IPA Spotlight On … Carl Peterson

Name: Carl Peterson

Carl Peterson

Carl Peterson

Organization: AICPA

Title: Vice President, Small Firm Interests

Accomplishments:

  • Strong advocate for small firms and their concerns – I travel extensively to gather their views
  • Managing partner and founder of small firm in Minneapolis
  • Former chairman, Minnesota Society of CPAs
  • Extended family in profession: my wife and daughter are in public practice, and another daughter is working as an accountant but isn’t a CPA yet. I have one sister-in-law who is a CPA in business and industry, and another in government. And my brother works as a CPA in the banking industry. So I have good sense of professional trends through my job and at home.

Keeping current with changes and complexity of tax laws and increased regulation remain top challenges for small- and medium-sized firms. How can the AICPA help small firms tackle succession planning and other important issues when they’re struggling just to keep up?

We have a number of resources and tools that can help. For members of the AICPA Private Companies Practice Section (PCPS), there is the Succession Planning Resource Center that offers guides and toolkits. We also just completed a succession planning survey that will be released soon that firms can use to benchmark their progress against other firms. The Center for Plain English Accounting is an affordable subscription service that offers technical updates, webcasts and other support. We also have a cybersecurity toolkit coming out that is designed to help CPAs be more proactive than reactive when it comes to best practices on deterrence.

Can you give us a couple of quick examples of small firms who are flipping the traditional business model and reinventing what ‘accounting firm’ means?

I know a firm in South Carolina with five or six CPAs that has gone totally to value billing and dropped time sheets. It’s a two-partner, father-son business and one of the things that’s impressive is that the father really jumped on the bandwagon with his son. We’re in this meeting talking about realization rates and he said, “I don’t know about that because we don’t do time sheets any more – all I know is I’m making a lot more money than I did before.” Another example is a smaller firm out of Maryland that’s very progressive – it’s run virtually, with staff people located in several states. They provide business process outsourcing and virtual CFO work with QuickBooks Online and their structure allows them to expand their geographic opportunities.

What are your top three objectives for the next 12 months or so?

  1. Raising global awareness for small and midsize firms. My own six-person firm has had clients with customers in Japan or sales operations throughout Europe. Leaders of small firms don’t think they have international exposure – well, I think they’ll find out soon that they do, because globalization is filtering down to clients. What a cool opportunity to be in this world.
  2. Succession planning. We’re seeing a lot of demographic drivers for succession decisions as Baby Boomers retire, so I expect to spend a lot of time discussing this issue with firms as I travel the country in the coming year.
  3. My final objective is to make sure PCPS continues to be proactive and provide the right resources for firms to be in position to take advantage of opportunities. We have a great set of toolkits called Firm inMotion that cover technology, leadership development, staff development, firm structure and other topics, but we’re always looking to add value. So my role is gathering intelligence from small firms about their needs and objectives.

You were a small firm practitioner yourself – if you were to start your firm all over again NOW, what would you do differently?

I’m a technology person, so the first thing I’d do is go totally virtual in operations. That way you can assemble a staff with no geographic limitations, so you really can focus on the best people for the job. We also know that firms that specialize have more value long-term. I have expertise in advising real-estate clients, so I’d probably stay on that path. But for staff members, I’d tell them to follow their passion. If someone was passionate about the wind turbine market for electricity – let’s develop that as a practice specialty. If you’re an advocate for business process outsourcing, let’s look into it.

Final thoughts?

CPAs and public practice are strong today. But I think we’re going to see even more opportunities as we make adjustments in firm practice to accommodate Millennials and other young people. I’m super optimistic about the profession. I was recently able to meet some attendees at the AICPA’s Leadership Academy, which is about building leadership and service in the next generation of CPAs. Let me tell you, there are so many passionate people in that group and they’re so excited about Big Data, analytics and other topics that are going to be great areas of opportunity for us. It’s inspiring.

IPA Spotlight On … Jeff Drummonds, LBMC

Jeff Drummonds

Jeff Drummonds

Name: Jeff Drummonds

Firm: LBMC

Title: CEO and Managing Shareholder

Accomplishments:

  • Elected in 2015 as MP of Brentwood, Tenn.-based LBMC (FY16 net revenue of $84.4 million).
  • Served as leading partner of LBMC’s tax services practice. Over the course of his 30-year career, he has coordinated tax services to more than 20 public companies.
  • Serves on the board of trustees of The Southern Federal Tax Institute and as board member, Williamson County Chamber of Commerce

You were elected to the managing partner position last year after 14 years at the firm. At that time, firm co-founder David Morgan said you know that “attracting great talent to LBMC is imperative to bringing in great clients.” Can you tell us more?

