Mark Modas shares his accounting career story and how he’s helping the next generation of accountants
“I never thought I was going to be a CPA,” Mark tells us. “I was originally planning on going into the Marine Corps and making a career out of it.”
That’s how Mark Modas begins the story of his accounting career. Indeed, few people know where they’ll end up when they’re starting out. He went from the long hours of an external auditor in government and the construction industry to non-stop international travel as an internal auditor, supervisor of corporate tax, and then Director of Accounting. Now he has found his calling as an accounting educator.
Mark sits down with us to talk about the choices he made along the way.
You had offers from Arthur Anderson and Ernst and Young, yet chose to work at a small accounting firm. Why did you pass up the Big 4?
“When I was starting out, I went with a smaller accounting firm called Madsen, Sapp, Mena, Rodriguez and Company. One reason was they had a connection with KPMG, and I was guaranteed to work on KPMG jobs. So, I was able to gain Big Four (then Big Six) experience while working at a smaller accounting firm.
Working at a smaller firm allowed me to work in both audit and tax. If you went into the big four, you had to pick: Are you going to audit or are you going to tax?
There was also a yearly chopping block. After busy season, about March or April, the bigger companies would let a bunch of people go. And they’d cycle that out every year. So, going into it, I realized that if you went into the Big Four, or even the second tier firms, you’d go through the season and have to deal with that vicious cycle.
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The setup with the smaller accounting firm seemed pretty good, because I would be transitioned over to tax when not in audit, and I was guaranteed to work with KPMG clients.
I first started out as a Staff Accountant 1 and then moved up to Staff Accountant 2. I was there for about three and a half years.”
What was it like working as an external auditor?
“I worked on external auditor jobs with KPMG clients 75% of the time, mostly governmental audits. The other 25% was with Madsen Sapp clients – construction companies and that sort of thing.
We had this relationship with KPMG because we were a minority firm. This qualification was required for their government contracts. So, before I transitioned to private, I worked on all their big governmental audits like the Broward County Sheriff’s Department.
A lot of people get nervous when they hear about government accounting. It’s just like anything else in accounting. You have to learn it and know it. If you go into it just trying to memorize the rules, you’re going to fail. There were a couple other smaller entities we worked with, too.
One of the biggest things I saw with external audit is that no one wants the auditors there.
When you’re onsite with a client, people feel like you’re getting in their way. My approach was to acknowledge that. I would say, ‘Hey, yes, I know you’re trying to do your everyday work. I’ll get out of your way real quick.’ And it seemed to smooth things over when they realized this guy is not going to be pushing them around.
A lot of the time you would see some of the auditors say, ‘Hey, I found this—this is wrong.’ They would get excited when they would find something. But you shouldn’t gloat with the people that you are auditing. They are doing their best, too.
To me it’s a lot easier being an external auditor and ‘finding’ things, because you’re not doing the everyday work. You’re going there with your audit programs and software and computer systems. You’re looking for anomalies. That’s what we were paid for. We were paid to find something.
And at the end of the day, let’s face it, you have to justify your fee. You’ve been hired to help clean up the books. And if you come back and say, oh, no, it’s super clean (which by the way is great, give the people a pat on the back!), ironically that is looked down upon. So, you’ve got to find something wrong. You’ve got to justify your fees. So, my approach was hey, we found this, but let’s find out the reason why it happened.”
“Sometimes we were onsite from 7 A.M. until midnight or 1 A.M. When you compared your hours to your salary, it was like, wow, we’re making peanuts. But the trade-off was the amount of experience that you got in a very short period of time. And the reputation, once someone saw it on your resume—oh, yeah, you worked with KPMG—you were more marketable.
At the Sheriff’s Office, it was a team of about six or seven people. On a financial audit, it’s always a team. Unless you’re doing a special project, like if you’re looking at a benefits program or something, it might be one or maybe two people.
And so you’re out in the field most of the time, and then you pull out back to the office where you would wrap it up.
The last 5% of the job always seemed to take the longest to get done. It was like whack-a-mole. It would involve the partners doing their technical review. They would look at all the audit work. And even though you had the audit program in front of you and you had your checklist, there were some out-of-the-box questions that each partner might have.
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Now, depending on the client, there were different partners for different clients, and managers had to know the nuances of what each partner wanted. So, this partner over here might want to know more about A. But then this partner over here likes to see more stuff about B and C. So, you had to know ahead of time who was on an audit.
And then, it also was hard for the staffers, the Staff 1 and 2, because you had the different managers, and the different managers had their different management styles. So, this manager might like you to reference something with just an A in front of a number and then have the explanation down below. This other auditor, instead of using alphanumeric, they want numeric up here. They’ll want you to use a number.
