Practice Profile: MWE has talent (and can keep it)
Margolin, Winer & Evens stresses collaboration as its best asset, and the benefits are evident at both extremes of the experience spectrum at the Long Island, N.Y., CPA firm — from new employees to managing partners.
Before their first day at the Top 100 Firm, new hires have a history with Garden City-based MWE, as they are typically recruited and in continual contact with the firm starting in their sophomore or junior year in college, before accepting a job offer almost a year ahead of their graduation. Then, the firm pairs them with a buddy before their start date, so they can learn the ropes from someone closer to their peer group.
“It’s a touchpoint of someone similar, someone a year or two ahead of them,” explained Christine Brennan-Savino, MWE’s human resources director. “That’s something that’s quite unique. Some of them become friends before they even get in the door. We tell them to reach out, ask questions, and meet one-on-one on their own before they get here. Some relationships are well-established before they come to the door.”
Some future employees drop in on firm-organized volleyball or basketball games, even subbing in, to jump-start their involvement. This helps prevent “first-day butterflies in the belly,” according to HR supervisor Gaby Paulino, by helping them “know the players before they get in the door” and establishing a sense of community.
New hires have a similar experience during the job interview process, as they are encouraged to not only turn the table on their interviewers, but to ask questions of someone who has been with the firm for 12 to 18 months. Typical questions, according to Brennan-Savino, include “Just how bad is busy season?” and “What opportunities are there for advancement?”
“They can go on our website,” she continued. “But these aren’t what you’d call ‘website answers.’ I tell our folks, be as focused, as candid as possible, and see what you get, [such as] day-in-the-life questions…they are more comfortable asking peers.”
Based on MWE’s “tremendous research” and time speaking at colleges, the firm recognizes that recent graduates have specific expectations, which the firm aims to satisfy with initiatives like its buddy system and a mentoring program.
“At the colleges, it’s different — everything is in a group, or community activity,” Brennan-Savino shared. “It’s the way they act everyday on campus; it’s how they operate.”
Teamed at the Top
When new employees do finally enter the doors of MWE, they will witness a similar level of collaboration at the top level of management. Craig Savell is currently MWE’s managing partner, but has only been alone in that position since Jan. 1, 2018, after a year of sharing the role with Teddy Selinger as part of the firm’s succession plan.
While many accounting firms struggle with succession planning, MWE’s transition has long been outlined, and marks the firm’s fourth successful transition since its founding in 1946.
According to director of marketing Tracey Segarra, it’s not only MWE’s process that’s unique in the profession, but the fact that they’ve executed it at all.
“A lot of firms were started in the 1970s and are still run by the same people,” she explained. “Like most businesses, they tend to fail in trying to get to the next succession. We’ve been successful three times now, and now a fourth time. It speaks to a firm that’s organized, and planned from the beginning.”
This plan was shared with the rest of the firm in January 2017, an action of transparency that the HR and marketing team attributes to one of the firm’s other guiding principles.
“Teddy sent out an e-mail to the entire firm, announcing he was leaving at the end of the year, and announced Craig would be taking on the role, effective in 2018, a year in advance to transition the work smoothly,” said Brennan-Savino. “It was not a big secret — he went out of his way to announce it a year in advance, and incorporate individuals into it … It was great for staff, because nothing was behind closed doors.”
This kind of open communication from leadership goes a long way in appealing to those just starting at MWE, who “want and expect that,” according to Segarra.
Brennan-Savino agreed: “Transparency, for young folks — it’s hard to explain to people not brought up with that. It’s hard to explain how much they want to know. If they didn’t grow up with that, they don’t understand why it’s so important. When [everything is] front and center, everyone has a comforting feeling.”
At the same time, Segarra added, the quest for knowledge is not limited by age. “Older people, when they worked for a company, no one told you anything. Older people appreciate transparency, too. You feel more invested in where you work when you understand the inner-workings.”
Thus, all of MWE’s roughly 180 employees are privy to the “year of transition” the firm is currently experiencing. To prepare, Savell spent a year working closely with Selinger as his co-MP in practice as well as title, meeting with clients together, and both attending local managing partner meetings so Selinger could introduce Savell to leaders at other accounting firms. The transition was also eased by the fact that MWE usually has the same partners and managers on the same engagements year after year, according to Segarra, as opposed to in Big Four firms, where “they are changing every six months or a year. We have clients we’ve had for generations; 60 years. The business has gone through children and grandchildren. Generational clients are the norm for us.”
MWE’s recent holiday party was a multigenerational scene, with the formal introduction of Savell as the new managing partner and Selinger there to mark the transition. Also there was the MP who preceded Selinger, Paul Silpe, who retired 20 years ago. Brennan-Savino described it as a nice moment for the firm, and one they had to commemorate with a photo.
That picture would make for a good upload to the firm’s Instagram account, which Segarra set up as part of the firm’s marketing efforts.
“We used Instagram before many other firms, certainly on Long Island,” she said. “I saw my kids using it, and it’s a great way to show the culture of the firm. We showed our summer outing, the three-legged races … . We can show the human part of the firm, not just doing all the work.”
Segarra also uses the account to set up polls and other fun ways to interact, and employs it in tandem with the firm’s other marketing initiatives. These include a Twitter account and a recently established video series, of one-to-two-minute clips delving into issues of interest. “People look at accounting firms, and they generally all do the same kinds of things, and work. [The video series] differentiates our people and culture.”
MWE touts its activities, especially in busy season, as showcasing firm culture. During March Madness, the firm will set up basketball shooting games, and Halloween ushers in a pumpkin carving contest that Brennan-Savino said can get very competitive.
Recently, the firm capitalized on the trendy “escape the room” games, where participants work in teams to solve puzzles to exit a confined space. The marketing team transformed a conference room to look like a prison, and 12 teams competed for two days. “Everyone really loved it,” Brennan-Savino reported. “There was a huge positive response, and I’m sure they’re planning something similar.”
Not all firm programs are initiated from the top down, though, hinting at the deeper collaboration MWE seeks to promote.
Younger employees identified a lag between their training and when they started implementing those lessons, according to Brennan-Savino, so they established a class of their own, to train the next class of employees. The theme was “everything you wish you knew,” and they handed out cheat sheets and held presentations. One principle was key: There are no silly questions.
Brennan-Savino credits the firm’s generally open environment, where people can “ask anything, and we have their back, and do the best we can” to accommodate them, as one of the reasons for MWE’s low turnover, compared to the usually weak retention rate in public accounting as a whole.
When people do leave, she said, it’s “never to jump to other places, but to do different things in life,” so it “doesn’t sting as much.” Often, they go to work for the firm’s clients, she said, continuing their collaboration.
AT A GLANCE
Firm Margolin, Winer & Evens
Headquarters Garden City, N.Y.
Managing partner Craig Savell
No. of partners/staff 20/180
Year founded 1946
Services Accounting and auditing; cost segregation; estate planning; international tax; state and local tax; small-business solutions; systems consulting; tax reporting and planning
Industry specialties Construction; financial services; health care; manufacturing and distribution; professional services firms; real estate; retail; technology