The 2020 Managing Partner Elite

Accounting Today’s annual MP Elite list always represents the profession’s most outstanding firm leaders, but this year’s class of managing partners is notable for exemplary leadership amid the extraordinary events and challenges of 2020.

This is no coincidence. While the 2020 MP Elite were chosen by the same parameters we have used to evaluate candidates in the past — sustainable firm growth, strategic planning, diversity and inclusion, cultivating a strong culture, and innovation in technology and processes — this year, we took into account how each managing partner is navigating their firm through the current unique circumstances. In particular, we asked if their firm had undertaken any initiatives in response to the current protests against racism and police brutality, and what leadership challenges the coronavirus pandemic have presented to them — and how they have responded to those challenges.

What the 2020 MP Elite all shared in common was demonstrating conviction in publicly expressing support for their people and those impacted by the protests and calls for systemic change following the killing of George Floyd. Some leaders also organized firmwide discussions to delve deeper into these issues and donated to related causes. The 2020 MP Elite also almost universally reached out to their firms’ clients and wider communities to make statements as the discussion of racial injustice in America comes to the forefront.

The leaders took similar actions in response to the COVID-19 pandemic — both checking in on the health and safety of their people and reaching out to clients and community. Since the outbreak, these leaders have had the very tall order of creating a new normal for their firms that continues the success they have built over their years at the helm, while adjusting to the barrage of new business challenges brought on by the virus. Aside from business continuity and sustainability, managing partners have also had to prioritize the health and wellness of their people, not to mention adapting to the very complicated reality of leading their large teams remotely.

The 2020 MP Elite are on this list because they were already well ahead of the game with the necessary technology advancements, people policies, and strategic planning to navigate a crisis. This year has proven the need to be as innovative and adaptable as these leaders, but their pioneering work does not make the job any less momentous — or less historic. Which just further highlights how extraordinary the 2020 MP Elite are.

Firm first
Allyson-Roz-Mahoney Ulbrich
Roz Allyson
Mahoney Ulbrich Christiansen Russ
Joined in 1993; MP since 2015

Many MPs pride themselves on their client service, and Roz Allyson is no different. The client she has in mind, though, is a little different. “I have dedicated myself to serving the firm as my top client,” she says. “My goal as managing partner is the same as it was for my clients — to become their trusted advisor.” Fortunately, she’s in a position to make sure this particular client takes her advice, which has included creating a strategic plan, building out a succession plan, aggressively adopting cloud-based applications, launching a CAS practice and a business valuations practice, revamping the 68-person firm’s performance management system (including compensation and bonus structures), and building a culture based on flexibility. She and MUCR are clearly doing something right: The St. Paul, Minnesota-based firm has been on Accounting Today’s list of the Best Firms to Work For every year since 2010.

A number of this year’s MP Elite have been with their firms for much of their careers, and Allyson credits staying with MUCR for close to three decades with giving her a deep understanding of her firm — an understanding she has leveraged to help her No. 1 client thrive in a time of upheaval and uncertainty. “My ability to adapt to change has been an integral part in helping the firm remain relevant in the rapidly changing world around us,” she says. “However, change can be difficult, and we need to make sure our decisions are what is best not only for our firm, but also for our people, our clients, and our community.”
Tech prepped
Cardello-Jackie-GRF CPAs
Jackie Cardello
GRF CPAs & Advisors
Joined in 1997; MP since 2013

While most accounting firms abruptly adjusted to a fully remote workforce in response to the pandemic, GRF has had that model in place for years, thanks to the leadership of Jackie Cardello. Now a virtual organization with remote capabilities across the firm, Bethesda, Maryland-based GRF first initiated that transformation back when Cardello took the helm seven years ago. She oversaw a complete network overhaul and IT audit that resulted in an investment in entirely new servers and infrastructure, along with the implementation of numerous security and communications systems. Next, the firm plans to bring artificial intelligence to the audit department.

Once the crisis hit, Cardello “knew that our investments in technology and employee training were going to pay off” for the firm’s 120 staff. She has also seen other early efforts come to fruition, including numerous personnel programs around mentorship, leadership development, and student loan repayment. The firm’s initiatives for women have also been strong, with Cardello reporting the addition of 11 women leaders over her tenure, and last year they were formalized into the GRF Diversity and Inclusion Committee and a women’s leadership group, Women on the Move.

“Perhaps even more important, the firm is focusing on diversity and inclusion,” she says. “At a time when the industry is losing graduates with accounting degrees and seeing even fewer CPAs among people of color and other protected groups, GRF is posting some impressive results.”
Best practices all around
Collins-Lee-Ann-Lane Gorman Trubitt
Lee Ann Collins
Lane Gorman Trubitt
Joined in 1987; MP since 2015

In Lee Ann Collins’ first five years as MP, something unusual happened at LGT: The number of full-time personnel dropped by eight, but the firm’s revenue increased 15 percent. “We have implemented new processes and technology to accommodate the reduction in staff,” she explains. “We looked internally to our current process and procedures in order to provide either the same services for our clients or look at technology that would reduce the number of billable hours to complete their engagements. This provided an increase in client satisfaction along with staff stability.”

