Cherry Bekaert LLP has named Michelle L. Thompson as the Top 100 Firm’s managing partner and CEO, succeeding Howard Kies, who has helmed the firm for 27 years, on May 1. She will be one of three women currently leading one of the 25 largest accounting firms.

Thompson will be joining the small group of women who have reached the top spot in recent years, including Cathy Engelbert at Deloitte and Lynn Doughtie at KPMG. Krista McMasters, who was CEO of Clifton Gunderson and then co-CEO of CliftonLarsonAllen after her firm merged with Larson Allen, retired in 2013.

Thompson was elected at the firm’s annual partners’ meeting on Wednesday. She will transition from her current job as managing partner of Cherry Bekaert’s Assurance Services practice. As managing partner of the firm, she will be responsible for overall strategic planning and direction, as well as establishing a new vision for Cherry Bekaert, “Sustaining Success through Transformation and Innovation.”

Cherry Bekaert managing partner and CEO Michelle Thompson
Cherry Bekaert managing partner and CEO Michelle Thompson

“My vision for the future is to sustain the success we’ve had in the past and focus on how we’re going to partner with technology as technology impacts our profession and our firm,” Thompson told Accounting Today. “We’re positioning ourselves, our people and our clients for success in the future.”

Thompson began her career as an auditor and lectures on topics ranging from COSO requirements to fraud and internal control systems. She joined Cherry Bekaert as a supervisor in 1998 and quickly moved up the ranks to become an assurance partner in 2001. In 2011, Thompson joined the firm’s Executive Management Team when she was named managing partner of assurance services.

One of her focus areas is going to be the rapidly changing world of technology. “I think we’re in a time where speed is going to be the name of the game,” she said. “Staying current with the technology as it changes is going to be extremely important and how we really look at what this is doing to our business model as a profession.”

Thompson will be working closely with Kies during the transition until she officially takes over on May 1, 2018. Kies has been managing partner for the past 27 years and has been with the firm for more than 40 years.

“My term actually ends in April, so I’ll stay in the role until the end of April,” Kies told Accounting Today. “Then I will be with the firm for another year. My retirement is actually April 30 of the following year.”

The two will work together on the transition. “Michelle and I will develop a transition plan over the next couple of months,” Kies added. “She has responsibilities that she needs to transition to other individuals, so that will give me an opportunity to transition some responsibilities to her, and then I will be around for another year to supervise or to give insight into various situations that she needs assistance with.”

The Richmond, Va.-based firm has grown dramatically over the years and now ranks 25th on Accounting Today’s 2017 list of the Top 100 Firms, with $164.2 million in annual revenue.

The employees and partners at Cherry Bekaert have been enthusiastic about the announcement. “I would say the response has been overwhelmingly positive, very exciting,” said Kies. “I think there’s a lot of energy about it, and it was something that was not very well known in the firm. It was something that we were not necessarily publicizing, so I would say that since we dropped the announcement internally that a lot of the responses coming from our employees have been overwhelmingly positive.”

The firm has grown through strategic acquisitions and organically over the years, and several M&A deals are already in the works.

“We’re actually in a very aggressive acquisition mode right now,” said Kies. “We will be announcing three transactions effective November 1. We did another smaller transaction just a couple of months ago. We have two other transactions in the works that we would anticipate to be effective January 1.”

The firm has a two-prong growth strategy, according to Thompson. “We certainly have our internal growth strategy and things that we are trying to achieve with that, as well as an acquisition strategy that supports our primary focused industries as well as any additional types of services that would benefit our clients,” she said.

The firm isn’t targeting any specific part of the country for expansion. “Our decision about where we’ll expand has more to do with the types of services or capabilities and how synergistic they are with what we’re currently doing, a little less about what the geography is and a little bit more about where the value is for our clients and for us as we continue to grow,” said Thompson.

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Michael Cohn

Michael Cohn

Michael Cohn, editor-in-chief of AccountingToday.com, has been covering business and technology for a variety of publications since 1985.