Inside the 2020 Top 100: Briggs & Veselka

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Houston-headquartered Briggs & Veselka credits several strategies with helping launch the firm on to Accounting Today’s Top 100 Firms list for the very first time in 2020, but the firm’s leaders agree that one foundational element is a strong talent pipeline. Managing shareholder Sheila Enriquez (pictured) experienced this firsthand: In July 2018, 11 years after joining the firm as a manager in the audit practice, she took over the managing shareholder role from John Flatowicz, whose tenure began in 2009 when he succeeded co-founder Johnny Veselka.

“Our growth is a combination of our partners, and building a pipeline for making partners quicker, a differentiator in our firm,” Enriquez explained. “The path for people to grow, and for the overall firm to grow.”

Veselka, who co-founded the firm in 1973 as a four-person tax practice, recognized the need to outline a succession plan early. “Me and John talked about making the firm younger, more forward-looking, forward-thinking,” he shared. “We wanted to be on the cutting edge. I started a strategic plan when we were younger, started niche creations that became specialty areas. This became important. And it became important as we installed mandatory partner retirement. We saw [other] firms hit a milestone, a brick wall, and part of that was older shareholders wouldn’t retire, and there wasn’t an opportunity for the younger ones.”

With skilled leaders to oversee burgeoning new practice areas, Briggs & Veselka has enjoyed steady growth over the years, but a 29 percent bump (10 percent of that organic) in 2019 propelled the firm to the No. 91 spot on the 2020 Top Firms list, with $50.3 million in revenue. The firm has also expanded to other Texas cities over the years — El Campo, the Houston suburb of The Woodlands, a San Antonio satellite office, and Austin, where Enriquez says the firm is reaping the benefits of being in “Texas’ fastest-growing city.” The firm’s ultimate goal, she added, is to be in all the major Texas cities.

“I’ve seen it grow since I’ve been here, from about 75 people to closer to 350 people — incredible growth,” Enriquez shared. “We have a growth mindset, not growth for growth’s sake, but the growth is very measured, deliberate. The marrying of staff and our people’s interests. I started as an auditor in the firm and expressed an interest in consulting, and they fostered that, the ability to do projects, and building the litigation support practice, which is now an over-$1 million practice. It was the interests of mine, married to the firm’s needs.”

Before Enriquez was hired and began establishing the firm’s forensics and litigation support practice, formalized around 2010, Flatowicz created the firm’s audit practice when he joined what was then a purely tax firm in 1982. The firm has only continued to bring on and develop leaders to champion new specialty niches.

“In our experience over the years, you have to appoint the right leader, it has to be someone passionate about it, and determined to grow that area,” Flatowicz explained. “The times we’ve had the right leaders, they have built [the niche practices] with tremendous people, and trained them — a big undertaking. The banking niche started 10 to 11 years ago, with two to three banks, and we now have over 80. They met every week and had targets. It’s very difficult but they were persistent and had target lists, and trained people. We always say you have to have the right leaders and be very persistent.”

In addition to finding the right person for the job, Flatowicz stressed, the firm has to ensure that it’s that practice leader’s only job: “The thing I’ve noticed is, it’s not someone who is doing another job, but someone dedicated to that niche area.”

The firm occasionally adds practice areas through mergers, though Enriquez notes this is a more recent strategy. “People looking from the outside think we’re growing by acquisition, but that’s only the past year or so,” she explained. “Mergers were few and far between until 2018. A lot of firms looking for an exit were not even looking at us [before then]. We weren’t of that size, but then we continued to grow, expanded into other areas, and established succession and leadership. In 2018, John and I met with targets, some we were talking to for over a decade. We knew them and the firm — they told us, ‘When we’re ready, we’re going to talk to you.’ In 2018, we closed on five deals, and another one last year, in May 2019. All of that was relationship-driven; we didn’t use a broker; they were referred to us, and started talking to us.”

New niches

One of these deals was digital forensics firm Pathway Forensics in 2018, which Briggs & Veselka acquired to expand its risk advisory practice, which encompasses internal audit, cybersecurity, forensics, operational consulting and IT advisory.

“We were initially looking at them from a forensics litigation support perspective,” Enriquez shared. “When they came on board, we started getting to know their skill sets. Cyber issues are so important, and we were in the best position to grow our cybersecurity practice. At the end of the day, all companies are becoming technology companies, and need to be on top of what’s coming. The change is so exponential; you need to be tech-savvy, innovative and entrepreneurial.”

Briggs & Veselka’s practice areas have also benefited from the firm’s cross-selling efforts, which align with its professional development strategy.

“For many years, you would go to an audit proposal alone,” Flatowicz said, explaining that now, the firm will often have multiple partners and managers on a call. “You couldn’t say that 10 to 15 years ago; now we take a lot of young people, a cross-diversity of tax, audit and consulting. We are always collaborating, from Johnny to me to Sheila. It’s not the individual but about the firm. The tone at the top is so critical.”

Enriquez is tasked with maintaining that firm culture, which she says was responsible for her ascending into the managing shareholder role. “I’m appreciative of the firm never looking at requests for work-life balance as a liability,” she shared, explaining that while she was climbing the ranks, she raised two children, earned her law degree through night classes, and passed the bar in 2009. “When women employees say they are going to cut back on hours, I always had that. One of our partners, who retired in December, she was a pioneer, the first part-time manager 25 years ago. The firm has the mindset, and what I brought to the table, someone like me, is being hungry for the opportunity to make a difference. I never thought, ‘I’m working from home some days to go to law school — Monday, Wednesday, Saturdays’ — it was never a hurdle. When I was pregnant with my second one, studying for the bar exam during busy season, I never felt like people were looking for me. I got the job done, it was fine, and never felt I needed to step back … From manager, I was promoted to senior manager, then to principal the next year.”

That retired partner is an example of the kind of role model Enriquez aspires to be, and not just for women in the firm. “We encourage everyone — it’s not a women issue but a work issue. … You don’t have to opt out, which is happening in the profession. A majority of women are joining, getting to a certain level and leaving, concerned they can’t raise a family. As a firm, we have to deliver on our promises.”

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