Brian Wilkins (What’s it like to be a CPA?)

Brian Wilkins has been a Certified Public Accountant (CPA) in the Twin Cities for the past nine years.

A Woodbury, Minnesota native, Wilkins has always possessed an affinity for numbers and mathematical equations.

“As early as I can remember, I wanted to be an accountant,” Wilkins recalls, and as a teenager, Wilkins’ predilection for computation was refined at a charter school that specialized in teaching students math and science.

“It was a small school,” Wilkins says of his high school.

“My graduating class only had 29 people. It focused on math, science, and delivering a more rigorous education.”

Both of Wilkins’ parents were Certified Managerial Accountants (CMA) for 3M, a renowned multinational conglomerate that operates in the fields of industry, worker safety, U.S. healthcare, and consumer goods.

Wilkins assumed that he would eventually follow in his parents’ footsteps and become a CMA, but before college Wilkins instead opted to pursue his public accounting license and become a CPA.

Understanding the nuances of being a CMA versus a CPA can be challenging, but there is one key thing to remember:

“A managerial accountant [CMA] is doing cost accounting for a business,” Wilkins says.

For context, at a company like 3M, a CMA works diligently to determine how much profit each specific product makes, which in turn allows executives at the company to decide how much to charge for each product.

But in the case of a CPA, their responsibilities are focused on examining earnings reports so that they can assist clients with accurately filing their taxes.

“This type of work [CPA] requires a different certification, and instead of working directly for a company like 3M, I work in the public sphere,” Wilkins says.

In both sectors, there is a lot of demand for capable people who can help companies maintain financial integrity.

This reality is what led Wilkins to ultimately enroll at the University of Minnesota and pursue a degree in Accounting & Finance, a 150-credit journey that Wilkins says reinforced his passion for the practical application of numbers.

“I loved all my business and accounting classes because they were like solving puzzles, and that’s something that I really enjoy doing,” he admits.

Following the culmination of his higher education, Wilkins then was hired as a Tax Manager at Deloitte, another globally recognized entity that most recently sponsored the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, China.

With offices in over 150 countries and a penchant for working with some of the world’s most wealthy businesses and entrepreneurs, being employed by Deloitte is a testament to just how competent a new CPA is, and it is also why immediately after getting hired Wilkins was thrust into a prominent role within the company.

“I was super excited to work for Deloitte because they had placed me in their private client services group, which is a group that focuses specifically on high net worth individuals and their private businesses and trusts,” Wilkins explains.

“That was exactly where I wanted to be because I like working for individuals, as opposed to the more corporate business side of things.”

As an employee of Deloitte, gainful employment and tremendous benefits were part of Wilkins’ compensation package, but the former Gopher also found himself routinely working 90-100 hours per week during tax season.  

“It was an incredible grind of working all week from 7 A.M. to past midnight,” he says.

Unlike some of his coworkers who eventually grew to despise the demanding job responsibilities, Wilkins overcame the strenuous workload.

“Most people quit within their first one to two years, but I leaned into it and really enjoyed it,” he says.

“It was a lot of problem-solving and getting things to work in the software, and then we had the camaraderie of the team where everyone sat in a big conference room and strategized on how to best serve the client.”

Wilkins relished his job at Deloitte, but with the heavy workload he also experienced setbacks in his personal life, something that would make most people second-guess their vocation.

Fortunately, Wilkins was patient enough to realize that one day the investment he was making into his career would pay off.

“Once I got through that initial stretch, everything else became easier,” he says.

For better or worse, Wilkins’ arduous indoctrination into public accounting wasn’t rare.

In fact, his early struggles are common among new CPAs, especially if they work at big firms like Deloitte.

Wilkins says he was aware of the type of stress he was agreeing to absorb when he accepted a position at Deloitte, as were many of his peers, but strangely enough, there are still a significant percentage of new CPAs who burn out quickly.

“You have to go in with the right mentality, knowing that you are going to be pushed to your limits, both mentally and emotionally,” Wilkins mentions, adding that some reports have indicated that close to 80% of new hires at Deloitte leave within two years due to the unforgiving demands of the job.

“A lot of new hires are coming from the college lifestyle where they might have been partying two to three times per week. Deloitte makes you work Saturday mornings and sometimes Sundays, so it’s definitely a lifestyle change for people coming into that environment in their early twenties.”

Still, the sometimes reclusive lifestyle of public accounting doesn’t mean that all who choose to become CPAs prefer a sedentary way of living and minimal contact with other people, as has often been depicted in pop culture.

“CPAs and accountants in general are stereotyped as a certain type of person, someone who is not outgoing or someone who likes to sit in the back office and not talk to people,” Wilkins says.

“To a certain extent that may be true, but when I was at Deloitte so much of the job involved interacting with clients and forming relationships, so if you didn’t have the ability to talk to people or to cultivate relationships, you weren’t going to succeed.”

In further debunking the stereotypes surrounding CPAs, Wilkins emphasizes that not every public accountant is a tax guru.  

“The majority of CPAs focus on audits. They have no background in tax,” he says.

“Doing taxes are not a problem for me. I get asked about tax stuff all the time and I know most of the answers, but there are a lot of CPAs who get asked tax questions and have no idea what the answer is because they audit companies, not prepare taxes.”

A few years back, Wilkins transitioned away from Deloitte to work in family office.

While leaving the company that for seven years served as a second home and family was difficult, Wilkins insists that he remains in a good spot and is fulfilled in every aspect of his job.

“Family office is the dream job. There is so much less stress, and you get to focus on tax and investing,” he says.  

Looking back to the inception of his career, there is little Wilkins would change about the course of his professional life, and much of that can be attributed to the fact that years ago he was willing to delay gratification in order to one day accomplish bigger goals, a strategy that future CPAs would be wise to emulate.  

“Put in the time on the front end,” Wilkins advises upcoming CPAs.

“When I was going through it between the ages of 20 and 25, it sucked not being able to date all that much, or not being able to spend as much time with my friends as I wanted to, but being in my late twenties I now have great opportunities and plenty of time. My life is incredible, but it wouldn’t be as incredible as it is if I didn’t put in that time on the front end.” QS


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