In the 1997 film Grosse Pointe Blank, John Cusack portrays a baby-faced hit man who travels back to his hometown in Michigan to attend his 10-year high school reunion. While there, he's approached by a fellow assassin played by Dan Aykroyd, who wants to unionize the men and women in their curious line of work, explaining that their synergy as an association would translate into formidable competition against larger organizations.Fortunately for the accounting profession, the process of forming and joining associations is infinitely safer, not to mention legal, and hopefully more profitable. Membership in these alliances over the past several years has been ratcheting up, as associations are leveraging that synergy in competition against firms in the upper tiers.

There are a number of reasons that explain the spike in membership, such as Sarbanes-Oxley prohibitions that prevent many larger firms with public audit clients from supplying niche services, or a basic lack of scope when bidding for clients against larger firms with greater capital and manpower resources.

As evidence of the growth of these associations, log on to the Web sites of the firms that were included in Accounting Today's annual Top 100 Firms survey and count how many now include a sentence proclaiming them a member of an alliance or association of accounting firms.

Currently, the profession boasts several high-profile associations consisting of firms of different sizes, such as BKR International, The Leading Edge, Alliott Group North America, and CPAmerica International, all of which give smaller and midsized players an opportunity both to network and to compete against the bigger kids.

Last month, there was an article in a national daily announcing the Baker-Tilly USA network, which has a membership list of 22 small to midsized regional firms, including such notables as Parente Randolph, Vitale Caturano, Eisner, Cherry Bekaert & Holland, and its largest member, Virchow Krause. I think that the premise of the article, however, which was that smaller accounting firms were allying to take on the Big Four, was slightly off base, and more than slightly unrealistic.

I doubt anyone would argue that those alliances immediately pose a challenge to the firms in the next tier, such as the Grant Thorntons, BDO Seidmans and RSM McGladreys, but to position an alliance as a direct shot across the bow of Deloitte or KPMG is akin to Wendy's taking on McDonald's. Each has developed a loyal following, but in terms of sheer numbers, it's not even close.

Since this is a numbers profession, how about these? In our 2006 Top 100 Firms survey, the Big Four generated more than $25 billion in net U.S. revenue and reported roughly 105,000 total employees. By contrast, the aggregate U.S. revenues and employees for all the other firms in our Top 100 over $100 million were $4.25 billion and 24,200, respectively. Impressive, to be sure, but in a galaxy far, far away when measured against the biggest audit siblings.

But that doesn't detract from the impact that associations can have - both as groups and with respect to their individual firm members. And if the past several years are any barometer, the growth trend in firm alliances will only swell. The surge may not be as entertaining as Cusack and Aykroyd in a frenetic firefight, but it's certainly worth watching.

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