Staff recruiting and retention have been two monumental cornerstones in sustaining a successful accounting practice - and the people who currently run successful firms know what it takes to keep good people on board.

According to The Olivier Group, which has conducted salary and employment research in a wide range of occupations for several years, a recent edition of its Accountants in Commerce report stated simply that the basic and most pro-active method of combating staff turnover is to implement effective retention strategies.

"In the past, the focus has predominately been on career planning," the report said. "Last year witnessed a shift in strategies, away from career planning towards more practical and employee-centric programs."

It added that the most effective strategy is to have a variety of options available to cater to the needs of different employees. One of those available options - accommodating flexible working arrangements - allows for a better balance of family and work.

Performance-based incentives also ranked high on its list of effective strategies, as those appeal to an individual's desire for financial reward.

Ira Rosenbloom, managing partner of Mintz Rosenfeld & Co., in New Jersey, said that one of the keys to his firm's success in retention is including staff in every step of the client service process once they have completed their first year. "The staff learn quickly this way and appreciate the insight gained into the larger picture of what they do," he said. "They also understand, from the top down, how we, as a firm, service and treat our clients, which helps build firm pride and a cohesive team culture."

Mintz Rosenfeld also directly involves two senior partners in the scheduling of its staff. "Each staff person and manager meets with these partners individually on a regular basis to review their schedules," Rosenbloom explained. "This lets our people know that their stress levels, workload and type of work are extremely important to us. It also prevents them from being torn between the priorities of different partners and managers."

Moreover, the firm has placed a strong emphasis over the last few years on being selective about the types of clients it takes on, and retains.

Rosenbloom pointed out that Mintz Rosenfeld, which just received an award for being one of the best places to work in New Jersey, has placed significant emphasis on creating a clear differentiation from other firms, with a low-stress environment, a commitment to work/life balance, and selective client acceptance policies to maintain rewarding, satisfying work and professional relationships.

Thomas Hilton, partner and member of the executive committee at Anders Minkler & Diehl, in St. Louis, said that his firm boasts a miniscule 2 percent turnover rate.

The firm recently was named one of the best places to work for the second year in a row by the St. Louis Business Journal. "Folks here have a desire to be associated with a winner," Hilton said. "We're a big family and we have broken down the caste system that usually exists among partners, managers and employees."

He added that his firm puts families in front. "We allow employees to keep in touch with clients from home through our various high-tech tools." That permits April Hannes, a firm CPA, to balance her career with her No. 1 job, motherhood: She goes into the office three days each week during tax season.

At New Jersey-based Rothstein Kass, co-managing principal and chief executive Steven Kass noted, "In recent years, we have found that intangibles, such as opportunity and reputation, play a more significant role in our retention. The foundation and one of the strongest intangible retention factors at Rothstein Kass is our firm culture. At our firm, the culture encompasses the feeling you get - both on a professional and a personal level - when you are a member of the Rothstein Kass team. Currently, we are developing an alumni network for both present and former employees to solidify the message that once you become a member of our firm, you will always be a part of the Rothstein Kass family - regardless of where your career takes you."

Balanced lifestyle

Geraint Evans, managing consultant at Woodhurst, a search firm, said that achieving a better work/life balance appears to be a higher priority for professionals and managers than some of the factors that employers typically expect. Woodhurst interviewed U.K.-based management consultants, accountants and lawyers working an average of 49 hours a week.

"This survey reveals that the margin between the appeal of flexible working and more money is a lot narrower than many employers assume," Evans said, warning employers to rethink their retention strategies to focus more on addressing the work/life balance. "The message is clear: Offering your staff more flexibility in how they work can be as effective a retention strategy as throwing money at the problem."

Debbie Zimmerman, a shareholder at California-based Stonefield Josephson, said, "Let's face it, stress is an outcome of doing business. We temper the stress of growth by hiring the best people to support our personnel (quality control, human resources, technology, marketing, etc.). We work hard but we laugh hard when our president, Jeff Garrison, hires actors to stage elaborate jokes. Jeff reminds us to enjoy the ride, even if that means a ride in a helicopter or on a motorcycle."

She also pointed out that the firm has more than enough work to go around, so there is a lot of sharing among partners.

"Sharing work not only puts the account in the right hands, it gives new partners and technical partners instant credibility. Personnel see that there is more than one path to success in the firm," she said.

