Mike Starr was recently appointed deputy chief accountant for policy support and market monitoring in the Office of Chief Accountant at the US Securities and Exchange Commission. He tells Sheena Rossiter of his time at Grant Thornton and the journey towards his latest high-profile role.
As a fresh-faced Bachelor of Science and Accountancy student at America’s Oklahoma State University, JW Mike Starr had very different aspirations to today.
“When I went to college, my ambition was to play football and to be a high school football coach,” he says.
“I never imagined that I would live in Chicago, work in London, travel around the world. I never imagined that I would be in DC and work at the SEC. I never thought I’d be here.”
Now, at 63, Starr’s career has gone from strength to strength. He started off dipping his toe in the accounting profession at his first position at Haskin & Sells (the US predecessor to Deloitte), to then being submerged knee-deep when he became the chief operating officer at Grant Thornton International, one of the biggest challengers to the Big Four.
Starr was a key player in implementing the global strategy and overseeing public policy at Grant Thornton International. Before that, he was responsible for the assurance and advisory practices and professional standards as a member of the senior leadership of Grant Thornton US.
In addition to his experience at Grant Thornton, Starr has been a member of countless accountancy bodies. He has been a member of American Institute of Certified Public Accountants committees and chair of the US-based Special Committee on Enhanced Business Reporting and the Assurance Services Executive Committee.
He was also a member of the Global Public Policy Committee and the chair of its Regulatory Working Group. Starr was part of the Nasdaq Hearing and Review Listing Council, the Illinois State Board of CPAs and the XBRL US board.
Despite such a hectic schedule, Starr still found the time to do a spot of modelling for the greater cause of his team.
“We had an ad campaign at Grant Thornton where the tag line was a ‘passion for the business’ of accounting,” he says.
“The marketing team, which reported to me, asked me to do a photo shoot for this campaign. They got a hold of me and had me take a picture with a rose in my mouth.
“I later learned that I was selected over professional models because I looked more like a stereotypical accountant, and won out for trying to look like an accountant.
“I guess I am a stereotypical accountant in appearance and I was never quite sure how to take that.”
Starr may look like a run-of-the-mill accountant but his knowledge and experience is what has separated him from the rest. After a long stint in various positions at Grant Thornton, along with an ever-growing list of professional achievements, in January Starr announced his retirement from the profession.
“It was nice when I had the time off,” he says. “I was spending more time with my family instead of not spending around 100 nights a year in hotel rooms. I don’t miss that, and that’s basically what I did the past five years with Grant Thornton. I don’t think I’ll be travelling 250,000 miles a year anymore.”
But retirement proved to be very short-lived for Starr. It wasn’t long before he found that he couldn’t keep himself away from the rapid changes in the world of accountancy and auditing.
Just over half a year after retiring, he has not only found himself back at work, but also with greater responsibility.
In mid-September, Starr was appointed the deputy chief accountant for policy support and market monitoring in the Office of Chief Accountant at the US Securities and Exchange Commission – a newly created position.
“Moving into a new organisation where you don’t know all the people and you are not well-known by everyone, is different,” he says. “Taking on new challenges, that is not different. It will be interesting. It is going to be fun.”
Starr says he welcomes the new role and the challenges that will no doubt lie ahead as many in the profession have come under scrutiny following the financial crisis.
“One of my first tasks is to give [accounting standards] a greater definition. But in broad terms I’ll be working with investors to identify issues that need to be addressed,” he says.
“At Grant Thornton, there was always a new challenge that had to be developed and tackled, a new problem to solve.”
“[And] at some point in my career, I wanted to be in a position where I could make a difference. It is an exciting time, and hopefully I can have a positive impact on the changes,” he adds.
Deciding on IFRS
Starr has also now found himself at the centre of some crucial decisions as the US decides on whether to adopt the IFRS and cope with pressure from the global accountancy community to do this.
The US, along with Japan, is one of the few countries dragging its heels to adopt IFRS. Starr says that a decision will be made by the SEC in the coming year which will precede a final decision by the US on whether to adopt.
“The SEC staff has a work plan to address some of the issues related to convergence of a global scene to IFRS and that will go to a commission in 2011 and my understanding is the commission will make a decision regarding IFRS in late 2011,” he says, pointing out that the US has taken longer than other countries to adopt the standards due to caution rather than stubbornness.
“It is certainly being addressed seriously. If you talk to people in the UK, moving from one standard to another is a major effort. As we go down that path and consider the issues related to convergence, we want to see what others have learned from it, and [from other countries’] experiences.”
Starr says he is looking at the situation surrounding IFRS from every angle and admits that the task won’t be an easy one.
“Part of my job is to identify risks and issues related to the financial reporting process and to develop recommendations for improvement,” Starr says.
“I don’t pretend to know the answers. I envision a process to go through in order to identify the issues and develop recommendations that includes investors, preparers, standards setters and other stakeholders.”
Starr points out that in order for the US to successfully come to a solution with IFRS standards, other countries need to be both self-reflective and critical of their reporting standards and fiscal policies.
“This doesn’t just include standards from the within the United States but outside the US too,” Starr says.
“People talk about a global economy but we operate in a globally interdependent economy. Look at what just happened in Europe in the past few months, it had an impact on markets outside of Europe.”
Starr’s passion and ambition will no doubt be crucial to his new position at the SEC in coaching the American accounting profession back to health following the financial crisis.