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Starting from Scratch

By Steve Smith, CMA; Monte Swain, CMA, CPA; and Bill Tayler, CMA
August 1, 2017
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It was 2013, and Brigham Young University (BYU) in Provo, Utah, had one of the top-ranked accounting programs in the country. Competition to get into the program was fierce, and the average GPA was 3.70 for new students. Placements were at an all-time high, with 95% of graduates finding full-time work. On the surface, everything seemed to be going great.

 

In fact, everything was great for many of the students. But some students in BYU’s accounting program found themselves struggling to fit into the traditional career path. They saw the amazing Big 4 public accounting firm placement options before them, but they weren’t as excited as some of their peers about that option. As one student put it, “I knew I was in the right major, and I enjoyed accounting. But I just didn’t feel like that was the path for me. The trouble was, I saw no other path.” This had been a concern at BYU for some time. Indeed, as management accounting professors in BYU’s School of Accountancy (SOA), we remembered feeling the same way when we were students there. So along with a group of motivated students, we turned to IMA® (Institute of Management Accountants) to help address this dilemma.

 

The three of us were able to participate in and oversee the formation of an IMA student chapter at BYU that year. Each of us still serves in an advisory role. We wanted to use IMA as a vehicle to help students get informed about all their career options, including those outside public accounting, and to help them improve and enlarge those career opportunities through pursuit of the CMA® (Certified Management Accountant) certification.

 

Fast-forward to 2017: The BYU student chapter of IMA has become a thriving, student-driven club with more than 120 members. It attracts students who are drawn to management accounting careers or who merely want to make the most informed career decisions they can. And the chapter regularly invites members of IMA’s Salt Lake Area Chapter, as well as professionals who come to campus for recruiting visits, to speak at various events. In addition, factory tours and service projects, internship panels (run by students who report on their internship experience), as well as presentations about business ethics and the CMA exam are part of the annual schedule.

 

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BLENDING KEY INGREDIENTS

 

Did our student chapter really “start from scratch” in 2013? No, we can’t actually say that. Once we decided to organize, we found that many of the building blocks were already in place, so putting things together was actually quite simple. Here are some of the key ingredients of our successful IMA student chapter.

 

1. A need and a desire to help. In the past, as many as 85% of BYU graduating accounting students found jobs at the large public accounting firms. Of course, such high placement rates are wonderful and greatly valued. Not surprisingly, though, the success of these placements created a perception that public accounting represents the only legitimate employment option for graduating students. In other words, whether taken as a long-term career path or merely as a rite of passage to someone’s eventual career path, all roads seemed to necessarily pass through public accounting.

 

The IMA student chapter was formed with the goal of helping students learn about the breadth of employment opportunities available to graduates with an accounting degree. Clearly, students who are more aware of the full range of options are more likely to find jobs that best suit them, including students who choose to pursue careers in public accounting. More information and connections on career opportunities lead to better decisions and result in graduating students who are happier, perform better, and stay longer with the organizations who employ them when they graduate. The IMA chapter’s activities have helped create win-win-win outcomes for students, employers (including the Big 4), and the University.

 

The chapter has also helped students learn about the CMA designation as a valuable credential that can open doors and create new opportunities for them. To advance that goal with some credibility, two of us (Steve Smith and Bill Tayler) followed the example of Monte Swain and recently became CMAs. Now all of us can share our experiences with the students about what it takes to earn the CMA certification.

 

2. Great students to work with. The first group of interested students, all of whom served as officers in the chapter’s first year, had no prior exposure to IMA, no previous leadership to guide them, and little real knowledge about how the chapter should operate or even what value it would bring to them. Nevertheless, they dove in headfirst, learning everything they could about how to start and run the chapter, trying new ideas, and adjusting as needed along the way. We told them from the beginning that the chapter needed to be student-led and student-operated in order to survive. These student founders took this counsel to heart, and the chapter has thrived as a result.

 

Each successive team of chapter leaders has built on the successes of its predecessor teams. Institutional knowledge is captured and passed on, patterns and programs are used and improved over time, and contacts are retained. The chapter has truly been strengthened by motivated and hard-working student leaders (and members) who believe in the mission and are eager to advance it. The importance of committed student leaders can’t be overstated.

 

3. Departmental support. Administrative leaders were quick to recognize the value that the IMA student chapter could add to the educational experiences and professional development of BYU students. Professors Steve Glover and Jeff Wilks, who have recently served as SOA directors, have consistently supported the chapter’s efforts and activities, attending meetings and celebrating achievements—­including posting an occasional website announcement or emailing faculty about key IMA achievements. They have also invested department funds to support BYU students to attend the IMA Student Leadership Conference each year. These conferences allow student chapter members to interact with IMA members and leaders from around the country, receive valuable leadership training, and expand their networks. To ensure students have “skin in the game,” the SOA doesn’t pay all of the travel costs but covers enough that students who are selected to attend can easily afford to participate.

 

4. Professional support. The IMA student chapter also continues to receive wonderful support from the professional community. Invited speakers have been eager to participate and to share their knowledge and counsel with chapter members. They are analysts, directors, VPs of finance, and CFOs who work for companies of all different sizes and in different industries. Each person has a unique background, and each brings a unique perspective on accounting and accounting careers that expands the students’ views of their career possibilities.

 

Local companies have been happy to receive student chapter members for plant tours that bring increased richness to the accounting education students receive at BYU. Students recently visited the local dairy operations of AgReserves, an agricultural company owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Other tours include Nu Skin, 1-800-Contacts, IM Flash, Action Target, and Adobe, all of which helped further open students’ eyes to the breadth of accounting career options.

