Carl George began his career as a staff accountant at Clifton Gunderson in 1971, climbing the ranks at the Midwestern firm to become its chief executive in 1993. During his 11 years at the helm, the firm has tripled in size and has grown into a regional powerhouse that boasts revenue of over $145 million and more than 50 offices in 13 states and Washington D.C.
In an interview with WebCPA editor Melissa Klein, George talks about how he has positioned his firm for growth, as well as the impact of the regulatory changes in the accounting profession on Clifton Gunderson.
Why did you choose a career in public accounting?
I became interested in public accounting because I was always interested in finding solutions and answers to business issues. It has always been natural for me – probably because my father was self-employed and I observed his approaches over the years. I worked for my father starting at the age of 10. Many of the principles that I use and refer to today I learned from my father. For example, he was in the restaurant business, and internal control to him meant that someone from the family had to be on the premises at all times. There’s a lot to be said for that rule.
What was your firm’s biggest challenge during your tenure, and how did you meet it?
The biggest challenge has been to manage the numerous changes in our firm and in our profession over the last 11 years. When I first took over as CEO, we were focused more internally toward the growth of our firm. We still are to a large degree, but lately we are also focused on protecting and making our profession better. We all have a role as stewards of our profession – to improve it, police it and promote it.
Clifton Gunderson has been expanding rapidly. You acquired three CPA firms and an IT consulting firm in 2003, and have already closed another CPA firm deal (Wooden & Benson) in 2004. What’s your growth strategy?
Internally, we continue to focus on our growth strategy of increasing our share of mid-market commercial clients, governmental and not-for-profits. We are expanding the firm’s relationships with other CPA and consulting firms to obtain referrals for services when they do not possess the resources to deliver a specialized service, or when conflicts prevent them from serving clients directly.
Externally, our merger and acquisition priorities are to supplement our existing client service centers and markets, to add talent to strengthen our firm’s core industries and services, to add to our market share of our core industries and services, and to enter new strategic geographic markets.
What do you look for in a potential merger or acquisition candidate? What are the keys to successfully integrating a firm into your practice?
Everything we do is driven by our strategic plan. We look for firms that meet the criteria we have set. The No. 1 criteria we look for is practice philosophy and culture. If you can’t agree on practice philosophy in pre-merger discussions, it won’t change after. If our core values aren’t important to a merger candidate, that’s trouble also. That most likely signifies huge people issues – at the client level and the internal personnel level. The only thing to do is walk at that time.
We have a detailed merger integration program that includes checklists, meetings, working with CG partners, periodic check-ups, etc.
What practice areas does the firm plan to focus on in 2004?
We plan to continue to focus on our five core services: assurance, tax consulting, technology consulting, valuation and forensic services, and financial services. We have defined these as the core services where we will concentrate the bulk of our resources – people, time and money.
How have the regulatory changes in the accounting profession impacted Clifton Gunderson?
Without a doubt, it’s made us better. Obviously, we were troubled by the profession’s perceived loss of respect and trust that was an outgrowth of the latest scandals. But we quickly learned that the national news headlines weren’t necessarily applicable to our segment of the market. In fact, our clients reaffirmed that they still viewed us as their most trusted advisor. As events have unfolded since that time, we have rededicated ourselves to providing the highest quality assurance and consulting services. There have also been some new opportunities resulting from the new regulations and changes in client relationships in the marketplace. We’re more convinced now than ever before that Clifton Gunderson is serving the right type of client with the right range of services.
Despite the difficult environment we practice in today, I believe our profession is more attractive today than ever before. You can see it in the accounting schools, which are overflowing with candidates. In addition, CPAs practicing today can help shape our economy for years to come – by helping our clients solve problems and navigate through a very complex business environment – and is filled with opportunities. That’s a great place to be.
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