The advantages of firm alliances are numerous — between the vast reach of referral networks, the sharing of best practices, and having access to technology services, alliances can offer a bevy of support to those who can utilize their tools.

It’s worth noting, then, the trends that are affecting domestic alliances in 2015 in order to fully understand them. As the issues that alliances face today will affect all firms tomorrow, a proper alliance “State of the Union” of sorts will highlight not only what is affecting alliance members, but the future of the profession as a whole.

 

RETENTION AND STAFFING

The most common trend among the alliances we spoke to is the issue of retention and transition of staff in firms across the nation. As younger staff members start to enter and lead the profession, questions of retention start to arise as senior leaders begin to retire.

Julio Gabay, president and CEO of Abacus Worldwide — an association of independent accounting, consulting and legal firms — has the advantage of leading a younger alliance (founded in just 2012) with 38 firms worldwide and 11 in the U.S.

“From our perspective, what we’re seeing in the U.S., staffing continues to be a big issue,” said Gabay. “I think that it’s happening because a lot of the firms we’re talking to are newer firms, with younger partners, who have taken over a firm or have broken off from a merger. That’s a big trend for us.”

“The bigger thing is the succession transition of partners, the cultural transition,” Gabay added. “These [younger partners] tend to be a lot more aggressive and forward-thinking in how they do business and leverage their firms.”

Steven Sacks, executive director at Moore Stephens North America — one of the five regional members of Moore Stephens International Limited — also sees the need to focus on younger firm members. “We’re looking to see how our firms can create a culture or road map of retaining the talent they have,” he said. “We’re giving them the opportunity to create a culture that attracts those fresh out of college and those who move from the Big Four to the middle market.” He also added that Moore Stephens has younger members meet their counterparts early on in order to foster years of relationships before they do eventually take over as leaders.

Michelle Arnold, chief regional officer of PrimeGlobal North America, one of the five largest associations of independent accounting firms in the world, notes that its own leadership program, the Succession Institute, currently houses approximately 100 professional candidates tapped as future leaders of PrimeGlobal and its board, putting a significant “financial and time investment into [the] program.”

“Obviously, if a firm is on uncertain [leadership] footing, they’re prime for acquisition,” she said. “Firms we’ve lost recently didn’t have a plan in place.”

“While succession is still a challenge for our firms, it seems most firms have chosen the approach of developing their own successors or merging downward versus merging upward,” said Alan Deichler, president of CPAmerica International (itself a part of the Crowe Horwath International network), which represents more than 2,500 CPAs in 76 firms across the United States. “Many have explored the option of merging upward and have decided on other directions.”

To support its members, 2015 will see the second year of CPAmerica’s NextGen conference, designed for successful seniors and managers who may be receiving their first view of how the profession works, with more than 120 professionals looking to develop their personal career plans of staying in the profession.

 

TECH CRUNCH

Not surprisingly, technology also remains a key issue for firm alliances — whether it’s using tech as a resource for alliance members, or a marketing tool to attract more progressive members. But most important, technology needs to be a necessity in alliances moving forward. “It takes automation and ingenuity through technology and we’re right in the middle of doing this,” said Arnold. “Bringing IT and tech leaders to the table has to be a part of the plan.”

At their annual conference this June in Pittsburgh, Arnold noted that many PrimeGlobal sessions were focused on technology, putting a special emphasis on paperless conferences going forward: “We’re harnessing the cloud and flexibility of your [mobile] devices. It allows for everything to be on your iPhone and iPad. There are now 24 conferences a year on your own device.”

“It’s just about getting [members] to take the extra step and apply it,” added Kathy Sautters, director of communications at Prime­Global. “We are aware of where [our firms] are going and we want them to understand the pace of business and make things fast and easy for them. Paperless is an easy example of how we’ve adapted to what they’ve already done [in their firms.]”

“We’re very similar to our membership in that we’re trying to be more progressive and forward-thinking,” said Gabay, citing a significant amount of budget going into technology for factors such as virtual meetings and video platforms in order to be more user-friendly to progressive businesses. “[Firms] want to make a connection, to get information, and our job is to figure out how to best provide that for them and make those firms take those steps. It’s the most important thing to help facilitate the business that happens between the firms, the services they’re offering their clients, and help them grow with their clients — how to best efficiently connect them.”

It’s important to remember, however, that technology cannot manufacture one of the most important facets of business practice. “Even though this generation is using tech and social media, they cannot forget the importance of face-to-face relationships,” urged Sacks. “Tech is simply a tool; the accounting profession will always be based on personal relationships.”

 

FIRM (ALLIANCES) OF THE FUTURE

Just as the profession thinks about the idea of the “Firm of the Future,” so too should the idea of the “Firm Alliance of the Future” be considered, in order to understand where alliances are going and what can be achieved through them.

“Firm alliances of the future will be more different than alliances are structured now,” said Gabay. “If you look at the reason for [alliances’] startup, it was very different from the business needs of firms now. It used to mainly be about travel and meeting other people. Eventually it started changing into more of a business structure, which is what you’re seeing now. A lot of them have a difficult time changing to a business-focused group. People are going to have to ask, ‘Is my alliance where we should be as a firm?’”

“We are in the third year of a four-year plan to visit all 76 [of CPAmerica’s] firms with a formal Visitation Improvement Program,” Deichler noted. “The plan, at CPAmerica’s expense, allows for two fellow managing partners to visit and observe a host firm in a structured process. The sharing over the two-day visit gives members the opportunity to share their observations and build long-lasting relationships. Based on the positive reaction to the program, I am confident we will continue to offer the program in the future.”

“The challenge for our firms in 2016 seems to be supporting their clients in a timely manner, especially in the tax area, but to also meet the firm’s profit expectations in attest and consulting,” Deichler continued. “The association is moving toward specialty groups — international, business valuation and litigation, a women’s initiative and other groups to support our firms’ development.”

“The younger people create the alliances of the future — just like they want to have a bigger role in the firm, they’ll play a bigger role in the alliances,” noted Sacks.

“I think what’s important is that we have things to engage staffs in all levels and develop them,” said Sautters. “The majority of firms we deal with, we don’t deal with one person — it’s the entire firm. I think it gives firms a great feeling of inclusion.”

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