This article originally appeared in Strategic Finance Magazine.
Throughout my 54 years as a member, IMA® (Institute of Management Accountants) has had its ups and downs, and I’m happy to say it’s in a great place now.
In 1964 I moved to Racine, Wis., to accept a new financial position in a manufacturing company that made automobile mufflers. Soon after I arrived, a colleague said, “Al, why don’t you come with us this evening to the NAA meeting? The company pays for the meal.” Never one to turn down a free meal, I accepted. More than 100 accountants from all the local manufacturing companies were there, and the meeting was part social, part business.
Before I knew it, I was invited to join the Racine-Kenosha Chapter board where I met compatriots from other local firms, giving me perspective on the accounting problems prevalent at the time. That was great. What struck me was how competitive our board was as we participated in the nationwide NAA (National Association of Accountants) Chapter Competition. The two areas where a chapter had a chance to excel were in the submission of manuscripts for the monthly magazine (Management Accounting, now Strategic Finance) and obtaining new members.
Fortunately, I was able to write on accounting matters and shortly began a writing career that spanned six books and more than 100 articles, many of them in the NAA/IMA magazine. In fact, I believe I’ve had more articles published by our Association than anyone else in 100 years, including one that won an award at the 50th Anniversary meeting in 1969 in New York City.
From the perspective of my fellow chapter members, I was a real asset, accounting for many much-needed points each year. But in the second category, new members, I was at a disadvantage. Virtually every accountant at my company was already a member. We received few points for retention, and the company paid our annual dues (some $40 a year), so we didn’t lose members either.
By 1969 I was an active member of the chapter board, ultimately finding myself president, and then became active at the inception of the Midwest Regional Council. But despite our best efforts, we simply couldn’t expand our membership. The most common pattern was for a local company’s corporate controller to become membership chairman, and he immediately drafted five or six of his employees into membership. This system worked for us and many other chapters, but it had a serious long-term unanticipated consequence.
Through the 1970s, Association membership rose because new chapters were continually being chartered. But dues levels also began to climb, and I remember a National Board of Directors meeting where a dues increase was voted down, despite my asking that even if you paid your own dues, wasn’t it worth at least $50 to belong to a premier professional association? “Isn’t your career worth $50?” At this point, I was a member of the executive team on the NAA staff and was concerned about the Association’s financial stability along with our ability to provide excellent member benefits and retain our variety of members from beginning accountants to CFOs.
We had always been known as a professional association and were especially respected for education and research. The pressure to increase the number of members each year caused the proposed dues increase to fail because of the argument that higher dues would keep some accountants out. In short, Association leadership focused on numbers, not quality.
The result was that NAA was losing its mix of members, especially because corporate controllers and above were joining other associations that were geared more to their specific needs. That also started a period of declining membership. We had to change our focus. It’s beyond the scope of this reminiscence to cover the whole story of IMA’s eventual recovery, which involved, among other things, changing the name from NAA to IMA, refocusing the monthly magazine, and getting involved in educational programs to advance the careers of members.
And, of course, there’s the most strategic move: The introduction and growth of the CMA®(Certified Management Accountant) program brought us back to professionalism rather than growth for the sake of growth. (Full disclosure: I was in the group to take the first CMA exam, and I am CMA No. 23.)
One action that may not have received much notice was the governance change. For many years, the volunteer Association President was the CEO, and the staff leaders reported to him or her. This meant that, every year, the organization had to adjust to a new CEO, each with a new agenda. Changing to make an employee the IMA president and CEO and the volunteer leader the Chair of the IMA Global Board of Directors gave significant continuity; it really focused attention on longer-term goals and markedly improved IMA. As part of this change, the Board also created the positions of Chair-Elect, Chair-Emeritus, and Immediate Former Chair-Emeritus who, together with the Chair, work on the same goals and strategy. This added to the long-term focus and improvement.
What are other major changes in the 50-year span? First, we are now a truly co-educational association. When I started attending chapter meetings, about 100 men and one or two women members were there. Now the numbers are fairly even, including officers and directors. And that’s at the chapter, council, and global volunteer levels of participation. We have made real progress.
Second, the organization is no longer a social club but a true professional group. Getting a free meal once a month isn’t how you build long-term strength.
Third, IMA’s push into the international accounting arena and becoming a global organization have really broadened opportunities as well as enhanced the prestige of the organization. It also has created growth of the CMA program.
Fourth, in 1964 we were only a few years away from the Association’s then focus on cost accounting. (IMA began as NACA, National Association of Cost Accountants). In 2018, the focus is on financial management, a much broader subject and one that today’s accountants want to participate in. It’s also on data science, data analytics, and other technological skills that members need in order to be strategic business partners. Very few people today are yearning for the title of cost accountant. We currently are striving for controller, VP of Finance, and CFO.
I won’t be around in 2069 and can’t forecast what the Association’s name and focus will be, but I’m sure that we will have climbed to new heights and new prestige. My regret is that I won’t be able to participate the way I have for the past 50 years. I’m still devoted to IMA and value the impact it has had on my professional life and my personal life.