Rick Telberg
Rick Telberg

Three Ms of Success for CPA Firms

After the hustle and bustle of a busy tax season, many accounting firms will be throttling back in the next few weeks to review, refresh and, in some cases, restructure. Some smart firms will also be focusing on managing, mentoring and marketing.

April 19, 2010
by Rick Telberg/At Large

It's been a rollercoaster ride in the past few years, with firms at first drowning in work, followed by a crippling staff shortage, then a market crash and belt tightening, then re-expansion with a broadly profitable busy season. So a few weeks of peace and quiet this summer could seem appealing to staff and management alike.

But management guru Rita Keller is here to tell you that you can't afford much rest. "There's work to do," she says about cleaning up rusty and outmoded CPA firm management practices. Keller will be appearing at the AICPA Practitioners Symposium, June 7-9 in Las Vegas with a message for firms to focus on marketing, mentoring and managing — the three Ms.

In a lifetime of firm management and administration, Keller knows why some firms stand out. They know how to manage people. They mentor and educate. They understand Millenials. Marketing is taught and expected from Day One. And top management, far from passive and laissez-faire, is active and hand's on. "Some firms just get it right," she says.

Keller is expecting a new surge of management activity this summer as firms recalibrate and restructure. Some, however, may be prone to delay and procrastination. For those firms, she cites Herb Kelleher, the legendary founder and former chairman of Southwest Airlines, who scoffed at interminable planning processes. "We’ve never done the long-range planning that is customary in many businesses," Kelleher famously told an interviewer. "When planning became big in the airline community, one of the analysts came up to me and said, 'Herb, I understand you don’t have a plan.' I said that we have the most unusual plan in the industry: Doing things. That’s our plan."

"Your mission," Keller tells accounting managers, "is two words: Do things!" In this rapidly changing world, she says, firms run greater risks in doing too little, too late than in doing too much, too soon.

In managing, Keller is telling firms to take it seriously. It's as important to growing your business and your career as any tax return or bank rec. This summer, firms will especially need to work on upgrading staff's management and leadership skills. "You have to upgrade the whole team," she says. "Most partners these days are just getting one more year closer to retirement. And then, what? And then where will you be if you haven't prepared your firm to carry on?"

In mentoring, Keller is urging top management to take an active, personal stake in talent development. It's one of the few places in which smaller firms can have an advantage over the larger firms. "The bigger firms are just more rigid and hierarchical than a lot of the smaller firms," she says. Mentoring, though it requires a programmatic approach, is still mainly about one person taking another under their wing to teach them the subtle, cultural nuances of life at the firm.

In marketing, Keller says, mentoring and managing can go a long way to developing new business. "Happy staffers make for happy clients," she says. "And happy clients do your marketing for you." It's something she learned, again, from Kelleher.

"We have been successful because we’ve had a simple strategy," Kelleher has said. "We said to our people, there are three things that we’re interested in: The lowest costs in the industry, the best customer service and, beyond that, we’re interested in intangibles — a spiritual infusion — because they are the hardest things for your competitors to replicate. The tangible things your competitors can go out and buy. But they can’t buy your spirit. So it’s the most powerful thing of all."

Keller and Kelleher are, of course, perfectly correct. But then, there's only so far you'd want to follow Kelleher. He reportedly chain-smokes, loves Wild Turkey whiskey and is often seen dressing up as Elvis. As for the Keller I know, she does none of those things. But she does know a thing or two about how a successful accounting firm works.

COMMENT: Rants, raves, questions or ideas? E-mail Rick Telberg.

Copyright © 2010 CPA Trendlines/BSG LLC. All Rights Reserved. Used by Permission. First published by the AICPA.

About Rick Telberg

Rick Telberg is editor at large/director of online content.

Go to the News Center Now

Disclaimer: Any views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of the AICPA or CPA2Biz. Official AICPA positions are determined through certain specific committee procedures, due process and deliberation.