet the requirements." He noted that the evaluation of internal controls is an opportunity to improve systems and procedures.

New Opportunities

Cook pointed out an aspect of S-O that has changed employment opportunities for the students attending the presentation. Section 201 of the legislation spells out certain services that auditors are prohibited from providing to their clients. For companies where Ernst & Young is providing auditing services, the company cannot also provide such services as financial information systems design and implementation, management functions, actuarial services, or investment banking systems. The E&Y clients need to look elsewhere for those types of services, creating opportunities for other accounting firms. These so-called second service providers for non-audit related functions will provide job opportunities in the coming years for recent graduates.

About the Speaker

Jim Cook is a partner with Ernst & Young, LLP where he serves as global director of retail and consumer products and Americas director of industries. He has 32 years of experince and has worked with a wide range of clients including Whirlpool, McDonald's, and S.C. Johnson and Son.

Cook is a 1971 graduate of the College of Business with a BS in accountancy. He is an active member of the Executive Committee of the Dean's Business Council and is a past president of the College of Business Alumni Association. Other charitable and non-profit organizations have benefited from his time and talents, including the Chicago-Greater Illinois chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.

--Ginny Hudak-David
March 2004