While firms today often have little choice but to engage in international business, the savvy ones have already made that big decision.
"It is the biggest, most wide-open market, uncluttered for CPAs," said Gale Crosley, founder and principal of practice growth consultancy Crosley+Co. "Firms come to me and ask, 'What niches should I be in?' I will say, it all depends on a lot of things, and [they respond], 'Is there one you'd recommend across the board?' It would be international, it's the only one, without question, it's the one ... no firm should ignore. It's pretty exciting. Firms that got on the bandwagon, or are getting on it, in three-to-five-plus years are going to have incredible growth - if they do it right. You don't just wander into it."
Instead, firms should begin with a review of their current clients. "Step One is an inventory of all clients to see if any have any international dealings whatsoever, and put that on a spreadsheet by country," Crosley advised. "The second column is what industry they are in. Then look and notice whether you have patterns emerging. Short-list the half-dozen countries where you have the most potential. You may or may not be doing anything for them internationally. But it's about where they have operations - that is a natural place for you."
Perry Barnett, business services partner at Gainesville, Ga.-based Rushton & Co., which first entered the international market via a single manufacturing client seven years ago, recognizes that, today, it's vital to "get out of your chair."
"One of their clients in Gainesville was going international, and it woke them to the international possibilities," recalled Crosley, who has consulted for Rushton. "Now they've taken a more focused approach."
"Fortunately, the international component of those [first international clients] was not overly complex," Barnett said. "We got in and learned gradually. We did that for a year or two, then looked around and recognized there were a lot of international companies in Northeast Georgia."
Start in your backyard
Favorable geography, like Rushton's proximity to the U.S.'s fourth busiest port, is a common gateway for international expansion.
CPA firm Belfint Lyons & Shuman's Delaware location attracts international businesses looking to incorporate in the United States -- with the added help of a newly optimized firm Web site to promote the international tax services the firm has always provided, but formalized into a practice three years ago.
"Our Web site is a great place to get leads, and 90 percent of our Internet leads are international," shared Stephanie Chapman, supervisor of BLS's tax and small business department. "We do get international leads from other formation agents. In Google search, we are one of the first that comes up."
Benefiting from their SEO-enhanced positioning in the "formation capital of the world" of Delaware, BLS has more inbound than outbound client transactions, though it handles both.
Do your homework
For firms in regions with less obvious international communities, Crosley recommends research at the local economic development council or chamber of commerce.
After identifying the potential in Northeast Georgia's international manufacturing base, "We did a market analysis of different communities -- not just ours, but different areas," Barnett explained. "Some companies were too large for us, some were too small for us. Over several years, we determined those that fit our sweet spot."
Crosley also suggests that firms consult with those that are already doing business in sought-after countries or industries, before "surgically" focusing specialized services in these new areas. "Start conversations with people that you're thinking of expanding your international business and ask them to give you their insights," she advised. "Interview people to figure out how to get those first clients and pieces of business ... . The referral process from yesterday is not good enough; there is more sophistication required in strategy development. In a more complex world, market intelligence is really critical."
Build your network
International firm networks and alliances are invaluable hubs of this intelligence.
"We're a large practice in the state of Delaware, so other small firms we're associated with are calling us, saying they are getting phone calls from international clients," explained Chapman. "They say, 'We don't do anything, do you?'"
Proper training is required before firms can answer in the affirmative, of course. Rushton initially struggled to find the necessary specialized programs for its staff, and though companies now provide more advanced training than what was available seven years ago, Barnett said he still partially relies on the more unconventional methods he adopted back when he had to be more "resourceful."
"I would read an article someone had written about international tax and would e-mail the author: 'Do you have time for a phone call?'" he recalled. "There's still no substitute for building a cadre of people that have expertise in certain areas, not even in our firm ... But we needed a little bit of collaboration with other people. Every project we worked on with these [external] folks, we would learn something. And international business is evolving."
Rushton's joining international association CPAmerica in 2008 helped fuel this revelation. "That's the point we really began to gain traction ... it exceeded our expectations in how well we've been able to advance our international business because of the access," Barnett said. "We used to look and search and read, and take a month or two to find something. Now, when an issue comes up, we know people personally and can pick up the phone and get an answer in 24 hours."
Referrals are another perk of associations, according to Mary Richter, who, as shareholder of Top 100 Firm Schneider Downs & Co., said that the firm welcomes many through its PrimeGlobal membership.
Seize new opportunities
In an increasingly connected world, referrals can also come from unexpected sources.
Barnett was doing his weekly wade through his LinkedIn community feeds when he doubled back to a message he had already deleted. It was from a man who had worked for a Big Four firm and was now consulting in Qatar, setting up a tax training program. Barnett replied that he was happy to help and shared information about Rushton's continuing education.
"That was my entree into an international relationship," he explained. "You have to look for those split-second opportunities and take advantage of those."
According to Crosley, firms that have successfully grown their international business not only strategically initiate relationships with essential contacts, but take advantage of these kinds of surprise connections. "Those firms understand opportunity and have a big-thinking strategy where they connect -- and it can be spontaneous."
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