Rob Babek, tax and personnel shareholder at Stonefield Josephson, said that the firm encourages people to bring their outside interests to work. For example, firm partner Lenny Gordon microbrews gourmet beer with bankers and also takes staff members out sailing. And Steve Rapattoni talks about surfing with investment bankers. "Steve goes surfing in the morning to stay in shape and reduce stress," says Babek. "Lenny races his sailboat in afternoon competitions."

Babek explained that the firm accommodates the personal interests of individuals to promote an innovative work environment, even at the height of the busy season. "We have offices along the West Coast, so accountants may take time off to catch the best waves. We believe that the happiest accountants are the most productive."

"Our staff is international and as diverse as possible, and this is very good for our practice," added Babek. "Our people challenge us with new ideas and viewpoints all the time. I must admit that there is never a dull moment - people don't hesitate to speak up. That next great idea may pop up over dinner in Costa Rica or on Montreal's metro system. We place a high value on knowledge-sharing and communication."

Stonefield Josephson president Garrison explained that the managing partner's biggest challenge is to find and develop leaders within the firm. "A firm soars with good leaders in key areas. When we spot a person at any level with the passion to help us achieve our goals, that person gets our attention. We tell our people, pick your challenge - we will support you."

"We actively manage our business for growth," he continued. "Our people can see, touch, hear and experience the firm stretching for an exciting future. The energy around here is electric - people put their hearts into making this business go. The feedback from the marketplace is positive; we know we are on the right track. Who wants to leave a firm when the opportunity is limitless?"

At Pittsburgh-based Alpern Rosenthal, principal and chief operating officer David Charnock pointed out that to assist with office access from home, each employee has the ability to log in to the firm's computer network to obtain e-mail and electronic files. "This benefit allows more work to be completed outside the office and enables employees to maintain a quality home life while tending to the needs of their clients."

Alpern Rosenthal's philosophy is a commitment to balance employees' personal and professional lives. Through its in-house Quality of Life Committee, employees are given access to top management with their ideas and suggestions; as a result, many programs and benefits have been implemented that directly aid specific people in the firm.

"Actually," Charnock said, "the committee has a strategic plan that everyone in the company receives. So, when I talk about everyone not being on the same page, I am referring to the fact that, depending on how many hours you work, you will have certain benefits. Your job, therefore, can be tailor-made for you."

Alpern Rosenthal, one of Western Pennsylvania's largest CPA and business advisory firms, was honored nationally for its commitment to work/life balance and sensitivity to the concerns of women in the accounting and financial industry: The firm received the American Society of Women Accountants' Balance Award, showcasing its ability to make the work experience rewarding and empowering.

With two recent additions in January 2003, 26 percent of the firm's shareholders are female, compared to the national average of roughly 13 percent. Also, the firm's staff is more than 50 percent female, with 40 percent of its managers being female.

According to Charnock, the firm continually emphasizes developing programs that provide a work/life balance for women. These include staff training and mentoring programs, which encourage the development of management skills. "Through the mentoring program, each accountant is assigned a mentor who meets with that employee outside the performance review process and helps that employee's career advancement with the firm."

It should be noted that flexible arrangements are becoming more common in the accounting industry as increasing numbers of workers try to juggle not only young families but the elder-care concerns of their parents, says Barbara Vigilante, manager of work/life and women's initiatives for the American Institute of CPAs. Part-time and flex schedules also let employees "pursue interests outside of the job, such as volunteer work or the arts."

"Companies are recognizing that the whole person comes to work and brings all their stuff with them," she said. "It's becoming very important to meet the needs of your staff because people will leave if their needs aren't met."

Nurturing atmosphere

Managing principal James Kaufman at Kaufman, Rossin & Co., Florida's largest independent accounting firm, claimed that his company is hard to replicate: "We have 200 people in a caring atmosphere; thus the very low turnover. Professional opportunities are here in an environment that encourages ambition. For instance, we have one communal floor where we have put in a kitchen, massage room, sauna and gym - all geared to the healthy lifestyle that our employees want. We do indeed support employee health. In short, we look to our people as being part of our family, which covers social, caring, love, trust, cohesion."

The firm was recognized as the 2005 Business of the Year, only one month after being named the best place to work in South Florida.

At Bellevue, Wash.-based Clark Nuber, "Our turnover rate hovers around 12 percent, which is quite low," said president and chief executive David Katri. "Actually, it is so low simply because of the kind of environment our employees are in. It is a supportive one, and they can always get help in a balanced, unencumbered way."

Clark Nuber was named one of the best companies to work for in 2005 by Washington CEO.