It’s little things like that, and as you’re trying to get the audit done, you had to try to remember and take notes: ‘Okay, this manager likes their work papers this way, and that one likes it that way.’ You know? So that adds to the stress.
You had to learn and adapt quickly to what your supervisors wanted.
As a manager, I looked at it this way: Here I’ve got a dollar amount above. I’ve got an A next to it or a 1 next to it. Obviously that means the staff person has got a note down below. I’m not going to tell them, ‘hey, you’ve got to make this an A,’ you know? It’s obvious you’re trying to tell me that you have a note down below. And that’s how I leave it.
So, I would say that was one of the harder things because, yes, you have the technical knowledge, because obviously you went to school. You pass a CPA exam. It’s getting past what the different managers and partners expect of you and how they want you to present the work papers. Something so small becomes a big deal when you have deadlines.”
What did you like most about being an external auditor?
“I would say I liked most interacting with different people all the time, getting to see their experiences, how they do things.
Say for instance, every big company out there has an accounts payable department, right? And so people will figure, especially when you’re coming out of college, oh, I know this. This is how you run an accounts payable department. But there’s more than just textbook knowledge going into audits. There’s commonsense. There’s a feel for what’s going on. There’s auditor opinion.”
What prompted you to make the move to internal auditing?
“After about three and a half years as an external auditor, I knew I didn’t want to go the partner track. Once you went the partner track, you had to get into sales and marketing and all this other stuff.
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I wasn’t exactly sure where in the business I wanted to work. So, I figured internal audit would be the best avenue. You get a taste of everything. Eventually I ended up at Ryder Trucks where I went on to become a supervisor overseeing approximately a dozen internal auditors. I headed up the audits that occurred in Europe, Asia, and Canada.
During that time, I worked very closely with the company’s external auditors for Sarbanes-Oxley audits in Europe. I would go to Europe and at one time I was in charge of four or five external auditors there, in addition to about six internal auditors on my own team. Typically you would not see this, but it was a special project, as it was the first time they were subjected to a Sarbanes-Oxley audit. For instance, they were able to rely on internal audit’s work to a certain point, but they had to test some of it.
When you’re the internal audit team and working with external, you’ve got to learn when to hold your ground. Don’t be intimidated. Don’t be overwhelmed. Because external auditors will sometimes come in and just give that feel to people. But you’ve got to present your confidence. You’ve just got to be mindful and just use your common sense.”
What made you move to corporate taxation?
“I was in internal audit for about three to four years with Ryder. The travel took a toll. I missed my daughter’s first two and a half years of life. I came home from Europe one day, and I was supposed to be home for two weeks. Two to three days later, I was packing a bag because I had to go to Canada to help out the financial reporting team on something.
I remember my daughter sat on my bag and said, ‘no dad. No.’ So, after that I said, okay, I’ve got to leave this work.
When I returned from Canada, I met with the senior vice president of corporate tax and I had a new job as tax supervisor at the end of the meeting.”
You didn’t technically need your master’s degree. Why did you decide to pursue a master’s in taxation?
“While I was down working in Miami, most accountants at Ryder either went for their master’s in business administration or something general. But at the end of the day, I looked at it as how marketable it would make me. There’s a lot of people who opt for the general master’s degrees. Not a lot specialize their master’s in accounting or taxation.
I was fortunate. At Ryder Trucks during the recession around 2009, we had three major layoffs. Thankfully, I survived them all. I reported to the senior vice president of corporate tax and we had a great relationship. He told me he couldn’t promote me or give me a raise—‘was there anything else he could do for me?’ And I said, ‘yeah, I’ve always wanted to get my master’s.’ And he goes, ‘okay, consider it done.’ He ended up getting all my costs paid for. Tuition and books were $35,000. That was better than a raise. The only thing I had to do was to agree to stay for two years after I was done.
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I didn’t get my master’s until a few years ago. To do it over again, I would have done it closer to the start of my career. It would have been a lot easier.”
What prompted you to switch careers again?
“There was an opportunity that opened up at the Broward County School Board that I could not pass up. The position was a senior accounting manager position and it got me back into financial reporting.
I had to start from the bottom again. My boss was excellent, an awesome teacher; his approach reminded me of my first experience in the accounting field when I worked in my parent’s accounting and tax firm.
My mom and dad actually run an accounting business, and when I worked there way back, my dad gave me a broom, which meant you were going to learn from the bottom up. You’re not just going to be handed responsibilities. I started out sweeping. You know, you’re not going to be entitled to anything.
When my boss was in the process of training me to be his secondhand person, he passed away from a massive heart attack while he and I were attending a government accounting seminar in Tampa. They gave me his job—I was promoted to director. I was suddenly overseeing 60 people.