Our shared vision is to make LBMC the best choice for clients and colleagues. To grow our business, we must evolve with our clients, which means we have to constantly develop new skills and deepen our bench. It’s an extremely competitive market these days, and recruiting the right people to join our organization – high performers who share our core values and vision – is the key to our long-term success. We believe in a circular approach to growth: attracting high performers with unique skills and strong relationships allows us to serve more complex and interesting clients, which in turn makes our firm more appealing to high performers.

You’ve seen the firm grow to about 500 employees, nine operating companies and expansion beyond Brentwood to Chattanooga and Knoxville. What’s your growth strategy? Do you foresee LBMC expanding beyond Tennessee?

We chose to sit on the sidelines watching firms merge over the past few years. We are focused on recruiting “needle movers” to the firm, which we sometimes refer to as mini-mergers, deepening our relationships with existing clients and nationalizing several service offerings. We are also pursuing strategic joint ventures to expand our capabilities and opportunities. We have little enthusiasm for mergers driven by succession issues or lack of growth. We are also finding that our growth is not limited by geographic boundaries. We serve clients in 47 states, and a substantial part of our growth is outside Tennessee. In today’s business environment our experience shows it is no longer necessary to have a storefront in every market to serve clients.

lbmc-main_company_4cWhat practice areas are ripe for growth at LBMC?

We have a pretty unique and comprehensive service offering for a top-50 accounting firm. In addition to our traditional accounting and advisory practices, our nine operating companies provide technology, human resource and wealth management solutions. We are making substantial investments and enjoying strong market acceptance in our IT assurance and managed security services, transaction advisory, wealth management and valuation and litigation support practices. From an industry perspective, we continue to see strong activity in our private equity and health care segments.

Now that you’ve been in the role for more than a year, what is the most challenging part of being a leader?

The past 18 months have undoubtedly been both the most challenging and rewarding of my career. I probably didn’t fully appreciate the challenges around controlling the agenda, or even more simply managing the calendar. One thing I have always enjoyed about public accounting is you never know what the day is going to bring. And that is certainly true in my new role! As I look back on the past year I now have a better appreciation of the art of managing change while at the same time maintaining the core values and culture that helped us be successful in the first place.

If you could go back in time and give yourself advice when you were new to accounting, what would it be?

I try to spend time meeting with our college recruits and interns, and they frequently ask me what does it take to be successful in public accounting. All of them are smart, motivated and eager to learn, so I advise them to focus on three things: find a mentor, focus on building relationships both inside and outside the firm and be intellectually curious in everything they do. I also ask them to try their best to live our core value of “striving to strike a balance to make a good living and live a great life.” I’ve not always got that part right.

 

IPA Spotlight On . . . John Herber

Name: John Herber
Firm: RubinBrown
Title: Chairman and Managing Partner

John Herber

John Herber

Accomplishments:
  • Completed Harvard Business School’s Leading Professional Service Firms Program
  • Awarded the Innovation Award for Accounting by the St. Louis Business Journal
  • Named one of the Most Influential St. Louisans by the St. Louis Business Journal in 2011 and 2012
  • Serves as board member, Mercy Health Foundation, St. Louis, and United Way of Greater St. Louis de Tocqueville Society

As chair of RubinBrown, you’re responsible for leading growth. How do you uncover areas of growth? Are you looking at organic growth, growth through acquisitions or both?

RubinBrown is intensely committed to growth both organically and through mergers. Through our visioning and business planning process, we have ambitious, but achievable goals to grow organically through our specialized industry groups, as well as through expansion of RubinBrown’s Wealth Advisory Services. With regard to geographic expansion, RubinBrown is actively working to expand our regional footprint, focusing on locations across the Midwest.  We focus on developing relationships with firms that match our people-centric and entrepreneurial culture.

You’ve described the culture at the firm as entrepreneurial – how is that spirit encouraged and nurtured at RubinBrown?

Leadership, innovation, creativity and entrepreneurism are fostered throughout the firm. We encourage and listen to suggestions to improve. Risks undertaken for the long-term growth and benefit of the firm are willingly accepted, and weaknesses identified are appropriately eliminated with a sense of urgency. One example of our firm’s entrepreneurial spirit came from a team member with a business plan to set up a satellite office in a start-up, innovation center in St. Louis where we are headquartered. He felt we could help these emerging businesses. We supported him and over the past two years, he and his team have become an integral part of the community.

