Taking Control of Your Firm’s Future 

    by Marja Beltrami, CPA 

    Taking Control of Your Firm’s FuturePlanning your future is critical at every point in your career.  When I graduated from college, I was a single mother with two kids who were five and four years old.  I was told by a college guidance counselor that I should find a basic bookkeeping job based on my family obligations.  I disagreed and thought that I could do more, so I interviewed with many firms for a staff accountant position.  Since universities tend to highlight large firms, I was interested in interviewing with them, but the large firms in Alaska require lots of travel.  With a staff accountant’s salary, two small children at home, and no other family in Alaska, I knew that a large firm would not be a good fit for me, so I looked to the smaller local firms for a position.

    Beginning my career in a small firm was a good choice.  I received one-on-one training from well-seasoned partner level individuals.  However, that particular firm’s failure to plan had a large impact on my career.  They had no succession plan, so I felt there was no opportunity for advancement and growth.  Had I stayed, I probably would have remained a staff accountant for the rest of my life.  I wanted to know what else was out there, so I went into industry, and then ultimately opened my own firm.  My firm provides general consulting for all sizes of business, as well as tax and audit services.  I have five staff members, including three CPA candidates, so I’m definitely grooming leaders for the firm’s future.

    Chart Your Own Course
    No matter what the size of your firm, strategic planning can help you meet your short- or long-term goals.  As an example, I learned about the importance of succession planning from a retiring CPA whose practice I recently merged into my practice.  He was convinced that his clients were completely loyal to him and that they would all stick with me after I bought the practice simply because he recommended they do so.  About one-half actually went elsewhere due to the sale, so the payment he received when exiting was much less than he expected, since it was based on client retention.  I think the transition would have been better if we had taken the time to prepare clients and allowed them the opportunity to get to know me before the sale.  

    Obviously, a well thought out strategic plan would have been extremely beneficial and profitable both for him and me.

    This experience also reminded me that our profession is about relationships, a fact that became really important not long after the purchase of the other practice, when our server crashed four days before April 15.  My clients had learned to trust us, so they shrugged it off and allowed us to address the problem.  The remaining clients from the retired CPA panicked and called the firm repeatedly.  Once again, it was clear that maintaining strong client relationships and interaction are in a firm’s best interests, and they are both enhanced by good planning. 

    Invest in Yourself
    One thing I have discovered about running a small practice is that you have to be ready to play with the big kids.  By that I mean that you can’t scrimp on equipment, on training or on your participation in the profession.  You have to spend money on yourself and your business.  My involvement with the AICPA is one great example and joining PCPS was the best $35 I have ever spent.  There are so many valuable resources available to members and for me the most important has been the semi-annual PCPS Small Firm Networking Group meetings.  I would recommend that practitioners seek opportunities to meet with other peer CPAs, which is what the networking group allows me to do.  The networking group members are all CPAs who own their own practices, so their advice and observations are tangible and realistic and they keep me grounded.  It’s understandably difficult to get a big picture or long-term view when you’re working alone in a solo practice, so groups like this are an important asset.

    In addition, the training available at the AICPA Practitioners Symposium and TECH+ Conference has refocused what leadership means to me.  I realized that it’s not about figuring out how to be busy and to fill roles.  Instead, it’s about identifying who you are, your value and what your contribution means to the big picture.  That makes it possible for others to understand how they fit into your firm and what they have to offer.  That perspective has enabled me to develop a good environment for my people to go to work.

    Doing What’s Right for Everyone
    What are the goals in my current long-term plan?  I’m actively trying to use my new perspectives on leadership to build a business that my staff would want to buy.  That means allowing them to grow as I take on a different role.  Unlike the retiring CPA who simply exited and handed his clients over to me, I’m hoping for a seamless succession.  One in which one or more of my team members will buy the practice when I’m ready.  Clients will see less of me as time goes on, so they can begin to build relationships with the other staff members.  I think that planning now to ensure that outcome will be in the best interests of my firm, my clients and my staff.

    Marja Beltrami, CPA, is the managing partner of Beltrami & Associates, PC, a solo practice in Anchorage, Alaska, and a past president of the Alaska Society of CPAs.

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