Forging ahead: Leading an accounting firm into the future

The complications of the last few years have undoubtedly put accounting firm leaders to the test — but also revealed those who are up to the challenge, and can serve as role models for an evolving profession.

These leaders share several key characteristics, starting with very specific, and well-communicated, visions for their firms. In fact, as demonstrated by Accounting Today’s 2022 MP Elite, representing some of the top leaders in the profession, their goals are often very detailed, down to the dollar and date.

MP Elite member Joshua Lance, managing director at Lance CPA Group, for example, plans for his Chicago-based firm to be fully employee-owned by 2032.

And in the 2024 vision statement for Illinois firm PKF Mueller Cos., CEO David Nissen, and fellow member of the 2022 MP Elite class, outlined a goal of $60 million in combined revenues from organic and acquisition growth.

Michael Aiello

Centri Business Consulting CEO and managing partner Michael Aiello, also an MP Elite member, also has a specific vision in mind for the Philadelphia-based firm: “We want to reach the $100 million revenue mark in the next five years, if not sooner. That growth will allow us to reinvest in our future team and its success.”

Meanwhile, MP Elite honoree Ken Wolfe, president and managing Principal at Camp Hill, Pennsylvania-based Brown Schultz Sheridan & Fritz, has pivoted to a nimbler strategic plan in the wake of the pandemic.

“Over the last few years, we have done a one-year plan because of the rapid changes of the COVID-19 environment,” he explained. “Goals for the plan are created by our board and a committee … of myself, a shareholder, our COO/CFO, HR director and marketing director, all create the plan, as well as oversee its execution.”

Harper-Glenn-Harper & Co CPAs

Glenn Harper

Proving there’s no set process to conceptualizing a firm’s strategic plan and that the most important part is having a plan in place at all is MP Elite member Glenn Harper, owner and managing partner at Ohio firm Harper & Co. CPAs Plus.

“The first strategic plan was drafted on the back of a Southwest Airlines napkin in 2017,” he shared. “My practice manager and I were on a flight creating it together. When we returned to the office, we formalized it. I empowered her to implement the vision we had created, which meant I had to get out of my own way and trust her implicitly to execute significant change.”

Baker-Pamela-Barbacane, Thornton & Co.

pamela baker

The strategic plan at Delaware-based firm Barbacane, Thornton & Co. includes the successor for current managing partner and MP Elite member Pamela Baker.

When Baker retires in 2025 she will not only bring in a new MP but a firm CEO in an innovative model that will “incorporate a strong CEO (non-CPA) and permit the next managing partner to continue to utilize their strong client and technical skills to support a smaller book of business,” she said.

staying prepared

Of course, to succeed in these strategies, accounting firm leaders need to be prepared. The best leaders were, based on their quick transitions to working in a pandemic.

Lance-Joshua-Lance CPA Group
Joshua Lance

Steven E Gross

All of the MP Elite were at least partially, and some fully, remote before March 2020, which eased the shift for their staff.

“We have always been a fully virtual and remote practice and have always allowed for a flexible work environment, which is why we are able to hire and retain incredible people,” said Lance. “We have always used cloud based technology including implementing our own technology we developed in our firm. This has allowed us to grow and scale rapidly and have a client-based that spans across the United States and allows our team to provide excellent service to our clients.”

Desai Avani Schellman

Avani Desai

And MP Elite member Avani Desai, CEO at Tampa, Florida-based Top 100 Firm Schellman CEO, is looking ahead to incorporating this new way of working into the firm’s future operations.

“I’m not sure if it’ll ever really be a true return to normal, but we plan to create our own ‘new normal,’ in any case,” she shared. “Right now, we have in the works the adoption of a Work from Anywhere program that will allow all team members to choose where they want to live. We plan to continue with remote auditing where we can, and our conversations with regulatory bodies, encouraging them to keep necessary safety measures in place, are ongoing as things evolve.”

The best leaders embrace the latest technology to make this new way of working possible.