You’ve said that RubinBrown has become a Top 50 firm through its superior client service. What’s different about how your firm serves clients?

RubinBrown’s reputation for superior quality and service is one of our most valuable assets, along with our people. This asset is entrusted with each team member and is fiercely protected and enhanced without compromise. Growth, continuity and financial success of the firm and team members result from superior service provided by a cooperative team that promotes the mission and core values of the firm. RubinBrown’s differentiator is simple. We are committed to totally satisfied clients and inspired team members and earn our clients loyalty each and every day with likeable, responsive and technically superior team members.

RubinBrownThe firm lists “having fun” as one of its core values? Why?

Our culture inspires our team members to do great work and to build personal relationships with one another. While RubinBrown has enjoyed growth over the years, we have successfully increased the loyalty, intimacy and sense of belonging that have long contributed to our success. We expect all team members to have positive attitudes, have enthusiasm and, absolutely, have fun. One way we encourage fun is by bringing all of our team members once a year for an all-firm meeting. The RubinBrown Team Member Update is a mix of socializing, entertainment, learning and motivation. Our team members cite the event as one of their favorite meetings of the year.

Final thoughts?

RubinBrown has an employment brand to help communicate the unique people-centric and service culture of our firm. “Be Your Best For Others” demonstrates RubinBrown’s commitment to its team members, high-caliber performance and giving to others. Whether it’s for clients, the community, or each other, the 500+ team members of RubinBrown work hard every day to “be their best for others.” Team members are at their best when they are giving to others.

Do you know someone else who would make a good Spotlight? Contact Christina Camara.

IPA Spotlight On … Tom Hood

Tom Hood

Tom Hood

Name: Tom Hood
Organization: Maryland Association of CPAs (MACPA)
Title: President and CEO, MACPA and CEO and founder of Business Learning Institute, the learning and innovation center of the MACPA

Accomplishments:

  • LinkedIn Top 150 Influencer
  • Accounting Today Second Most Influential Person in Accounting (2015, 2013)
  • CPA Practice Advisor Hall of Fame and Top 25 Thought Leader
  • HR Advisor Top 25 Thought Leaders in Talent Management
  • AICPA Special Recognition Award for CPA Vision Project

You say you’re passionate about four things: technology, collaboration, learning and leadership. Why?

We have been tracking the future of the profession for the past 15 years and find that these four things will be accelerators of success in this rapidly changing world. Technology continues to be the biggest “hard trend” driving change in the CPA profession and the business environment. Collaboration is quickly replacing the “experience curve” and a critical competency for working with clients and internal teams. Learning will be the only competitive advantage (L>C2) for individuals and organizations in the future. Leadership is the catalyst to make all of that happen faster.

You’re a well-known “early adopter” of social media and an advocate for using technology to streamline accounting firm processes and procedures. What’s one area of technology that is under-utilized by accounting firms today?

Social media and cloud technologies in general are the two biggest and underutilized opportunities for firms. Social media is the single best thing I have done. Period. Social media can be a powerful tool for marketing, connecting to customers and most importantly, learning and keeping up with change. Cloud technologies supporting practice management and client access allow firms to create higher levels of engagement with both clients and staff and support flexible work environments, which are critical to supporting today’s overwhelmed employees.
MACPA_Logo_2016
There are so many opportunities, changes, challenges, innovations and disruptions happening in the profession, that it’s easy for managing partners to get distracted and not know where to focus their energy. In your opinion, when considering all the “noise” out there, what are the top three things that MPs need to focus their attention on?

The three biggest areas MPs should be focusing on are culture, people and technology. Culture is about engaging your people in your vision, purpose and values and making that your firm’s operating system. This continues to be one of the top ways to create a happy and engaged workforce. The focus on our people falls into two areas – succession planning and talent development. Succession planning is about creating a planned, sustainable future with the retiring boomer partners. Talent development is about creating a strategic and systematic career development process that includes “success skills” like leadership, strategic thinking, anticipation and other critical competencies. Technology is about creating capacity by implementing smart technology applications, including workflow and other cloud applications.

You’ve led strategic planning sessions for CPA firms all over the U.S. What have you taken away from that experience about the future-readiness of accounting firms?

We are seeing an increased readiness and elevation of firm strategies in the last few years. We define future-readiness as the capacity to be anticipatory (aware, predictive and adaptive) of emerging trends in business, technology, demographics and the social environment impacting your organization and industry. Leading firms are developing strategic plans to leverage the opportunities and minimize predictable problems by carefully looking at these future trends and co-creating the future with their partners and staff.