Stability in this case means a remarkably low turnover rate of 2 percent at the 112-person firm, which is easy to believe given the way Collins pioneered a host of HR best practices like Dress for Your Day, summer hours, greater support for CPA Exam candidates, flexible work schedules, diversity & inclusion efforts, and more.

She also keeps a keen eye on IT: “We sought opportunities to leverage new technology to improve resources available to our staff while adding long-term efficiency to our engagements,” she says. Using the latest technology not only speeds up processing for tax, audit and accounting services; it also keeps their administrative functions, from HR to marketing, ready to support the Dallas-based firm.

Overall, Collins says, “I ensured the longevity of this firm by creating an environment that allows us to quickly shift to new potential revenue streams.”
A focus on others
John Geraci
Joined in 2009; MP since 2015

Ask John Geraci about himself, and he often ends up talking about other people — whether it’s the leader at another Boston-based firm earlier in his career who taught him “the delicate balance between being a compassionate and caring human leader, while also being very entrepreneurial and innovative,” or the “strong and dedicated” leadership team he works with, or the firm’s “devoted team members.”

His passion for people is clear in the 22 separate retention initiatives the firm has put in place during his tenure, or the growth and succession plans that aim, in his words, “to ensure that we are in a position to provide everyone who wants it a seat at the table” — but it may be clearest in a story from the current pandemic: LGA made a point of sending gifts and care packages to team members who were working from home to help them feel less isolated. “For one of these gifts,” Geraci explains, “it was important to me to deliver it, in a contactless manner, to each of my team members’ homes. I wanted them to know that it was about more than spending money to make them smile; I wanted them to know that I cared enough about every one of them to spend over 20 hours in a car driving from house to house as a symbol of what our culture represents.”

The results of that devotion are clear as well: the 71-person firm’s revenue has grown over 100 percent since he took office — and its staff has grown over 200 percent. “Their success is my success, and their failure is my failure,” he says, “so we must succeed together.”
Tone setter
Carla McCall
Joined in 1995; co-MP since 2011; MP since 2020

Carla McCall served as co-MP for the past decade before assuming sole leadership of Massachusetts-based AAFCPAs this year, and by then she had already proven a deep commitment to the firm’s growth and its 240 people. While AAFCPAs boasts an impressive list of staff programs, it’s the holistic approach that stands out. According to McCall, AAFCPAs “built a clear path for growth by connecting learning and development directly to our assessment process.” These processes are supplemented by a full-time director of talent advancement, coaching and leadership training, an innovation committee and lab, and a professional accounting development department. Also known as PADD, that program offers mentoring and group coaching for staff to develop their own career management skills.

AAFCPAs also has a diversity and inclusion committee, a Women’s Opportunity Network, and actively partners with the National Association of Black Accountants and the Association of Latino Professionals. McCall has long advocated for women in leadership and aims to set that tone at the top — which she expresses through AAFCPAs’ frequent communication efforts. The firm hosts regular roundtables; offers an “Ask the MP” anonymous question-and-comment submission tool; and, since the pandemic outbreak, releases weekly videos of McCall giving firm updates and speaking on important issues like mental health, a personal passion of hers that has become especially pertinent in the new normal.
Community leader
McConnell-Wayne-McConnell & Jones
Ira Wayne McConnell
McConnell & Jones
Joined in 1987; MP since 1996

McConnell & Jones was fostering a flexible and open work environment even before the events of 2020 made both necessary. Under McConnell’s 24 years of leadership, the firm has embraced telework, “liberal PTO,” and various training and coaching opportunities for its people that earned the firm a 13 percent growth in staff last year. And, according to McConnell, “The centerpiece of our people policy is an open environment in which we are free to have frank conversations, share in our successes, and many of our people are friends outside the office. We attribute that to our culture and the premium our partners place on it.” The 88-person firm has had a formal strategic plan since its inception in 1987, and is currently extensively reviewing its succession plan.