Chairman Bob Nuber concurred that what's at the heart of the firm are its core values coupled with client service. "We worked up a strategic map developed by our shareholders five years ago during a year-long strategic planning session. It includes employee retention as a key goal for the company. That strategic map points to our core values and the environment in which we work, which is all geared toward honesty, integrity, teamwork, employee satisfaction and, of course, client service."

Katri noted that every employee has a color, laminated copy of the strategic map, and the department heads use it to ensure that their plans are synchronized with the firm's overall strategic plan. "In fact, we show the map at our twice-yearly all-firm meetings, and discuss where we are with our goals, including employee retention."

Tom Sulewski, the firm's director of audit services, said that the firm's size and agility offer incredible advantages to its employees: "Rather than being assigned a narrow niche, each of our employees and partners works with a number of clients on a variety of projects, thereby affording our people opportunities that may not be available in other firms."

The company, Nuber pointed out, has a laundry list of training programs and educational opportunities made available to employees, plus the ability and desire to accept employee contributions and implement good ideas quickly and effectively. "This, coupled with generous compensation plans and other benefits, gives Clark Nuber a leg up on its competitors."

In fact, director of marketing Ann Callister said that one new client was impressed not only by the variety of awards that the firm had won (from employees, the community and its peers), but also because of the fact that, as he said, "You can't buy those awards."

Good recruiting = retention

From a recruiting standpoint, Clark Nuber developed a separate game plan that looks like the four quarters of a football game.

Sulewski, firm director of tax Rob Wheeler and Tracy White, the firm's director of human resources, are all members of the core team that developed the plan, which goes after the best and brightest college graduates that it can find, with a specific and detailed method of recruitment.

"We're proud of the work our people have done in devising this tactic," said chief executive Katri, "because once they are on board and we are able to show them what else we have in our game book, they never want to leave. Keep in mind that everyone wants to work for the best place. That's only human nature."

According to The Olivier Group, last year, 68 percent of respondents to a staffing survey reported that they were having difficulty attracting and retaining quality staff. Much of this, they say, can be attributed to greater competition for quality candidates. In 2003, that number was only 23 percent.

Mark Hinsen, senior manager and director of Sarbanes-Oxley services at Anders Minkler, said that attracting people is a big-ticket item at the firm.

He moved from Kansas City to join the firm last year. "The firm knew the move would impact the family, and so they worked with my wife and children in making the move as painless as possible. This is the best place I've worked as far as employer care and concern for employee happiness."

Mintz Rosenfeld's Rosenbloom believes that happiness shows on staff members and, as a result, he likes to include them in the interview process. "This has certainly helped our recruitment efforts. Our candidates meet with several partners and staff to not only gain information, but to get a sense of the culture and the personality of our firm." He is actively involved in the firm's recruiting efforts from senior accountants on up, and also helps out with on-campus recruiting to show the commitment of the firm from the top down to attracting quality people.

Zimmerman of Stonefield Josephson said that her firm's unique culture and brand are the topics of discussion by many college students, as well as seasoned professional job candidates. "We recognize and promote our competitive advantages. Candidates readily perceive that we value quality of life and individual contributions via our Web site, person-to-person meetings, public speaking, buzz in the marketplace, and other venues."

To answer the ongoing question of what serves to entice other accountants to a firm, Kass explained that firm culture promotes a sense of family and belonging, which can be comforting to new graduates seeking a first job. "For young professionals, the firm's extended benefits package, such as business casual dress code year-round, generous paid-time-off package, and summer hours, are very appealing."

From the professional development side, he said that a new accountant will have the opportunity to begin building a diverse skill set immediately and will likely get more involved in client service than they might at a Big Four accounting firm. "Being involved at this level enables new accountants to make a real contribution to the work, which in turn opens the door for recognition, immediate feedback and growth."

For experienced professionals, Kass added that the firm's reputation in the marketplace and ranking among the top firms in industry publications are strong selling features. "As a mid-to-high-level recruit, opportunities exist to specialize in a particular area - whether it is a service line such as tax or consulting or in an industry such as real estate or financial services. This is appealing to those who are at a point in their careers when honing skills and developing expertise is a top priority."

Moreover, he said that the firm also has a substantial niche and solid reputation in the financial services arena, "which is a selling feature for both new recruits and experienced hires with a specific interest in this industry."

Flexibility works

Flexible working time is almost as effective an incentive as a pay raise when it comes to retaining staff, the study from executive searcher Woodhurst showed. A resounding 84 percent of professionals, including accountants, would leave their job for one with more flexible hours - almost as many as the 88 percent who indicated that they would leave for better pay.

