Ben Mulling has been on the fast track. He worked full-time while earning his bachelor’s degree in accounting, went on to earn his MBA, has three certifications to his name, and became a CFO by the time he was 28. Now, at 33, he feels it’s time to share what he’s learned and help people just starting out in the profession. That’s why he’s a member of the Institute of Management Accountants’ (IMA) Global Board of Directors, teaches accounting at Indiana Wesleyan University, and is helping launch a CMA (Certified Management Accountant) review course at Xavier University in Cincinnati in the fall.
Question: What did you first like about accounting?
Mulling: “When I first started college, I changed majors a couple of times. My first semester, I was studying engineering. What I didn’t like about engineering was how there are 10 different ways to solve a problem. I didn’t like that. I’m a black and white kind of person. I want to know how to do it. So I stopped and went into business administration. At an open house, an advisor asked if I ever thought about being an accounting major and signed me up for principles of accounting, saying, ‘If you like principles of accounting, then you’ll like accounting. If you don’t like principles of accounting you won’t like accounting.’ And I really liked it. I liked the fact that there were right and wrong answers and that you knew how to do things. I switched from business administration to accounting and just took off from there. I thought I’d just do an associate degree, but then I wanted to do more. That’s even the case now. I go to probably three conferences a year. With all the certifications I’ve earned, I have to earn a certain number of continuing education hours. It’s also important for me to know what’s going on in my profession. You’ve got to keep changing or you’ll get left behind. It’s important to be proactive.”
Question: What skills do accounting students need today?
Mulling: “Nowadays, the majority of accountants don’t go into public accounting when they get out of school. Universities preach and preach and preach to get into public accounting and get your CPA, but the majority of accountants don’t go into public accounting. They go into management accounting or work in-house for companies. There is a gap right now between what the schools are teaching and what’s needed in the field. Classroom learning focuses on rules-based accounting, but there isn’t enough problem-solving or managerial-type classes, which are really the skills that help people get into organizations and do decision-making for companies. These skills are needed in the field right now, but a lot of people don’t have them. This is where the CMA comes in. The CPA was instrumental in helping me get my job — it’s more known, it’s more popular — but as far as getting the skills needed for my job — forecasting-type skills, analytical skills, decision-making skills — the CMA was the true differentiator. We have a lot of kids coming up on their senior year in college and they’re struggling right now. Your first job in accounting is usually the hardest to get. Everyone wants experience, but you can’t get experience until you have the job. The next step is to get your certification, but for the CPA, you need to fulfill a 150-hour requirement in our state [Kentucky]. However, for the CMA, you can prepare for and sit for the exam while you’re still in college.”
Question: What advice do you have for students coming out of accounting degree programs?
Mulling: “Students coming out of college often lack certain leadership and communication skills, and if they don’t push themselves to get involved and develop those skills, especially right out of college, that’s going to set them back. This is where organizations like the AICPA and IMA come in. They have local chapters where professionals can build their networks. You have to get in and network with people and continually build your education. Just because you have your bachelor’s degree doesn’t mean you can stop. The most successful people never stop learning. There’s always something you don’t know. That’s part of where being involved in an organization helps. You can hear what other people are going through, communicate with other people, and network. When you don’t get involved, you get left behind.”
Question: What was it like becoming a CFO at 28? How rare is that?
Mulling: “Eighty percent of accountants will never reach the CFO level. It’s a little bit of being in the right place at the right time and taking advantage of the right opportunities. For me, I was in the right place at the right time. The typical CFO doesn’t reach the CFO level until they are 35 or older. It depends. When I first got it, I felt overwhelmed in the beginning. I thought it was going to be over my head. I was worried, but once I got into it, I realized what was really required. You’re able to hone your skills on the job, which is key. If I stood still and said, ‘Wow, this is overwhelming,’ and didn’t go out to improve myself so I could do the job better, then the position would have eaten me whole. Fortunately, that’s not my personality. I saw the title as a personal challenge to make myself fit for the position. That’s where certification and getting involved comes in. I’ve been on the IMA Board for four years. Being involved with that organization and being able to ask very tenured and experienced people questions, has been a big help. Finding yourself without a strong network or being on an island dealing with a problem alone is a very dangerous place to be.”
Question: What are some important lessons you’ve learned over the years?
Mulling: “One thing I’ve learned is to try to not be the first person speaking in a meeting. You can’t learn if you’re not listening. The most important part of learning is listening, and a lot of people forget that. They might come into a meeting or discussion with their idea of how they want it done, but they don’t really listen to other people. As a result, you may not learn as much as you can. Another important thing I’ve realized is that I don’t know everything. I think a lot of times students come out, they get experience or a certification, and they think they know everything. But the most important part of life, the part when you start to develop the most from a career standpoint, is when you say you can learn from other people. There are many things that cannot be taught in a classroom and so much learning takes place after graduation.”
Question: Where are you at this point in your career?
Mulling: “I feel, from an education standpoint, I’m where I want to be and I’ve reached a lot of my career goals. Now my perspective has shifted to trying to help other people achieve their goals. When you’re 23 or 25 years old, it’s sometimes difficult trying to relate to and get career advice from someone who is 60. However, it’s easier for 22-year-olds to talk to somebody who’s 33-years-old, who is still older, but still in the same generation. I feel like it is easier to seek and take advice from somebody who’s closer in age. I started an internship program at my company (at TENTE Casters), got involved in teaching, and started a CMA review course at Xavier University that will be launching in September. I’ve been blessed with what I’ve been given, and I feel like I have a duty to help other people make the most of their talents. I don’t want to make myself sound like I’m Mother Teresa, but I fully believe the profession grows and develops one person at a time.”