 

The student chapter has also received financial support through a grant from the John Deere Foundation (the philanthropic arm of Deere & Company) for the last four years. This grant provides funds to support an annual closing banquet, lunch and/or refreshments at chapter meetings, and BYU/IMA-branded shirts for chapter officers.

 

Company recruiters have come to see the IMA student chapter as a valuable tool for identifying and contacting outstanding students who have particular interests in management accounting and corporate finance careers. Increasingly, large multinational companies are investing in rotational leadership programs designed to develop new employees from within by providing them with all the exposure and experience that students might have thought they could get only by spending time in public accounting. As a result, these companies are increasingly committed to hiring directly from campus. Recruiters respond favorably to seeing pursuit of the CMA on the résumés of many students and have often commented on the value of the BYU IMA student chapter. As a result, many of these recruiting companies are happy to chip in for refreshments at chapter meetings or to sponsor small breakfast events for interested chapter members.

 

5. IMA support. Efforts to advance management accounting through an IMA student chapter at BYU had been made in the mid-1990s and early 2000s, but traction was difficult. A major factor in the success of this most recent effort is a host of new IMA programs and initiatives to attract students and to support student chapters.

 

IMA offers scholarships that have attracted students to the BYU student chapter, including the IMA Memorial Education Fund (MEF) Scholarship, which provides $1,000 to $2,500 for scholarship recipients, and the Stuart Cameron & Margaret McLeod Memorial (SCMS) Scholarship, which provides $5,000 for scholarship recipients.

 

IMA also offers a CMA Scholarship that provides IMA membership for students while they pursue the CMA exam, waives the entrance fee to the CMA program, delivers an exam support package, and covers the registration fees of the exam. BYU has successfully nominated a number of qualified students for this valuable IMA scholarship.

 

And IMA’s Student Leadership Conference (which will be held November 9-11 in Houston, Texas), the Student Case Competition, the IMA Leadership Experience, and the IMA Student Manuscript Competition are other great initiatives that have strengthened the local BYU student chapter. Further, IMA’s Award of Excellence program has provided a valuable template for how to build the schedule for a great student chapter each year.

 

In addition to assistance from these IMA support programs, BYU was fortunate to host IMA President and CEO Jeff Thomson in November 2015. He spoke to chapter officers and provided advice on how to further advance the mission of IMA at BYU. Lisa Beaudoin, IMA director of Educational Partnerships, also visited BYU in September 2013. She spoke to a large group of potential IMA members just as the student chapter was starting to take root.

 

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HOW YOUR SCHOOL CAN SUCCEED

 

As you can see, the raw materials to successfully launch our IMA student chapter were there, just waiting to be organized. In fact, most colleges and universities have these materials, and they could benefit like we have. Consider the key elements:

 

Need and desire. If you’re still reading this article, it’s likely that you recognize, or at least suspect, the need for a strong program like an IMA student chapter to help students reach their accounting career potential. Indeed, there are more people willing to help than you might realize. Professors, alumni, recruiters, and students are actively seeking ways to better serve students. This particular “raw material” is found in abundance at almost any college or university.

 

Ambitious and dedicated students. Accounting and finance are demanding majors. Students who qualify for these programs are often some of the top students in colleges and universities, and they typically are ambitious and highly motivated. You only need to attend the IMA Student Leadership Conference, where students gather from an impressively diverse set of colleges and universities, to see that there’s no shortage of talented and conscientious students. Some of them are just waiting for a little guidance so they can take the reins and establish strong student chapters.

 

Internal and external community support. While support for initiatives will vary from school to school, the good news is that it doesn’t really take much to get things rolling. For example, some departments will have funding to help send students to the Student Leadership Conference, while others won’t. But attendance at this conference isn’t absolutely essential to chapter success. The key is that accounting and finance departments view an IMA student chapter as an appropriate and effective program for helping students qualify for and pursue their ideal careers. What accounting or finance department wouldn’t want to support that objective?

 

In addition, many companies are eager for more access to students. Though not all will support IMA student chapters with an endowment, many will have the funds to provide refreshments for small gatherings. Further, most professionals are honored to be asked to speak to IMA student chapters and are excited to share their experiences. Indeed, with a little door knocking and cold calling, most schools will find that professional support is plentiful.

 

IMA resources. We can’t say enough about all of the amazing support we’ve received from the folks at IMA—and we aren’t alone. IMA works diligently to support colleges and universities in their efforts to build robust student chapters. IMA staff and volunteers are there to serve and are a tremendous boon to local efforts. Any school that wants to form a chapter needs to simply reach out to IMA (contact the IMA Community Relations team at communityservices@imanet.org) to get started.

 

More and more schools are starting and maintaining IMA student chapters. They are finding, as we have, that a program built on the IMA foundation can provide benefits for many students who might otherwise struggle to find and prepare for the career path that best suits them. Our chapter has helped hundreds of such students, and we couldn’t be happier with the results. Now it’s your turn.

 

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Steve Smith, CMA, Ph.D., is an associate professor and the Kristine V. and Randy J. Vest Fellow in Accountancy at Brigham Young University’s Marriott School of Management. He also is a member of IMA’s Salt Lake Area Chapter. You can reach him at stevesmith@byu.edu.
Monte Swain, CMA, CPA, Ph.D., is the Deloitte Professor of Accountancy at the Brigham Young University School of Accountancy and a member of IMA’s Salt Lake Area Chapter. You can contact him at monte@byu.edu.
Bill Tayler, CMA, Ph.D., is a professor and the Warnick Deloitte Touche Fellow at the Brigham Young University School of Accountancy and and a member of IMA’s Salt Lake Area Chapter. You can reach him at tayler@byu.edu.  
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