While the central function of accounting firm associations and alliances remains communication and collaboration between members, the conversation has changed.

The shift has come in the last few years, with member firms in U.S.-based associations clamoring for more specialized groups to address some of the looming challenges in the profession. These start from the top down, with managing partners facing myriad issues largely stemming from encroaching retirement and internal succession.

 

PARTNER PROBLEMS

Member firms of the BDO Alliance USA, a nationwide association of independently owned local and regional accounting, consulting and service firms, sought a forum for their recently retired managing partners, which was not something executive director Michael O'Hare and his team initially anticipated.

"Our roundtables are designed around what alliance members are asking for - MAP information, best practices and the like," O'Hare shared. "Our newest one is a managing partner-emeritus roundtable, for those that have retired as managing partners, but not retired from the practice. Going from [being] the boss to one of the many is not easy to do."

Members of the roundtable had their first meeting at BDO's annual conference in Las Vegas, initially attracting 14 to 15 people who will be establishing it as an annual gathering. The topic is especially vital for the alliance's core member base, O'Hare said, which reflects the profession as a whole with a majority of small to midsized firms.

"This roundtable enables former managing partners to explore similar issues they are all facing, ultimately helping them to make the transition back into their respective firms and practices a little bit easier," O'Hare continued. "At larger firms, when they retire as managing partners, they retire from the firm, too."

Meanwhile, newly minted managing partners have their own transition issues, which association CPAmerica addressed when creating a group for MPs who had been in the position less than three years. "The new lead partner group tried to meet the needs of a partner who was in the partner group, and then was one day named managing partner," said CPAmerica International president Alan Deichler. "And no one talked to them or treated them the same way; all of your buddies are not treating you the same way... [The purpose of the group] is if I, as a new managing partner, am lost one day, I can call, share experiences and get re-assurance that I'm not the only one going through these new experiences."

The group meets formally twice a year and schedules other conference calls, with experienced managing partners coming in to share their knowledge. After three years, members graduate - often reluctantly, according to Deichler, as they have come to rely on the convivial exchanging of best practices.

 

SIZE DOESN'T MATTER

That collaboration can still be found in other specialty groups, which for CPAmerica includes one for large firms with revenues over $10 million. The group of 20 firms, with revenues from $10 to $40-plus million, meets twice a year to share best practices and bring in outside speakers.

The average firm size in CPAmerica is $7 million in revenues, according to Deichler, with half of member firms under $5 million.

These smaller and midsized firms have a lot to gain from membership, according to O'Hare. "A major change in what [associations and alliances] are offering has been to serve a greater purpose for smaller firms. It's a great way for accounting firms to collaborate between each other and assist each other with day-to-day operations. Size doesn't matter. The type of association matters."

BDO's identity reflects the needs of its members. "We listen to our members to determine what they would like or need, and then help them create it," O'Hare explained. In fact, the alliance advisory committee, which is comprised of active members, meets regularly to help guide the creation of new products and services. "I've learned over the years that what [the BDO Alliance Team thinks] is a good idea may not necessarily be the case. Success stems from our members making their voices heard and our listening to their requests."

CPAmerica formalizes this with strategic planning revamps roughly every seven years, the last of which happened three years ago and established four expectations of membership: "You should improve, make more money as a firm, add prestige, and build relationships."

 

CROSSING GENERATIONS

It was based on those four fundamentals that members brainstormed a new event for younger staff, from seniors through new managers. They will be kicking off that inaugural "next gen" conference over two days, with a focus on the internal structure of a firm. Sam Allred, director of accounting firm management consultancy Upstream Academy, will lead one day of the event, which Deichler expects to draw 80 to 90 participants from half of the association's member firms.

Those firms "see it as forum for exposing folks to how the firm works, and providing recognition," he said. "And letting some of these folks, the head-down, technical people, see a future for themselves."

Those futures will require greater soft skills, according to Moore Stephens North American executive director Steven Sacks, which associations and alliances still emphasize through their on-site meetings and events. "The importance of networking is still strong, the face-to-face relationships, irrespective of technology, to maintain growth and success," he said, adding that, as it remains central to the profession, all generations can benefit from these talents.

"Softer skills has been raised more frequently" as a concern for members, Sacks said. "Not just soft skills for the younger generation, but those on the partner track. It's still a client-relationship-building profession."

As such, association and alliance members interact most effectively through meetings and phone calls, while education continues to be disseminated through conference calls and webinars.

 

MUTUAL BENEFITS

The high-touch approach has been especially effective for CPAmerica's Visitation Improvement Program (VIP), which was established two-and-a-half years ago and involves two managing partners from two firms taking two days to visit a third firm. Those two MPs interview everyone at the firm and then spend half a day going over their observations with the firm's partner group.

"It's an excellent tool to talk about succession planning [and] practice management," Deichler explained. "There are no requirements, just three friends, and groups, chatting. It's been very positive; a great forum for sharing best practices."

As every member firm is required to participate in a four-year period, the 40 firms that have completed the program leaves about 35 more yet to engage in the format, representative of the collaborative environment to which associations and alliances aspire.

"They relate very well," Deichler shared. "And we are finding that the visiting MPs are taking back as much from the shared best practices as they are observing."

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