After encountering a stream of prospects with budgets too limited to purchase middle-market accounting software outright, Gene Marks saw a golden opportunity. Marks formed the Marks Group to provide outsourced controller services to smaller companies.
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"We’re not computer guys, we’re controllers. We put in business systems. We don’t sell software; we choose the best tools out there for our market and our controllers use them," says Marks, who founded the CPA firm in 1996 after working as senior audit manager of KPMG’s Philadelphia office. That CPA connection remains strongÑ80 percent of the controllership clients come from Big Five referrals.
The Marks Group provides a full range of services, such as setting up accounting systems, hiring personnel, implementing employee benefit plans and payroll systems, opening insurance coverage, setting up computer networks, and building contact management and email systems. Although a CPA firm, the Marks Group performs no attest, write-up, or tax preparation services.
"That would be a threat to the CPAs who refer us work," says Marks.
Marks also owns and manages Demand Systems, founded in 1977 by his father. For now, Demand focuses on selling UA Business Software from Houma, La.-based Advanced Software Development, as well as the GoldMine CRM and HEAT contact management software from FrontRange Solutions. However, the reselling operation will be folded into the Marks Group by year-end. "I believe the future is the services that the Marks Group provides, not reselling software," notes Marks.
Located in Philadelphia, the Marks Group has a staff of 10 that includes consultants, accountants, Visual Basic programmers, and Microsoft Certified specialists. Annual revenue is more than $1 million.
Marks uses accounting software as the launching point for outsourced controller services. When the firm is hired as controller, the client is given a free copy of Ledgersystems Gold, which is a customized version of the Access-based UA Business Software. It is offered as an alternative to Peachtree and QuickBooks for those clients who have custom reporting needs. It also provides clients with the option to move up to UA Software.
"Clients don’t just get software with us, they get a full-time controller. Our job is to provide a clean set of books. Our controllers visit clients once a week, quarter, or month, and are available all the time through cell phones, e-mail, and instant messaging," says Marks.
For example, Marks has been working with Bristol, Pa.-based paper distributors Griff & Associates since 1995. Marks started with a step-by-step approach, giving the company Ledgersystems Gold and putting its books in order. As the client began to grow, Marks set up a GoldMine system to manage their orders and upgraded them to UA. "I go there once a week and call on their account. They turn to me for anything financial, and I turn to the software," says Marks.
With more than 150 clients, support plays an important role in the success of the company. The Marks Group controllers and consultants take full responsibility for the products they serve. For UA/Ledgersystems Gold, the firm provides all training, accounting, programming, and technical support. For GoldMine and Heat, the firm provides training, programming, implementation, and technical support.
"Our customers feel more comfortable talking to one person about their entire system than a multitude of vendors. Where a full-time controller is employed at a company, the information technology department oftentimes falls under his/her responsibility. Why should that be different with our controller services?" says Marks. The Marks Group controller rates are $75 to $150 an hour, but Marks usually sets a flat monthly fee for clients.
Marks finds his GoldMine connection in particular brings him a lot of new business. "We are a Premier partner, and because we know the product so well, we can implement it in just about any business. And, this opens the door to our controller services," says Marks.
A typical CRM project fee ranges from $2,500 to $50,000, depending on the size of the project. Marks says generally it is about two to three times the cost of the software.