Final thoughts?

We are living in “exponential times” where the size, scale and scope of change is incredible. That means there are incredible opportunities for those who can see through the fog of uncertainty and anticipate what’s next. The biggest opportunity is to harness the wisdom of our older generations with the fresh perspectives of the tech-savvy younger generations. The next generation of leaders is enthusiastically ready to have a seat at the table. The future is not created; the future is co-created. Let’s get to work!

IPA Spotlight On … Alan Whitman

Whitman_Alan_BakerTilly_2016

Alan Whitman

Name: Alan Whitman

Firm: Baker Tilly Virchow Krause, LLP (Baker Tilly)

Title: CEO and Chairman

Accomplishments:

  • Founded Baker Tilly’s international services platform and is chair of its International Steering Committee
  • Founding member of the Baker Tilly International network’s Knowledge Sharing Group
  • Executive sponsor of the firm’s GROW (Growth and Retention of Women) and SOAR (Supporting Opportunity, Advancement and Recognition for All) initiatives, which institutionalize diversity and inclusiveness
  • Instrumental in Baker Tilly’s recognition as a best-in-class workplace, guiding the firm to winning numerous workplace excellence awards
  • Active member of the AICPA and the Michigan Association of Certified Public Accountants (MICPA)

As the newly appointed CEO, you’ve said you plan to focus on “managing for continued growth.” What are your plans in this area?

Both acquisitive and organic growth will be the focus of my plans for Baker Tilly’s growth. We have created a strategic growth function to drive growth in several areas – including health care and consulting services – in which we feel we have a performance and market advantage. We will also continue to look for strategic mergers to build our national geographic presence. Whether we are reviewing a traditional accounting firm or a boutique specialty firm, culture is a paramount consideration as well as a “capabilities” fit. We look for alignment to our values of integrity, passion and stewardship, and we expect our merger partners to provide shared leadership and a diversity of perspective and experience.

What does the CEO transition mean for Baker Tilly?

Baker Tilly’s vision is to become America’s finest professional services Firm. We will continue providing exceptional client service and achieving recognition as a leading firm within our chosen specialties. I’m going to emphasize execution and work to accelerate our strategy to produce measureable results. My focus as CEO is building Baker Tilly for the future. That includes driving strategy, growing our national presence and leveraging our international experience. Our growth – including our work in developing our international platform – has enabled us to pursue client relationships we’ve never been able to go after and have conversations we were never able to have, until now. Over the next several years, I see our international platform as another major component of our firm’s growth.

You are being intentional about creating a more Millennial-friendly firm. What do you have in mind?

So much of the so-called “Millennial-friendly” workplace benefits are now employment table stakes. Baker Tilly is working to create an environment in which our associates can be challenged and enriched and enabled to pursue the career path that is uniquely fulfilling to them. Our growth, which creates all kinds of opportunities, is central in those efforts. That includes allowing our team members to have meaningful client interaction, to grow with their clients and to be rewarded at every stage of their career. We also have our GROW and SOAR diversity initiatives and policies such as Dress for Your Day that are intended to make Baker Tilly a richer and more rewarding place to work.

What will it take to succeed in the complex, fast-changing professional services market?

We need to always be creating value for our clients, which will mean focusing on those services that are not sensitized to commoditization, delivered by a workforce that is performing at the top consultative levels. My leadership strategy combines three elements – collaborating for innovation, celebrating our people and building a revered brand – designed to energize our talent base to deliver better, faster, more strategic services and to become deeply embedded, trusted advisors to our clients.

Final thoughts?

The professional services market is one of the most dynamic, change-sensitive industries in the world today. The successful firm will be measured by its ability to harness new business science and technologies in the service of a highly intelligent, agile and motivated team of accounting and advisory professionals who can build a globally respected brand.

IPA Spotlight On . . . Sandra Wiley

Sandra Wiley

Sandra Wiley

Name: Sandra Wiley

Firm: Boomer Consulting

Title: President

Accomplishments:

  • Accounting Today top 100 Most Influential People
  • CPA Practice Advisor Top 25 Most Powerful Women in Accounting
  • CPA Practice Advisor Top 25 Thought Leaders
  • Leading Edge Alliance “On the Edge” Innovation Award

As host of regional trainings around the country, what are emerging leaders telling you about what they need to learn to be effective managers?

