There’s more to accounting than meets the eye.
In the public’s perception, the accounting profession is often considered math-intensive, heavy on the details, and more than a little dry. But Ralph Cox, a CPA and managing member at the local accounting firm, Bourgeois Bennett LLC, believes there’s much more to his field than meets the eye.
“I think the accounting profession, especially public accounting, is really about helping businesses find ways to accomplish their objectives. It’s showing them how to become more profitable, improve decisions and run better,” he said.
Founded in 1923, Bourgeois Bennett is most likely the oldest firm in the Greater New Orleans area with local roots. When Cox joined, its offices were downtown at the Hibernia Building where it had been since the 1940s, but after Heritage Plaza opened up just over the Jefferson Parish line, the firm decamped to the suburbs. The new location allowed quick access to downtown and also to the many family businesses throughout the area that are the firm’s specialty.
“Providing accounting services to family businesses is our forté,” said Cox. “There are unique characteristics in working with them because there’s always a family dynamic at play. It takes someone who understands these relationships.”
Family dynamics become particularly important when a business is passing from one generation to the next. For example, a son in a family business might take over from his father who is retiring or removing himself from day-to-day operations. This child may be capable and interested in the business, but suppose his siblings are not. If the business shares were split evenly, it wouldn’t be fair to the hard-working son. But on the other hand, the son has been taking a salary, which could be seen as drawing down company value for the remaining children.
“The solutions we suggest depend on the circumstances. You try to accomplish the business’s objectives and keep everyone satisfied,” Cox said, adding that full satisfaction is not always possible. “There are not a lot of family businesses that survive beyond the first generation, but some of our clients are on their third or fourth. I like to think we’ve played a part in their success and in their successions.”
In addition to doing accounting for family-owned and closely held businesses, Bourgeois Bennett handles personal tax returns, typically for high-net worth individuals with complex tax needs. The firm also does forensic accounting for litigation.
As one example, suppose an employee resigns from a company and is accused of breach of contract for taking off with clients or business interests. When the former employer takes legal action, it’s up to Bourgeois Bennett to quantify the damages so compensation can be pursued in the legal system. Another specialty of Bourgeois Bennett is class-action litigation, typically for industrial accidents. The firm’s role is to build and manage databases of claimants, quantify damage amounts and disperse the funds of a settlement.
Bourgeois Bennett has received a “Best Places to Work” designation from CityBusiness for two years running. “Our firm is only as good as the people who work here. We try to do our best to recruit and retain the best people we can.” said Cox. “To me a good place to work is first where people are comfortable with the ethical and professional environment and second where they get challenging assignments and job satisfaction. In this profession, there are a lot of demands and time constraints, so flexibility and the ability to control the work environment is also important.”
Although he still does accounting work, especially for his long-standing clients, Cox’s part at the firm has evolved into one of CEO. “My primary role is to be the face of the firm to all of our clients, especially our major ones, and to the community at large. I am also involved in management and achieving strategic objectives.” Cox spends much of his time serving on a number of different professional, civic and charitable foundation boards.
Cox grew up in Mid-City in New Orleans, not too far from Jesuit High School, which he attended. In college at LSU, he started out as an electrical engineering major. “One day as a junior, I woke up and said: ‘I’m not sure what I want to do, but it’s not this.’”
Cox transferred to UNO, and his computer science coursework led him to an introductory class in accounting, which proved to be a first step on a new career path. At night, Cox processed orders at a Ford parts depot in Arabi. When that plant was shuttered, Cox interviewed around at accounting firms.
“Bourgeois Bennett gave me the flexibility to work while going to school,” he recalled. “I started in 1969 and have been here ever since. I don’t regret anything about it.”