McConnell & Jones also prides itself on its role as one of the largest African-American-owned CPA firms in the country, which reflects the diversity of its headquarters in Houston, and informs its recruitment and employee engagement efforts. The awards the firm has earned under McConnell’s direction are representative of the Regional Leader firm’s strengths, as well as its commitments to diversity and inclusion. The same goes for McConnell’s individual awards, which include the Houston Black Chamber of Commerce Pinnacle Award and entrance into the Grambling University Alumni Hall of Fame. “As a result,” he says, “my most notable awards are a mix of professional achievements and community-oriented recognition.”
Still making change
Don Murphy
BMSS Advisors & CPAs
Co-founder, and CEO and managing member since 1991

Don Murphy may have co-founded BMSS 29 years ago, but he has executed some of his most sweeping directives in the last few years, supporting the role he has rightfully adopted of “visionary and change agent.” It’s a responsibility he takes very seriously: “I’ve been known to push a firm full of accountants to change when they may not feel 100 percent comfortable doing so. However, I embrace change only if it is good for our clients or our people.”

Guiding this innovative mindset is a strategic five-year plan the firm put in place four years ago, along with a mandatory retirement plan established three years ago. In that same time frame, BMSS also merged in three firms, opened a second Birmingham, Alabama, location, and launched its business advisory and consulting services. Murphy also leads change on the personnel side, with programs like “homerooms,” safe spaces where employees meet with assigned homeroom leaders to discuss any concerns and frustrations. This, along with summer Fridays off, community involvement days, and online education platform BMSS University have earned the 195-person firm spots on Accounting Today’s Best Firms to Work For and many other local workplace rankings.
Legacy builder
Peterson-David-Haynie & Co
David Peterson
Haynie & Co.
Joined as an intern in 1975; MP for 15 years

Since Dave Peterson joined Haynie & Co. in Salt Lake City as a college intern in 1975, it’s safe to say he grew up in the firm — but it’s also fair to say that the 310-person firm has grown up around him. In his 15 years as MP, the firm has merged in 19 other firms and nine sole practitioners (a record that rivals those of much larger acquirers), expanded from one office to 14, and grown both its staff and its revenues by 700 percent. In the past decade, Haynie has ranked among the fastest-growing firms in the country no less than three times, and since it acquired a Securities and Exchange Commission audit practice five years ago, has made frequent appearances on our quarterly lists of auditors that are bringing on the most new engagements.

What’s driving Peterson to pursue that kind of growth could serve as a mantra for many of the members of the MP Elite: “I have a genuine passion for what I do. I love the profession. I love my employees. I love helping clients succeed. I love changing the landscape of how we do things,” he explains. “My main focus is to leave a legacy for our great firm that will survive well into the future, providing a different accounting firm experience than exists in most firms today.”
Leading more than a firm
Ryan-Tim-Pwc 2020
Tim Ryan
Joined in 1988; U.S. chair & senior partner since 2016

Among accounting firm MPs, the leaders of the Big Four firms are their own kind of elite, running massive organizations that set the model for the rest of public accounting to follow, and Tim Ryan certainly deserves his place in that elite. His championing of a move to invest $3 billion in both the digital transformation of PwC and giving his 50,000 staff the skills to match is just one example of the kind of forward-thinking strategies he is putting in place at one of the biggest firms in the country.

But as impressive as Ryan is in leading PwC, he’s even more impressive for the leadership he’s demonstrating for the profession and for the country as a whole on issues surrounding diversity & inclusion and racial injustice. The CEO Action on Diversity & Inclusion Pledge he co-founded in 2017 has been sworn by almost a thousand CEOs (and many, many leaders in accounting), and that, combined with his ongoing initiatives to make PwC more open and inclusive, has made him a leading voice in the American business community in this area. His moral and practical leadership on the subject served him and PwC in good stead when Black staff member Botham Jean was killed by a white police officer in 2018, and it’s standing the profession and all the rest of us in good stead in the wake of the killing of George Floyd.
Action items
James Wallace
Joined in 2015 as CEO

Every CEO has the responsibility to set goals for themselves and their firm, but not every firm leader can successfully attain them. James Wallace certainly can and has, and he’s not exactly working from a modest list. Alongside the San Francisco firm’s board and management committee, Wallace has developed many goals in his nearly five years in office; among the most notable were establishing an office in India and actively expanding the firm’s advisory practice to double-digit growth year after year — which, along with six mergers, helped land the firm among the top 20 fastest-growing firms from Accounting Today’s 2020 Top 100 Firms & Regional Leaders lists.

As for which milestones make Wallace most proud, he names several personnel policies, including a Flexibility at BPM program and leadership training that includes interactive workshops and multi-level development programs. Also supporting BPM’s hiring and retention efforts are its diversity and inclusion initiatives. The 589-person firm found success with its “WIN! Women’s Initiative Now!” program, offering everything from unconscious bias training to parenting resources and support. Last year, that initiative was expanded into “WIN! to Inclusion Now (IN!),” supporting colleagues of all genders, ethnicities and those who identify as LGBTQIA+. “By creating a safe space for people to share their honest opinions, our goal is to ensure all employees feel valued and heard,” says Wallace.