I worked in the tax area for about six or seven years.”
Now you work in education. Was that a bit of an adjustment for you?
“I went from actually doing the work, sleeves rolled up, to teaching how to do it. I’ve worked as an accounting editor at Gleim since 2016. So, now instead of putting together policies and procedures for my staff, I’m pulling together knowledge in courses to help students pass accounting exams and get their CPA, CMA, CIA, and EA.
We look at what topics to include, what to adjust to create the most useful study guide. You go out and research it and try to put it down in the simplest terms. And then from there you create the questions to help people learn and practice the material.
I like that I get to work across several products at Gleim. We had the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) to incorporate into our materials, and I worked on updating our CPA REG guidance. I move among the AUD, BEC, and FAR exam prep materials. I was also recently working on the CIA exam prep materials for the latest version.
I’m also an adjunct professor of accounting at Santa Fe College.”
That’s a long ways from the Marine Corps. Tell us how you first started down the accounting track.
“I never thought I was going to be an accountant, or a teacher for that matter. I wanted to follow my dad’s footsteps and become a marine. But I was in a bad car accident where I was hit by a drunk driver, and I was left with a disability. So, when I wasn’t able to go into the Marine Corps, I went back to school.
School had not been my thing. I had gone to a private school and graduated with around a 2.5 GPA. (And I think my parents wanted to do something to me!) But when life threw it that way, I went to Florida Atlantic University and graduated cum laude. And I was like, ‘wow, I can do this!’ It took me eight years to finish a five-year program. I worked as I went to school, and there were some times I couldn’t go because I couldn’t afford it.
Then I only needed four additional graduate-level courses to sit for the CPA Exam. So, I chose the four and then sat for the CPA.
I took the CPA exam in May 1998. My wife—my fiance at the time—bought me the four Gleim books. They were a big contributor for me passing the exam the first time. Back in ‘98, they only offered the CPA Exam twice a year. And you had to take all four parts at the same time. I was fortunate to pass the first time.”
Why did you choose to work with Gleim, in Gainesville?
“Honestly, it started with my kids. I was born and raised in south Florida. It’s not the same as when I was younger, and I wanted a much better environment for my kids. It was a hard choice because my parents are still down there, and I’m very close with them. My kids went from seeing them once or twice a week to every couple months. So, that was tough. But the school systems up here, I feel, are much better.
When I saw there was a job opportunity at Gleim, I thought, ‘They got me through the CPA Exam.’ It was obviously a high-quality product, as I passed the first time using Gleim.
The selling point for me was the people. I connected with Trisha, the human resources manager, and it was like we knew each other forever. I came up for the interview and met with Garrett Gleim, and I could see the great direction where the company was going.”
Looking back on where you’ve come from, do you have any advice for somebody starting out in accounting?
“Remember to breathe. Remember to find your happy place.
The exams can be stressful, whether you’re getting your undergrad or master’s or studying for the CPA and other certifications. Then, once you start out in your career, you’re going to be doing lower level jobs. You might think, ‘I’ve got to reconcile cash?’
Go ahead and hit a home-run with that.
To you, it might seem like it’s minor, but this is really where you’re being tested before you can be moved over to more complex work. Your supervisor will be looking to see how you document your work papers. How you get along with the client and the other staff.
You might work 80-hour weeks. When you’re tired, the stress is even worse. On top of that, you could find yourself working for different managers often. After you’re done with one job, you could be moving over to another audit client. And each manager has their own way of how they like things done.
So, just remember to breathe.”
Thanks for sharing your advice with our readers, Mark! Keep up the great work preparing tomorrow’s accountants for their certifications.
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About Mark Modas, CPA
Mark Modas, CPA, is an accounting editor at Gleim and adjunct professor at Santa Fe College in Gainesville, Florida. He passed the CPA Exam in 1998 using Gleim CPA Exam Prep, and has worked in internal and external audit, tax, and now as an educator. He holds a Bachelor of Science in accounting and a Master of Science in taxation.
Mark and his wife, Nadine, and their son Ethan and daughter Emily enjoy living just outside Gainesville in Newberry, where they are surrounded by farmland and away from crowds. Mark’s family chose Newberry as their home because it is a quick trip to the natural springs for swimming, snorkeling, and scuba diving; an hour’s drive to the Gulf of Mexico for some awesome saltwater fishing and boating; and just minutes to two golf courses, where he often goes golfing with his family. They enjoy being an hour and a half drive to four great amusement parks (i.e., Disney, Universal Studios, SeaWorld and Busch Gardens) where he and his family like the rides, taking in Halloween Horror Nights and Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween, or just relaxing while eating a turkey leg or a baked soft pretzel.