Likening the varying facets that comprise the corporate culture at Denver-based Ehrhardt Keefe Steiner & Hottman to the makeup of a tree transcends mere arboreal allusion.

It actually has its genesis in two parts. One began in 1978, when founding partner Doug Ehrhardt was given a plant on the firm's first day, which remains alive today, albeit on a far more massive scale. The second chapter came nearly 20 years later, when current managing partner Robert Hottman assumed his role and, together with the partners, created a growth vision for the firm that emerged pictorially, as a tree, rather than numerically.

"The tree is a symbol of our firm," explained Hottman. "It helps ground people to what's important and what we need to do to remain successful. It starts with the roots, that's the value system. The trunk represents our partners - they're not at the top, but rather to support our organization. The branches extend from our clients and the services the firm provides. As everyone works together, all the branches grow together."

Since 1994, when Hottman's firm - Hottman Harris and Drake - merged with Ehrhardt Keefe Steiner to form EKS&H, the firm's "branches" have grown to a point where the firm is now the largest CPA firm in Colorado, generating 2009 revenues of $55.4 million and a No. 51 ranking on Accounting Today's 2010 Top 100 Firms roster. The firm posted a near 5 percent growth rate over the previous year in a region where six of the top 10 firms fell in terms of revenue. It employs a team of nearly 400, including 26 partners.

"If you take care of your people, they will take care of the clients and the firm," Hottman said. EKS&H, which now has three offices - in Denver, Boulder and Fort Collins - has been a multiple-year winner of the "Best Place to Work" in the Denver region among companies with more than 150 employees as determined by the Denver Business Journal.

NO URGE TO MERGE

Though EKS&H remains one of the fastest-growing firms in the region, the 1994 union that created the current incarnation of the firm was its last merger.

"We don't grow through mergers and we don't look for them. Internal growth is more our style and fits better within our culture," maintained Hottman. "People looking to merge usually know we don't do them, so for the most part we don't get many calls. If something exceptional came around we probably would take a look, but M&A is not part of our strategy."

The majority of the firm's revenue stems from its audit and attest unit, and, according to Hottman, EKS&H fields the largest tax practice in the state of Colorado: "We do get invited to the table fairly often when someone is looking for tax specialists."

And because of the firm's geographic presence, EKS&H operates a specialty niche in the oil and gas industry. Other areas that are projected to grow include health care, high tech, construction and alternative energy.

"We've been at the right place at the right time with the right type of firm," said Hottman about EKS&H's ongoing growth. "At the height of Sarbanes-Oxley, we were viewed as a good alternative to the Big Four and national firms, many of which were focusing on their larger clients, so we were able to distinguish ourselves and capture a lot of that business."

However, workplace recognitions and growth notwithstanding, the climate was a bit more somber over 2009, as the firm confronted pressure in fee pricing and efficiencies - both a byproduct of the financial crisis.

"The Big Four have definitely stepped down to a smaller client, and because of their size and resources, often lead with price," Hottman said. "We have to be aware of that strategy and be competitive with them on that aspect and maintain our efficiency and remain profitable, but still continue to give our clients our high service standards."

EKS&H's staff turnover rate, however, is below 10 percent, a level Hottman attributed to an atmosphere that encourages creativity and strong communications, as well as work-life balance and support of the local community. "Community involvement is more than encouraged here," he revealed. "It's more or less a requirement. We know all the key bankers and attorneys, and are active sponsors in charitable events."

"We have a robust college recruiting program," he continued. "In addition, we get calls from people in other firms who know about our culture and want to work here. We don't poach from other firms, but if someone calls us, we'll listen."

EKS&H also plans to expand its internal coaching program, where one partner is assigned coaching and mentoring responsibilities for a group of professionals and managers. "Developing people creates a bond, as well as a desire to remain here," Hottman says. "We also offer a lot of CPE in house, as well as 'life skills.' We don't use the term 'soft skills' because that doesn't convey the right message. Those skill sets are not soft."

Said Hottman, "Ours is not a complex business. It's just doing basics things right."

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