Taking control in a real-world audit

In their internal auditing course, MS Accounting students become consultants for major companies and small businesses

The Constellation Brands team identified risks to the import beer production process, as well as controls to mitigate those risks, at the corporation's massive brewery in Nava, Mexico.

Every year, ValueCentric processes more than 9 million data files, which generate insights that help pharmaceutical and medical technology companies optimize their performance. 

Jehad Zatar.

Jehad Zatar, BS ’20, MS ’21

But when the world shut down because of the COVID-19 pandemic, ValueCentric—and every other company that manages sensitive data—needed to quickly update its processes and controls to accommodate our new work-from-home reality.

That’s where the School of Management’s MS Accounting students came in. As part of their internal audit class last fall, a team of students was tasked with reviewing the pandemic-related changes to ValueCentric’s business processes, systems and organization controls.

Jehad Zatar, BS ’20, MS ’21, says communication and time management were crucial as the team worked to assess ValueCentric’s risks and controls, and develop recommendations for improvement.

“Immediately, we started a group chat so all team members could share their professional judgment and critical thinking at any given moment,” Zatar says. “Later, as we created our presentation, we knew we needed to make sure our findings and recommendations were concise and easy to understand.”

In the end, the students delivered their presentation via Zoom to members of the ValueCentric senior team, including Judy Feldman, senior director of IT strategy, who appreciated the students’ innovative ideas.

“The project was a great success,” Feldman says. “The students showed an amazing grasp of the situation and provided us with many thoughtful actions. We especially appreciated the diversity of thought they brought forward and the fresh look at our processes.”

The course, MGA 640: “Principles and Practice of Internal Auditing,” helps students develop the skills to evaluate risk and governance issues, and perform assurance and consulting services during an internal audit. With this real-world engagement, students put those skills to the test. For example, one team assessed client communications with Collins Advisors, while another looked at event management at First & Goal and the Seattle Seahawks.

“Through this project, students gain skills that auditors use continuously in their work—identifying objectives, risks and controls; conducting interviews; and creating concise documentation,” says Brandon Szerwo, assistant professor of accounting and law, who teaches the course. “It’s much more meaningful to practice those skills in a real-world setting with dynamic feedback than to just learn them in a classroom.”

Bailey Popovski.
“I remember Professor Szerwo saying he wasn’t our professor but our manager throughout this project, which really added to that real-world aspect. The feedback and suggestions he gave us were exactly what our managers would give us when we start our careers. ”
Bailey Popovski, BS ’20, MS ’21

For her team’s project, Bailey Popovski, BS ’20, MS ’21, got an in-depth walkthrough of the beer production process at a facility in Mexico—virtually—for Constellation Brands, the company behind such iconic beer, wine and spirit brands as Corona, Modelo and SVEDKA Vodka. Afterward, the team identified any risks inherent in that process and evaluated whether the controls in place were sufficient.

Popovski says her most valuable takeaway was how to conduct a risk assessment—specifically, the importance of asking detailed, targeted questions to generate the best insights.

“This is the type of project we could actually perform someday at an accounting firm,” she says. “In fact, I remember Professor Szerwo saying he wasn’t our professor but our manager throughout this project, which really added to that real-world aspect. The feedback and suggestions he gave us were exactly what our managers would give us when we start our careers.”

Marisa Lobsinger, BS ’10, MS ’11, manager of technical accounting and controls for Constellation Brands, was impressed by the team’s presentation—and excited to return to her alma mater.

“The students’ deliverable exceeded our expectations,” Lobsinger says. “It was great being able to work with the students and help them prepare for audit experiences they will encounter after college. I hope to continue to participate in events such as this in the future.”

Haley Harrington, BS ’20, MS ’21.

"Eventually, I hope to open my own business, and this experience was very helpful toward that goal.”
Haley Harrington, BS ’20, MS ’21

For their project, Haley Harrington, BS ’20, MS ’21, and her team worked with Northstar Bikes, a bicycle shop in Williamsville. After observing the store’s operations and researching industry best practices, their job was to evaluate Northstar’s controls and identify ways to increase the productivity of its repair service, while maintaining quality.

The most challenging part, Harrington says, was controlling costs in their recommendations, and learning to deliver bad news in a professional manner.

“Our approach was direct and upfront—we started off with what was working effectively, but did not ‘dance’ around the issues we found,” she says. ”Being able to present recommendations is a valuable skill I will use going forward.

“Eventually, I hope to open my own business,” Harrington continues, “and this experience was very helpful toward that goal.”