I see next generation leaders every day that are smart, motivated and truly care about the future of their firm and the profession.  They are excited about what they are hearing about, including Advisory Services, deeper relationships with their clients and team, and less compliance work.  However, a reverse effect is happening that makes them very frustrated.  The lack of change they are seeing in their firm in all of these areas is demotivating.  They want to move forward, but they feel stuck.

You’ve said Boomer Consulting’s client base is “future-focused.” Can you give us an example of a firm that’s implemented a future-focused initiative and seen positive ROI?

We have been working with the firm of Bold Carlisle and Smith for the past 4 years.  They started as a foundationally good firm with challenges in leadership, process development, technology struggles and a lack of overall direction.  Today, they are seeing positive change in all of these areas.  Through the process of strategic planning, coaching, the Boomer Technology Circles Community and a new focus on process improvement they are a new and improved firm – and are certainly future focused!  Oh, and they reduced the number of hours spent on business entity tax clients significantly this year.

You’ve done quite a bit of work around employee engagement as an HR expert in the profession. If you could wave a magic wand, what’s the one thing accounting firms should do to better engage their employees?

Make time to truly manage their team.  Continuous and ongoing feedback, mentoring and reverse mentoring and including them in the strategic planning process are just a few ways to truly engage the team that surrounds you.  This is less generational than it is relational.  People will engage when they feel valued, and you can’t feel valued if you don’t really know the people that you are working with.  It sounds simple, but it is hard work.  Hard work does lead to amazing results in the area of retention, attraction and motivation!

You were recently named president of Boomer Consulting, Inc. as part of its long-term growth and succession plan. What do you hope the firm will look like in five years?

In 5 years Boomer Consulting, Inc. will continue to be a leader in the profession transforming firms in the areas of Leadership, Talent, Technology, Process and Growth initiatives.  We will use The Boomer AdvantageTM to ensure that our clients are growing in each of these areas and are connecting the dots between each of them. This will enable firms to be future ready.  We will continue to build a unique team of professionals that are consistently innovating and creating new services and new successes for our clients.

Final thoughts?

I am excited about the change that is occurring in the profession today.  It’s truly an exciting time. The firms that are ready to face the future with innovation and a positive attitude will be winners.  Helping firms transform and actually create a practice that will sustain them for the future is what gets me excited.  My passion – helping firms that are feeling stuck and even a little demotivated get excited about their future!

IPA Spotlight On . . . Ed Bysiek

Ed Bysiek

Ed Bysiek

Name: Ed Bysiek

Firm: Bysiek CPA

Title: Founder of Bysiek CPA, Adjunct Accounting Professor, St. Bonaventure University

How has the profession changed during your tenure as a CPA, if at all? In my 13 years as a CPA, work has become much more e-based. I remember spending hours just making copies of checklists and setting up bulky workpaper files, not to mention carrying large portable printers with us to client locations. Now all I carry is a laptop.

What was the biggest professional challenge you faced? By far my biggest professional challenge was exiting the firm I began my career with and starting my own practice. All of us place a certain amount of value on the economic stability that a regular paycheck provides in our lives. To give that up, and suddenly be faced with a prospect that looked exciting on paper, but promised nothing, was daunting. I succeeded with a well-developed and unique business model that has capitalized on up-and-coming technologies, fixed-fee billing arrangements, and by developing real expertise in a limited number of service offerings.

What advice can you give up-and-coming staff? To soak up as much as you can. Understand how your task fits in the bigger picture of any job you’re working on. When you are able to take ownership of your work, it is much easier to stay motivated and do your very best, even when the hours begin to add up.

What’s the biggest misconception that you believe older partners across the profession have about younger staff that you wish could be better understood? The biggest misconception is just how capable young staff can be. Since we are a service profession, maintaining good client relations plays a huge role. The downside of this can be a fear that giving younger staff too much responsibility and too much access to the client has too much risk associated with it. Young people who have put in to the time to earn a degree, are working toward a CPA, and have been vetted through an interview process have the capability of handling themselves in a professional manner and I believe, are ready for significant responsibility very early on in their careers.

Comments like these can be found in a new report, “The Road to Retention: Motivators and Drivers for Young Accounting Professionals. INSIDE Public Accounting, in partnership with ConvergenceCoaching, gathered survey responses from 722 young professionals aged 21-40. Order your copy today.

IPA Vendor Spotlight On … Heidi Henderson, Engineered Tax Services

Name: Heidi Henderson

Heidi Henderson

Heidi Henderson

Firm: Engineered Tax Services

Title: Executive Vice President

Accomplishments:

  • Published author in Accounting Today
  • Public speaker at national events
  • Rapid rise from director to executive vice president of Engineered Tax Services

Your firm’s tagline is, “Where engineering and accounting come together.” What does that mean?”

