Jean Stephens has been leading RSM International as the global accounting firm network saw two of its most prominent members, RSM McGladrey and McGladrey & Pullen, embroiled in a recently settled legal skirmish over their longstanding administrative services agreement.

Stephens became CEO of London-based RSM International in January 2006, a decade after joining the organization in 1996. RSM International is the seventh largest global network of independent professional services firms, with 90 firms and 30,000 staff members in 75 countries.

As CEO, Stephens’ responsibilities include implementing the network’s organizational strategies and working with the international board of directors. Under her guidance, RSM International has grown 120 percent in the past decade via acquisitions and organically.

Prior to joining RSM International, Stephens was senior manager of general services in the San Bernardino, Calif., office of RSM McGladrey and McGladrey & Pullen. Prior to joining RSM McGladrey in 1994, she was an audit partner in a Los Angeles accounting firm.

RSM has recently expanded its network in China. Is that a key area of growth you plan to focus on during your tenure?

Yes, we have great firms in the whole Asia Pacific region. They are a very dynamic region. In the last year we admitted a very large firm in China. One of our key drivers now is to integrate them into RSM International and to utilize their expertise for the good of all the member firms around the world and the clients. We’ve had about 5 percent growth from 2008 to 2009, which I’m satisfied with, and Asia Pacific is one region that has continued to grow through very challenging times.

How has the firm performed in North America this year?

Our firms have done OK in North America because of the diversified service lines they offer. We still had some growth during that time in the Americas region. In North America, we had lower than 5 percent growth, but we still had some growth. I think that’s a testament to our client base and the larger middle-market companies that we service in the Americas. No doubt it’s been challenging times, but it looks like we’ve started to come out of it.

How is the quality assurance program working?

We’ve been doing it since 1993. At that time, we adopted a common methodology for all member firms in compliance with international standards. Wherever clients are doing business, they want to have the confidence that they’re dealing with trusted professionals with some continuity of service and standards. We take that very seriously. Quality is the key driver for us, making sure that we are working together throughout the network, and that we provide guidance to member firms to help them in their development. As part of that process, we have an inspection program. Every three years, our firms are inspected by people within our organization. That provides feedback to them on the areas of improvement where they can continue to learn from each other.

Is the program helping the firm deal with some of the fallout from the financial crisis?

In this day and age, clients want and need to be connected at different levels. That’s a big thing that we provide through the network to our member firms. That then translates to sharing your best practices. With regard to the current economic environment, those relationships become even more important. Everybody is fighting to serve their clients and fighting to get new clients. That added value, by being able to say, “I am connected around the world, and I am able to pick up the phone, and in one or two phone calls get my client to the right person in that country who has the expertise to be able to solve their issues and problems,” that is very, very powerful.

What is it like as a woman leading a major accounting firm network?

I love it. I came over here [to London] in ’94 and then I became CEO in 2006. I have a long experience with our firms. Many of the firms I recruited myself. In terms of the gender issue and being a woman and the challenges that might come through that, I don’t really see it. It’s not that I have my eyes closed to it. They’re there, but professionals respect the job that we have to do. If you have clarity of vision and you’re straight and fair and consistent and you get results, that means more around the world than any other issue. Certainly I have my style of approaching and dealing with issues that in some ways could be different than a man’s. But when the focus is on what the end result is, what we’re trying to accomplish together, that transcends any other issue that you might have. I am an American woman, which is quite interesting because I have two challenges, one being an American in some places and two being a woman. But I focus on results, and in the business world, that’s what they ultimately care about is the results.

What advice would you give to other women who want to be leaders at their firms?

I would say go for it. Don’t let anything hold you back. Focus on what the end result is. And make sure you’re doing it the right way in terms of putting the organization first and putting clients first. The career development will take care of itself if you’re focused on adding value to your organization and to the clients. The accounting profession itself has been absolutely the best for me. It’s a great place for women to thrive and develop. Internationally I would say it has been much more exciting. I knew early on that I wanted to work internationally, and that’s why I moved to London where my career is because I wanted to work and have the experience internationally. That has been so enriching because you see different people and different approaches to issues. It gets you out of your own mindset that this is the way I’ve always done it, and therefore it’s the right way. My advice is to get out of your comfort zone, take on new challenges, and learn from them.

How has your organization been dealing with the litigation between RSM McGladrey and McGladrey & Pullen [asked before the two firms recently settled their legal disputes and amended their services agreement]?

Both McGladrey & Pullen and RSM McGladrey are very, very important members of RSM International. We rely on them. They’re together the largest part of RSM International so they’re absolutely important to us in our organization. As their international organization, we are here to support them. Mostly what we’re focused on is our client issues and so far it’s been completely transparent. I have to say that our firms are still getting the highest level of service from our professionals in the United States.

Where do you see RSM going in the future as an international network?

We have very strong representatives in all the key markets. We had quite a bit of recruitment going on in the last three years. That’s kept me busy. We’ve added some fantastic, dynamic firms.  We’re now in a very strong position in all the key markets. We will continue that development. We have ambitious plans for growth. Most of the members are part of RSM International because of how it benefits their own firm, and being connected internationally is critical for them. So we’ll be spending time talking about how everybody can best leverage their international connections for growth within their own markets. We will continue to recruit high-quality firms in countries where we are not represented. One of the big initiatives for next year that I’ll be working with our leaders on is international business development, and how we can work more closely together on international teams to take the RSM International offering to clients whom perhaps we have not worked with before in different countries and working with them to help them meet their objectives. International business development is going to be critical going forward as part of our growth.


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