Economy, growth highlight Women in Accounting and Recruiting confabs

Las Vegas-Front-burner issues such as partner compensation, maintaining growth in a shaky economy and honing "soft skills" headlined twin conference agendas at the recent Forum for Women in Accounting and Forum on Recruiting and Retention conferences.

The three-day bloc, held here, marked the first time conference organizer The Advisory Board has hosted both events at the same time in the hopes of drawing more attendees - knowing that the recession has forced many firms to slash their out-of-state travel budgets.

Though registration was down from last year, attendees - primarily women - appeared to enjoy the more intimate-sized sessions.

"It's my first time here," said Mary Parente, principal at Fazio, Mannuzza, Roche, Tankel, LaPilusa in Springfield, N.J., adding that she was attending to learn a little bit of everything. "I'm totally impressed [with the agenda]."

Sid Nueno, recruiting and staffing manager at Briggs & Veselka Co. in Bellaire, Texas, said that retaining top talent remains a major issue. "We need to start to look into things now," he said, adding that he's especially targeting those employees who have been with the firm between two and five years. "Retention has never been an issue with our firm, but because we've grown so quickly, we just want to maintain the talent we have. We are focusing on individuals, helping them manage their individual growth and getting them tied into the firm."

Members of The Advisory Board hosted a kick-off session to the dual confab, offering insight as to how the recession has affected firm growth. Board member Gary Boomer, chief executive of Boomer Consulting in Manhattan, Kan., told attendees of three critical areas impacting the profession during the first eight months of the year - partner compensation, expense reduction and cash flow.

Boomer described the profession as being in a "period of transition." He said that maintaining confidence within the firm with the people you manage and your clients is a full-time job right now. He said that one of the most common statements he hears from managing partners is the wish that all partners in a firm would go out and talk to clients.


"You've heard that 50 is the new 40 and 60 is the new 50," said Gary Shamis, managing director of SS&G Financial Services in Cleveland and a member of The Advisory Board. "'OK' is the new 'great' in your business."

Shamis believes that the recession has been a boon for public accounting firms, though he admitted that the staffing "carnage" has been difficult. His firm has between 7 percent and 9 percent fewer people on staff as a result of the recession.

Shamis said that despite that, he learned a valuable lesson from the cutbacks. "If we had done what we needed to do when we should have done it, we would have released them into a better environment," he said. "I think the recession was good. It forced us to be more proactive and look at workflow."

Co-organizer Gale Crosley, president of Crosley + Co. in Atlanta, talked about how the profession has had a "fat cat" syndrome for the past seven-and-a-half years: "We got ourselves very complacent about growth, and growth matters."

She told conference-goers that issues of retention and recruiting had been front and center until the recession hit. Financial collections suddenly became the main concern and HR issues took a back seat.

The top trends in the profession right now, she opined, are cost controls, lowest-cost production, efficient growth and hiring of business development specialists.

She also predicted that commoditization of "bread-and-butter services" would continue, as well as specialization. "Most of our managing partners and senior partners grew up in a generalist world," she said. "We are a mature profession right now. Specialization is king. Period. I tell all my young partners and managing partners, 'Will you please declare a major?'"

Allan Koltin, chief executive of PDI Global in Chicago, spoke about the differences a few years make. In 2007, good talent was hard to come by, but in 2008, mass layoffs were rampant among the Big Four. In 2009, he said that more than 50,000 resumes were circulating.

He noted that firms have been coping with the recession in a num­ber of ways: multiple rounds of layoffs, no salary increases or across-the-board salary reductions, termination of partners, major cost-cutting initiatives, mandatory time off during the summer months, delayed start dates of new hires, and even withdrawal of offers.

Koltin, one of the profession's most high-profile brokers of firm mergers, said that 2008 was a surprisingly big year for M&A, and he projected that 2009 would yield more mergers than 2008.

Succession planning is the No. 1 problem in CPA firms today, according to Koltin. Firms grow organically, he said, and by gaining lateral talent - a strategy that has grown more in the past five years than in the last 20. He said that lateral or merged-in partners have become the No. 1 growth strategy of many Top 100 CPA firms.

Many attendees could be found networking at meals, sharing their perspectives and experiences.

Rick Goldenson and Sheryl Pannell of Clifton Gunderson attended together to gather information to bring back to their women's initiative committee, Win@CG. Their main concern is retaining female talent within the firm. "Our numbers are similar to the professions' and we are trying to be proactive," Goldenson said. "Our main focus is education and awareness."

(c) 2009 Accounting Today and SourceMedia, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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