In a survey of 675 public accounting firms conducted last year, the Accounting Institute found that 66 percent offered adjustable flextime hours, 70 percent offered part-time hours, and 31 percent offered a work-at-home option.

Alpern is among those that offer a flex schedule to full-time employees to help them balance the extreme work load generated during tax season.

Hilton noted that 35 percent of his firm's staff is female. "Because of this, we have a personal relationship with their home life which must, of course, involve flexibility."

Charnock maintained that professionals who have family, medical or other personal issues have employment options available through the firm. These arrangements include flextime, part-time, and comp-time benefits so that employees can tend to their needs away from the office. In addition, the firm has made available a short- and long-term disability program to assist with employees' needs.

The firm also has paid time for bereavement, a dependent care plan and paid pregnancy disability leave.

"For instance," said Alpern spokeswoman Elisabeth Leach, "between May 1 and Oct. 31, employees are expected to be in the office from 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., Monday through Thursday, and from 9 a.m. to noon on Fridays. Those who wish to work longer hours some days can take off extra hours another day."

Leach stands as an example of the firm's ability to be flexible without taking away workers' ability for advancement. She has a two-year-old child and works part time as manager of marketing and business development, but she still earned a promotion to principal even when she was pregnant.

A good listening post

According to marketing director Callister, "Everything we do at Clark Nuber, literally, is for the employees and, ultimately, for their retention." HR director White says that whenever they do surveys of their employees, the response rate is at 85 percent. "People respond because of their feeling toward the firm and its management. They like being here and want to remain a part of this family."

Kaufman pointed out that when his firm did a survey last year, it got a 100 percent response, with some 96 percent saying that they would never leave the firm. "We really have gotten that warm and fuzzy appeal," he said.

In another recent employee survey, responses show that the employees rate the firm higher than all medium companies in every aspect: team effectiveness, retention risk, alignment with goals, trust with coworkers, individual contribution, manager effectiveness, trust in senior leaders, feeling valued, work engagement, and people practices. According to the results, the employees were constantly raving about the caring and supportive atmosphere, and consider it a second family with a wide range of benefits such as subsidized massages, health care programs, 401(k) plans and good compensation.

Pointing to an employee survey recently compiled and analyzed by Quantum Research, Kaufman said that nearly 150 employees on board had completed the survey questionnaire, with unanimous agreements on statements like, "I recommend this organization as a great place to work." When results for all participating businesses were tallied, Kaufman Rossin reported that it achieved an impressive overall score of 95.78, nearly two points ahead of its nearest competitor. The firm's score substantially exceeded other accounting firm finalists.

AM&D's Hilton said that his firm's surveys also ask for employee input, and that management then acts upon their responses. "We find that it is easier to flow water from bottom to top than the other way around," he said.

Alpern Rosenthal COO Charnock said that his firm's turnover rate runs about 12 percent, which he tracks as one of his strategic plans. "We constantly communicate with our employees, and they let us know what they like or don't like and what they need or don't need. We listen intently. We have a lot of different programs, probably similar to what other firms have, but we do alter the course in one specific way. Not everybody is on the same page. In other words, we will devise separate programs for each employee."

"Forty-eight percent of our company is comprised of women," he continued. "We need the flexibility in scheduling because many women are juggling both family and work environments. Our feeling is why should we lose people like these in order to take chances on an unknown commodity?"

John Gramer, New York managing director of Spherion Professional Services, an organization connecting skilled employees with high-performance organizations, maintains that there is a built-in attrition in accounting firms that can account for many having low turnover. "But in any event, one area that is important is flexibility in the workplace," he said. "This translates into more time for home lifestyle."

He added that this applies to both men and women. "There are plenty of factors going in here: More balanced lifestyle but more predictable, what are the specific working hours, and a need to couple with raising a family. Many firms are trying to address that; some succeed, some don't."

Gramer tells the story of how one accounting firm took everything to heart and narrowed its focus to the finest detail. "For example, when their employees needed to fly to a certain place, such as when a CPA had to go to Buffalo to audit a client, the accounting firm made sure that the employee only flew during weekdays and during work hours - no weekends."

Register or login for access to this item and much more

All Accounting Today content is archived after seven days.

Community members receive:
  • All recent and archived articles
  • Conference offers and updates
  • A full menu of enewsletter options
  • Web seminars, white papers, ebooks

Don't have an account? Register for Free Unlimited Access