Former Comptroller General of the United States, Charles Bowsher, Addresses Accountancy Students
by Tom Hanlon
Elkhart, Indiana, where Charles Bowsher ('53) grew up, is known as the “Band Instrument Capital of the World.” Bowsher grew up playing the trombone, and noted that “nearly every kid in Elkhart played an instrument of some sort.”
But few Elkhart kids have made their mark in the world as the former trombonist has.
Bowsher, speaking to a packed Deloitte Auditorium crowd of accounting majors at the recent Department of Accountancy Lyceum, detailed his rise through the ranks—beginning with his accountancy degree from the University of Illinois in 1953 to his stint in the Army to his quick decision to go to the University of Chicago, where he earned his MBA. “We learned we could get out of the Army three months early if we returned to school. I wasn’t expecting to go back to school, but that changed my mind.”
That was one of many turning points in Bowsher’s career. He has displayed a knack for making the right decision at the right time—including joining Arthur Andersen & Co. in 1956. It was at Arthur Andersen, he says, that his career really took off.
And his career path went on a steady rise, from partner at Arthur Andersen to Assistant Secretary of Financial Management for the Navy—the largest-operating company in the world at the time, he says—to a 15-year stint as Comptroller General of the United States and head of the General Accounting Office (GAO).
Outlook is Good
While acknowledging that times are tough for young accountants entering the field, Bowsher said the profession is stronger than ever and the outlook is good. “Today the accounting profession ranks right up there with the elite professions in this country. Your choice of majoring in accounting should pay off for you.”
Bowsher’s choice paid off for him—even though when he entered the field, accountants with MBAs were receiving $5,000 offers from the big accounting firms, while new doctors were receiving $25,000 to establish practices in small towns. But he never regretted his career choice and looked for breaks to improve his career.
“You have to be ready for your breaks,” he said. “When you get those breaks, you have to be well-trained, you have to have the experience, you have to be willing to work hard enough to do a good job.”
Bowsher noted that even though the economy is lagging, there will always be a need for good accountants. “You will play a very interesting role in your jobs. Everyone needs a financial management expert running any kind of an organization. Certainly all the big corporations need a CFO.
“If you go with the big firms you’ll get job offers to get CFOs and comptrollers. It’s a great opportunity to break out if you want to go with one company. But you’re going to get those offers only if you are able to help them.”
In addition to the big accounting firms, Bowsher pointed out that “every non-profit, every hospital, every university needs a competent financial management person who is well-qualified to fill that role. With your degree and some experience, you will find yourself well-qualified. And you will find yourself in the important meetings. By playing that kind of role, you will have a very interesting life.”
“Judgment and Courage”
That interesting life will not be without its challenges, Bowsher said. “You have to be willing to understand what you’re working with once you get out in this world. If you go with one of the big public accounting firms, you’ll probably make manager within five years. At that point your clients will be asking you some very tough questions, and they’re paying you $300 or $400 an hour or more, so they expect you to be able to be helpful to them.”
Of paramount importance in helping clients is being honest with them. And that includes pointing out problems. “Auditors need to stand up to their clients. Clients pay the auditors, so people see that as a potential problem. Never hesitate to raise awareness that there’s a problem here, and resign if you have to. Otherwise you can get in a lot of trouble.”
Bowsher used the Enron case as an example. Ken Lay, former CEO of Enron, worked for Bowsher for three years as a Naval officer. “I knew knew Ken Lay very well. There were situations with Enron that the auditor should have known were clearly wrong.
“So you have to go to the client and say this is wrong, you have to get it right. That’s where the cozy client relationship should fall by the wayside. You should be concentrating on getting it right. It’s judgment and courage. You need that in a tough situation.”
Bowsher has had plenty of opportunities to face problems head-on and display judgment and courage. Under his leadership, the GAO became involved in health care reform, the savings and loan crisis, and the federal budget deficit. As Comptroller General, he played a pivotal role in resolving fiscal crises at Lockheed, Penn Central, the Chrysler Corporation, and Conrail. He has testified before congressional committees over 200 times.
Of the current federal financial crisis, he said, “You need a bipartisan effort. You have to look at defense, at health care, at interest rates. Right now our revenues are at 14.5 percent of our Gross National Product, and normally we’re at 19 or 20 percent. We have to get them back up. It’s not rocket science, but it’s going to be very difficult to get these political forces together.”
In 1996, Bowsher was the 57th inductee into the prestigious Accounting Hall of Fame. About 10 years before he was inducted, he and his son, Steve, were on their way to Canton, Ohio, to visit pro football’s Hall of Fame. Father suggested to son that maybe they stop off in Columbus to see the Accounting Hall of Fame. “Ah, no, that’s okay, Dad,” the son replied.
A career in accountancy might not be as flashy or exciting as one in pro football, but it has its perks and satisfactions. Perhaps accountants march to the beat of a different drummer—but the best ones can march a long way.
Just ask the erstwhile trombone player from Elkhart.