Charles “Chuck” Allen has worked for the accounting firm Crowe Chizek for his entire career. Fresh out of college as a campus recruit, he joined the firm in 1975. In April of this year, the 53-year-old became CEO of Crowe Group, the Oak Brook, Ill.-based firm’s parent company, succeeding two-term CEO Mark Hildebrand. Before becoming CEO, Allen served as managing executive of Crowe’s commercial services group. During his career, he has concentrated on assisting private investors with acquiring and financing companies and establishing a private equity group client base. He talked with WebCPA about his plans for broadening the Midwestern firm’s national footprint, the recent challenges facing the accounting and private equity industries, and his firm’s efforts at recruitment and retention.
Q: How do you like taking over at a firm where you’ve been working since you graduated college?
A: I graduated college in 1975 and that’s when I started with the firm in South Bend, Ind. At the time the firm was pretty small, about 80 people. I actually came to Crowe because it was a small firm in a small town and there was limited travel involved.
Q: How does it feel taking over at Crowe Chizek now?
A: Initially I was overwhelmed by the support of the partners. I found it to be a real honor. Today I think it’s an opportunity to take the firm to a new level.
Q: What are some of the goals you have set for the firm?
A: The vision that I have is pretty consistent with the thinking of other leaders in the firm. It’s a vision to expand Crowe geographically. Today I view Crowe at the top of the heap of the super-regional firms. I believe we are uniquely positioned in the profession to become a firm of national recognition. My vision and the goal that I’ve set is to expand Crowe geographically to become a firm of national presence. We would expand our footprint further in the East Coast marketplace, predominantly New York, with an eye on filling in along the way in Atlanta, Denver, Dallas, Houston, possibly St. Louis, and ultimately, having offices in California.
Q: Do you have offices in California at this point?
A: We do not, although we have a fairly significant client base in California. That’s a marketplace that we’re looking at. Because of our client base, today we practice as a national firm. We have clients in all 50 states. With our financial institutions base and our private equity client base, the practice really takes us coast to cost. We believe that to support the needs of the clients and to reduce the travel needs of our people, we need to have offices on a broader geographic scale.
Q: You have specialized in helping private investors acquire and finance companies. What do you think about some of the proposals lately about increasing the taxation of private equity firms and hedge funds?
A: I view the private equity market as the third market in the U.S. Today if you think about where people are going for capital, they can go to the New York Stock Exchange or Nasdaq, or they can go to London or Hong Kong as well. But in the U.S., clearly the private equity market has become the third if not the second most prominent market for raising capital, certainly for middle-market companies. So I see the private equity channel as a market that is here to stay irrespective of the tax laws. The taxing authorities are going to do what the taxing authorities are going to do. I don’t see that as impacting the private equity environment. I’ve been a proponent of this marketplace for some time within Crowe, and we’ve built a fairly significant practice around that environment.
Q: You’ve been involved with setting up financing arrangements and doing due diligence for companies involved in M&A. Recently there’s been a tightening of the credit and debt markets. Is that going to affect the level of investment of the firms you’ve been working with?
A: We haven’t seen it yet. We still have very strong activity. Certainly as in any market there can be ups and downs that we can expect. But I believe that the private equity market is a very sustainable marketplace as an alternative to the public markets. In other words, short term, maybe. Long term, I would say no.
Q: What do you think of the newly issued Auditing Standard No. 5, AS5? Is it going to make it easier to do audits more cost effectively and help smaller companies cope with the costs of Sarbanes-Oxley?
A: Clearly AS5 will make it easier for nonaccelerated filers to become Sarbanes-Oxley compliant. I don’t think there’s any question about that. Still there are additional controls they need to document in many cases to be in compliance with AS5. But I do believe it is a benefit to the smaller companies if and when AS5 is forced upon them to become compliant. Many of the larger companies have already implemented the controls, and so AS5 is not going to be much of an issue. But it will be helpful for those nonaccelerated filers under $750 million in cap value.
Q: What about retention? You’ve been involved with setting up various incentives at Crowe, such as flexible schedules, a Women Into Leadership program, and CareerLink career development programs. Are these efforts helping Crowe with its retention efforts? Do you find other firms, larger or smaller, trying to recruit your talent?
A: The marketplace for people is very competitive. The retention rate is in most cases higher than our competitors’. We’re a very values-driven organization. I believe the values and the culture come in many different ways, whether that’s flexible work arrangements, the way we coach one another, the way we share income with one another, the way we invest in the business. Those all contribute to retaining people, making them feel they’re working at a place that cares about them. I’ve said over and over again we’re really a great place to work because we have uncompromised core values. Our core purpose values won’t change. That’s part of the reason we’ve been able to retain and attract people. At least as long as I’m CEO, that’s the way we’re going to do business.
Q: What kind of recruitment is being done at Crowe?
A: Our footprint spans a broad spectrum. We recruit at all the major universities. We recruit people as we need them. The effort is very significant. We put in place a recruiting branding process, including a new Web site. We are very happy with the results of our recruiting process and the pipeline of people we have available to us.
Q: How do you see the accounting profession evolving over the next few years? Do you think it’s going to migrate to particular niches or to areas such as compliance work?
A: There’s a large push to consolidate. Look at our competition. Many of them have teamed up. Above us, there’s the Big Four, BDO, Grant Thornton, RSM. I believe that we’re well-positioned within the middle of the profession to create this firm of national recognition. Certainly there will be niche providers that specialize in one area or another. Clearly we have niches where we play as well: financial institutions, private equity, risk consulting, in addition to our traditional insurance and tax practice. Clients that are working with firms the size of Crowe today have international needs. You are going to see a consolidation of the international marketplace to serve the needs of those clients.
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