We are often asked if we are an accounting firm or an engineering firm. For practical purposes, we are a licensed engineering firm with a very heavy tax background. We do not prepare tax returns, but rather perform very specialized engineering analysis to capture federal tax incentives and apply complex tax methodologies as recognized and accepted by the IRS. Our engineers perform detailed studies relating to real property or activities relating to the development of new products and processes. These studies are then reviewed by our internal CPAs and our tax attorney for accuracy and compliance with IRS guidance before being utilized by the taxpayer.Engineered Tax Services

Your role is executive vice president, but you came up through the ranks from marketing. Can you tell us about your rise through the company?

My education and work history are in private accounting and entrepreneurship. After 12 years in accounting for numerous real estate development companies, I chose an alternate path in search of something more satisfying and collaborative, and settled on marketing. In 2011, I was approached by ETS and was offered a position in sales and project management. After a short time, I identified the need for marketing improvements and was given the responsibility of growing and managing the marketing team, which included rebranding, logo design, website creation, content and publishing. I was then promoted to the executive team in early 2014. Now I’m responsible for account management, corporate marketing and events, and the collective management of ETS’ growing sales staff alongside our other two executive team members.

How would you like Engineered Tax Services to grow and change?

Engineered Tax Services has grown significantly over the past three years, and has invested greatly in growing our team to be the most knowledgeable, service-oriented company in the industry. We strive to set ourselves apart as a resource, and valuable asset to our clients and partners through education, consulting, published guidance and resources to aid CPAs and businesses to capture valuable incentives to insuring full tax efficiency for optimized profitability.

What’s the biggest opportunity for CPA firms that Engineered Tax Services can help them with?

The recently passed PATH Act and continuing guidance for Tangible Property Regulation compliance are complex and tedious issues for the CPA community. We provide monthly webinars to review the most recent changes, and how these changes will impact CPAs and their clients.

We have also developed software to aid in capturing annual deductions that we provide free of charge to our clients. By understanding the services and resources we offer, CPAs and their teams can rest assured that they can advise taxpayers of every opportunity available to them, increase client retention and hold on to their competitive advantage. These services are all complementary additions to our core services such as cost segregation, repair evaluations, energy-efficient building incentives and R&D tax credits.

Final thoughts?

Our greatest focus is in serving our clients and providing the best service and expertise available on complex issues. We shy away from commonly used sales tactics, and believe that if we bring value and offer tools for the success of all, our efforts will, and have, set the bar for specialty tax services.

Know someone else who’d make a good spotlight? Contact Christina Camara.

IPA Spotlight On … Bonnie Buol Ruszczyk

Bonnie Buol Ruszczyk

Bonnie Buol Ruszczyk

Name: Bonnie Buol Ruszczyk

Firm: bbr marketing

Title: President

Accomplishments:

  • One of Accounting Today’s Top 100 Most Influential People in 2012 and 2013
  • Received prestigious Volunteer of the Year from the Association for Accounting Marketing in 2014
  • One of CPA Practice Advisor’s Most Powerful Women in Accounting in 2015
  • Created and grew bbr marketing from an idea with no clients in 2009 to a firm with clients in over 25 states and two Canadian provinces, double-digit revenue growth year over year and a pretty great place to work.

You’ve owned a sauce company, worked for a health and fitness startup and helped launch the Cartoon Network in Asia. How did you get into professional services marketing? 

I sort of stumbled into it. I was working for a manufacturing software company that was bought out by a larger one located in Santa Barbara. When it looked like my job was going to move to California, I started looking for a new one in Atlanta since I was about to get married and had no desire to move. My dear friend Betsy mentioned that her accounting firm was looking for their first marketing director (after 50 years in business) and thus began my journey in professional services marketing.

You’re known as a giver in the profession – someone who’s very willing to donate time to fellow marketers and to the community. What’s your ROI?

First of all, I’m touched that I have that reputation. I’m a big believer in creating a culture of giving in both my personal and professional life. I have been fortunate to have received so much help and advice over the years, and I want to pay that forward as much as I can. I get true joy from helping others and sincerely believe that the more we do it the better place we create. I guess I could be charging for some of the help I give away, but instead I create relationships with others that may eventually lead to business down the road. And even if it doesn’t, hopefully those I help will help others one day and so the cycle continues.

