Marc Elliott traded in his role as a traditional CPA to become a technologist more than two years ago with the formation of the SBE Technology Group.
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The CPA firm of Swaim, Brown, and Elliott, based in Spartanburg, S.C., was one of many firms spurred to diversify after attending the AICPA/Microsoft Partners conference in June 1997. It was a time when Microsoft was leading the charge in urging CPAs to enter the technology-consulting arena.
“We felt we needed to build up consulting while our traditional compliance areas were leveling off. We saw this as the perfect reason to get into technology.” says Elliott.
Swaim, Brown, and Elliott, a traditional CPA firm, focuses on accounting, auditing, and tax practices. The firm employs 35 and has five partners, including Elliott, who has led and managed the firm’s technology niche since its inception.
But until January 2000, the technology unit was a division of the CPA firm, with Elliott serving double-duty as a CPA firm partner and as the partner leading the technology division. He found the same pressures that have triggered many firms to separate technology from the traditional arena.
“For me, dividing my time between both practices made me feel that I was spreading myself too thin and not doing the best job I could do at either,” says Elliott.
Elliott and his partners decided he needed to dedicate himself to the technology practice and formed the SBE Technology Group. Separating the practices is important because the technology niche is more sales and marketing intensive than the firm’s traditional practice areas.
“You need people who will work on building long-term client relationships-this makes or breaks the sale,” says Elliott. To develop those relationships, SBE employs a sales and marketing coordinator, and is also hiring a business development person.
So far, the firm is pleased with the results. A Great Plains reseller and a Microsoft Certified Partner, SBE has grown to more than $1 million in annual revenue. It employs nine staff members who hold MCSE, CSE, and CAE certifications.
SBE Technology operates in three business areas-systems integration, which includes dealing with local area and wide area networks; an e-business effort that involves designing and hosting Web pages; and reselling Microsoft Great Plains software.
The company opened its own building in August to showcase its technology prowess, incorporating Cisco equipment as well as fiber optics links. “We felt that we needed to implement in our own operations the advanced technology we were advising our clients to implement themselves,” says Elliott.
The building also houses a training facility. SBE offers training that is tailored to client needs on both the Dynamics and eEnterprise financial systems and on Microsoft Office. The firm charges a rate of $125 an hour for the services of the training consultant.
Systems Intergrating Pays
Elliott says most of SBE’s 150 clients use the systems integration services. For such clients, SBE typically assesses the company’s current technology and infrastructure. The company charges $115 to $175 per hour for these services.
“Many times we find clients who have failed to keep their systems current and who are using older, out-of-date Pentium I or II machines with not nearly enough RAM, Windows 95 or 98, and a file server that’s overloaded,” he says.
SBE’s e-business effort is also growing. SBE has developed a system through which a client can administer the text and graphics for its Web site, while SBE supports the platform.
For example, SBE assisted The Charleston Renaissance Gallery (www.fineartsouth.com) in building a Web site that would allow clients to see the original Southern paintings it specializes in.
The Gallery invested more than $200,000 on the site. "And, the client paid for this entire investment before the site went live on the Web with the sale of a couple of paintings that were the result of the Web site itself," says Elliott.
The key to SBE’s success, Elliott feels, has been the understanding and support from the entire CPA firm, combined with SBE’s specialization.
“You can’t try to do tax, audit, and technology. You have to be able to dedicate yourself 100 percent to technology. If you decide to go down the technology path, you need commitment of the group,” says Elliott.