Minkler-Robert-Anders
Robert Minkler

Barlow Productions

As MP Elite member Robert Minkler, managing partner of St. Louis-based Top 100 Firm Anders, explained: “I believe that technology curiosity and support is what continues to fuel the firm’s vision of using technology not just to run the business, but to help grow the business and drive strategic growth.”

Like his MP Elite co-honorees, Grassi founder, CEO and managing partner Louis Grassi also took a progressive approach with his New York-based firm in the midst of the pandemic.

Grassi-Louis-Grassi

Louis Grassi

“As other firms were downsizing and implementing hiring freezes and budget restrictions, I strategically chose to move forward with launching new service areas, hiring new talent, and investing in major marketing and technology initiatives,” he shared. “Increasing our talent, resources and market presence helped us not only continue to grow stronger throughout the pandemic, but also allowed us to help our clients do the same.”

hearing them out

And the best leaders don’t just set their people up for success in this new normal of working, but throughout their careers at the firm — which are typically on the longer side, judging by their industry-leading retention rates.

Prioritizing their people has helped the profession’s top MPs and CEOs navigate the Great Resignation, from recruitment through leadership advancement.

This starts with listening to their needs, and the best leaders provide multiple forums, from firmwide meetings to regular staff surveys, for their people to be heard.

Barbican, Thornton & Co. has recently added to these avenues for communication, Baker explained, having “revamped performance feedback tools, implemented semiannual managing partner one-on-ones with all professional staff, implemented biweekly team meetings by staff level.”

Wolfe-Ken-Brown Schultz Sheridan Fritz

Ken Wolfe

Brown Schultz Sheridan & Fritz has similarly given their people a voice. “We also continue to lean into having a culture of continuous feedback by soliciting ideas from our team members to see how we can remove any doubt from their mind that BSSF is the right fit for them in their career,” Wolfe explained. “We conduct employee surveys, as well as utilize other avenues for feedback such as having our young professionals host a town hall to discuss opportunities for improvement and report those back to our leadership team.”

Schellman also prioritizes every staff members’ individual career path. “The idea of ​​sustaining the highest return on job value for each team member will need to be consistent throughout their tenure in a position, so that’ll mean regularly listening to our people in a way that shows them we care while also providing them with deserved validation that reassures them of their role as supported/important members of our organization,” said Desai. “But not only that, to keep top talent around, there will need to be a serious new focus on industry-leading programs for career development so that personnel never fall stagnant and remain engaged with the work they’re doing.”

new frontiers

In addition to their staff-friendly policies, progressive MPs are leading their firms into hot new practice areas, which not only boosts their bottom line but attracts and retains modern accountants, who are typically seeking work in emerging industries.

Across the board, the most popular and high-growth of these areas is client advisory services. The majority of the 2022 MP Elite provide this service and have reaped the benefits.

Damiano-Joseph-Sax

Joseph Damiano

Under CEO and managing partner (and MP Elite honoree) Joseph Damiano, New Jersey-based Sax has added a slew of new practice areas, including Sax Capital Advisors in 2021, a transaction advisory practice in 2020, and a cannabis and cryptocurrency practice last year . These were all spearheaded by the innovation committee taht Damiano helms.

Centri has also been busy adding new verticals, explained Aiello. “Over the past 11 years we’ve listened to [the] needs of our customers and what solutions they needed. From there, we proofed the concept of new offerings and when to market with services that would make an impact on our clients. Over the past three years, Centri has added the following services: Powered by Centri (outsourced accounting), human resource advisory, CFO advisory, ESG advisory, IT/cyber advisory, SPAC advisory, fairness and solvency opinions advisory.”

Of course, these new ventures only work with strong strategies in place, circling back to the importance of a strong leadership vision.

Nissen-David-PKF Mueller

David Nissen

And the best leaders know to not be too complacent or internally focused that they don’t seek out inspiration from other sources, including their peers.

David Nissen does just that to continually develop his leadership skills. “I also regularly visit other CPA firms and share best practices,” he explained. “This learning through sharing has been invaluable to me in my career and has helped me to become a better leader.”

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