After seven years in business, what’s the best business advice you ever received?BBR_logo_2016

“Do what you do best and outsource the rest,” is definitely one of the best pieces of advice. Like most startups, I tried to do everything myself to “save money” in the beginning, including bookkeeping and tax prep. While I understand how both work, it takes me so much more time to do it myself than to pay someone to do it for me. When I was able to offload some of these tasks that aren’t my highest and best use, I had a lot more time to focus on client work and business development.

Can you offer one tip for how accounting firms, in an increasingly commoditized profession, can differentiate themselves in a crowded marketplace?

At bbr marketing, we spend a great deal of time helping clients differentiate themselves in the market. If you’ve ever heard me speak, I’m sure you heard it at least once, regardless of the topic. It is absolutely vital! It’s also quite frequently difficult too. We recommend firms ask everyone at the firm, and clients as well, what sets them apart. And it is not client service or good people – everyone says that and it is simply the price of entry. It can be your industry focus, your way of delivering work, your pricing structure, any number of things, but make sure it is truly unique from the firm down the street. Finally, it often helps to have an outsider who knows the industry come in and help with this process and offer guidance.

What marketing innovations are you seeing that are under-utilized by accounting firms?

The marketing tactics you should use depend greatly on the market you are trying to reach. Once you have a firm grasp on that, the world is your oyster. More firms are starting to embrace social media as a brand awareness tool, particularly LinkedIn and Twitter. Video is becoming more popular and a great way to communicate a message to potential clients. I’d like to see firms spend more time updating their websites from online brochures to interactive tools and include more case studies and testimonials where their clients sing their praises. And don’t forget about direct mail either. When we are all inundated with emails, a clever piece of mail gets much more attention.

Final thoughts?

My biggest piece of advice for firms is to find a niche, identify your differentiators and stick to both. You can never be all things to all people, and those that try wind up competing on price. Those that are truly unique have a smaller market to reach yet much more value to share. And once you’ve figured this out, take advantage of all the great ways to market your firm. You can be the best firm out there, but if no one knows about it, you will quickly run out of referrals and wonder why your revenues are flat. And remember, different people like to receive their information in different ways. Just because you automatically delete e-newsletters doesn’t mean that your next best client won’t see yours and decide to make a call.

IPA Spotlight On … Kathy Sautters, AGN International

Kathy Sautters

Kathy Sautters

Name: Kathy Sautters

Association Name: AGN International

Title: Regional Director, North America

Accomplishments: I was fortunate to find a great amount of opportunity early in my career. As director of marketing at SS&G, my team won many awards both inside and outside the profession for creativity, growth and innovation. I worked with some of the top firms in the country as part of The Leading Edge Alliance, and contributed to one of the most progressive CPA firm cultures in the profession under the leadership of Gary Shamis. As executive director of The Advisory Board, which included Gary as well as other top consultants and thought leaders, we created and built many educational programs, including the flagship Winning Is Everything Conference. I later transitioned to a not-for-profit association environment at PrimeGlobal, where I used technology to create forums and tools for members to share information and connect with one another, and played a major role in building systems that became the backbone of the North America member service and recruitment platform.

While I have only just started with AGN, the new initiatives that we are already putting in place are very exciting. We are rebranding our organization from the inside out – not just a logo, but embracing an avant-garde perspective and creating the “next generation” of CPA firm associations. In just two and a half months, the progress we have made has been outstanding. It’s been a lot of fun!

You will be filling Rita Hood’s shoes when she retires this spring. Where do you plan to focus your attention as you work together over the next five months?

The overlap is one of the major advantages of this position. Rita has been at the helm for 16 years, and has been on the team for a total of 30, so her insight and knowledge are absolutely invaluable. But the world isn’t standing still, so during this transition we’re still working on some key priorities:

  • Moving to a virtual work environment for better service, flexibility and access. (We’re closing our brick and mortar office in the fourth quarter of this year.)
  • Growing AGN’s international programs and connecting firms across oceans and borders.
  • Broadening our reach in North America by meeting with prospects and determining potential new members.
  • Rebranding the organization for the next generation of accounting firms, which includes fostering an internationally collaborative culture, developing innovative member tools and implementing cutting-edge technology.
  • Finding new resources and concepts to improve existing member programs.

What attracted you to AGN International?AGNlogo

This is a unique opportunity to meld the strength and equity of the past with a new direction for the future. AGN’s investment in the long leadership transition demonstrates a commitment to keeping the organization strong and stable  – I’ve never seen a group so personally invested in the success and health of an association.

