A troika of CPA executives, whose practices completed an aggregate of nearly 20 mergers during 2010, told attendees at this year’s Winning Is Everything conference here in Las Vegas that in order to craft a successful M&A strategy, a firm must have a unified vision and an internal champion to spearhead the program and never compromise its core values just to grow or add geography.

“At the end of the day you have to be fair to the incoming partners and the existing partners,” said Kelly Bernakevitch of Meyers Norris Penny, the largest firm in Canada, which completed eight mergers last year, from Montreal to Vancouver. “There is not a perfect merger out there. Once you merge there are certain things you want to change immediately, the others you will have to be flexible on. We look at business models. You can’t take a small town business model to Toronto and vice-versa.”

Carl George, who served as CEO at Clifton Gunderson for 16 years before handing the leadership reins to Krista McMasters, now serves as the firm’s senior partner-in-charge of M&A. During 2010 his firm completed seven mergers, including one that closed in just 55 days.

“Our strategy is not just geographic, but virtual,” said George. “We recently bought a forensics practice in LA that we will use across our entire firm. We don’t just do these to acquire volume. But there are always hiccups. Whatever you think the time frame will be for the transaction, double it. We had one close in 55 days. Another one of similar size took one and a half years. You have to make sure the firm and the people fit.”

“You had better be prepared to kiss a lot of frogs before you get to the princess,” said Jim Smart of Pennsylvania-based Smart & Devine, who sold his former firm Smart & Associates to a private equity firm in 2007. After his non-compete expired, he began Smart, Devine & Co. He has since acquired a boutique firm in Philadelphia that offers forensics and litigation support. “As managing partners, you had better be prepared to talk to a lot of firms before you find the one you want.”

“Mergers are 90 percent art and 10 percent science,” said George. “To be successful post-merger, you had better do all the homework upfront.”

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