At the same time, with a fresh leadership team across the world, AGN is going through a major revitalization with a new brand, a new perspective on globalization and a cutting-edge approach to member service. Thanks to the foresight of the current boards and the innovative perspective of our new international CEO Malcolm Ward, plenty of creativity and opportunity is on the horizon for AGN.

You have a strong accounting marketing background. How did that work prepare you to take on the regional director role?

It is funny how you look back and everything that you’ve done seems to come together, even though you never planned it that way. Everything that I have done has been about creating an image, a personality, a feeling of community and belonging. At SS&G, it was about gaining the trust and confidence of the partner group and eventually bringing them together for a focused plan. We developed tools to help them promote both themselves as individuals and the firm as a whole. Working with association members is very similar. We support them in developing their own brands and also help them to represent AGN standards and ideals. Working inside a public accounting firm in an operational leadership capacity also taught me how things work – not just ideally, but politically, emotionally, etc. I understand how our members think, what happens internally and – most important – what they want from outside resources like an association.

At The Advisory Board I also had the incredible luck to work with some of the most innovative leaders in the profession – people who set trends and act as ambassadors to the future. While much of what I did daily revolved around marketing, programming, client service and sales, I learned so much about leading and running an accounting practice. This has been incredibly helpful in defining and predicting our members needs and areas of opportunity.

What is the role of accounting associations today in an increasingly global economy?

Over a decade ago, developing international reach become vital to the growth of mid-size and regional firms in North America. Often these global connections were gained from membership in an association, but as referrals have multiplied, it has become clear that providing a map with locations just wasn’t enough. True international associations are now working to:

  • -Develop platforms that enhance communications and understanding between multi-lingual members.]
  • Ensure quality standards and timely response in all firms across all regions.
  • Approach firm growth, operational and technical education on an international level, with frequent collaboration and interaction.
  • Provide resources not only in a broad geographic pattern, but also with deep service and sector expertise.
  • Demonstrate cultural understanding and work to eliminate organizational bias.

Everything we do as an association stems from our primary goal of making our firms stronger: to help them serve their clients better, to operate more efficiently and to be more competitive.

What’s the biggest challenge AGN member firms are facing, and how are they working together to address it?

Recruiting, developing and retaining quality talent is the No. 1 priority. However, there is strength in numbers, and collectively our membership has created a package to enhance their local compensation packages and internal offerings.

Statistically, education and development opportunities are more important than financial compensation to younger generations. AGN offers five levels of highly customized audit and tax training in a small, closed peer group. This starts as early as their first day, and helps develop networking skills and bonds with other AGN colleagues. Plus, while many smaller firms struggle to offer candidates the international intrigue of the Big 4, AGN’s Staff Exchange Program allows members to travel and work in other parts of the world, fulfilling their desire to learn about other cultures.

As these staff members grow, they can also develop leadership skills both formally and informally through AGN. Our Partner Development Academy goes far beyond other programs, with multiple levels of engagement and education on a national level for the emerging leader through the managing partner. Additionally, members can sharpen both technical and leadership skills by actively participating in or leading AGN’s national or international sharegroups and committees.

Finally, firms need a strong recruiting process and plan. Our Human Resources Sharegroup is a key component to benchmarking, idea sharing and generally ensuring that a member is competitive in the marketplace. Professionals openly share information to help them win candidates and develop strong firm cultures.

Any long-term plans or goals for AGN that you’d like to share?

Your question is perfectly timed! We actually just returned from our first international retreat for all staff members outside London. It was an incredible week of collaboration, but the most valuable outcome was the focus on creating the next generation of AGN.

Major components include:

  • Anticipating what our firms need and creating it to help them thrive not just next year, but in the next 10 years.
  • Celebrating the unique, individual persona of each firm and helping them to develop and promote their own brands.
  • Thinking differently, and acting unexpectedly. We are developing diagnostics that will provide immediate practice management guidance and using technology to deliver valuable member tools globally.
  • Ensuring quality among our members worldwide, and implementing standards to measure and quantify the results.
  • Finding more forward-thinking, progressive firms to build our reach and our growing list of social communities.

Final thoughts?

This is an incredible period of change and consolidation for not only firms, but for their associations as well. More organizations like ours are joining together in unique and different ways. We’ve recently seen association mergers (and separations) and there will undoubtedly be more to come. With this shifting landscape, I’ll admit that it is an uneasy time to be taking on a leadership role. However, AGN is quietly confident of its ground. Our strategy is to maintain a constant, unrelenting focus on increasing the value that we provide to our members around the world, and with the diagnostics, tools and strategies that we are introducing I am confident not only that we’ll succeed, but thrive.