As with many a great service offering, Wymer Brownlee's new venture started with a client's need.
In this case, it was a client who owned a pipeline company and had reached the end of his tether five years or so ago. "He was tired, he was burned out," recalled Kyle Brownlee, the chief executive officer of the Oklahoma-based accounting, tax and financial services firm -- so burned out that, on the strength of a mass-mailed postcard he had received about selling his company, he signed an agreement with the broker. Only then did he go to Brownlee: "He said, 'I don't know what I'm doing and I don't trust them. You're the only guy I trust. Can you help me with this?'"
Faced with a long-time client in a difficult situation, Brownlee dived right in. He started talking to the private equity group that was interested in his client's company -- and quickly sidelined the broker. "I asked him very politely, 'Sir, I don't mean to be offensive, but I really need you not to be a part of this transaction. Your contract is signed, you're going to get paid, but you're not being helpful,'" Brownlee explained.
With the decks cleared, he spent the next several months going back and forth with the private equity company: "They were from Florida, and I really believe that they thought, 'We're going to buy this company from Oklahoma and we're going to steamroll this guy, and there's nobody in Oklahoma that knows what's going on, and we're going to go pick low-hanging fruit.' They were very difficult. I've got a great attorney friend that we do a lot of trust and estate planning with, and we just teamed up and said, 'Here's the deal, and you're not going to steamroll the client. This is not our first rodeo.'"
After four months of negotiations, including hosting the acquirer's auditors for a week while they went over the tax and accounting records that Wymer Brownlee had prepared, they closed the deal at a value that protected the client.
"We had mimosas and celebrated," Brownlee said, but two things lingered in his mind. First off, there was the matter of fees: His client had agreed to be billed at twice the usual rate, which yielded a substantial sum -- but the broker, who had done no more than send out a postcard, earned a fee more than 13 times that amount. "I sat there with the attorney and said, 'Some of us are in the wrong business,'" Brownlee recalled. "We're not billing for the value we just provided. We're doing it this way because this is the way we've always done it."
More important than that, however, was the fact that a great many of his clients needed precisely the kinds of services he had just invented, and no one was offering them.
ASSEMBLING THE TEAM
Accounting isn't the only business sector facing succession issues -- small and midsized companies in every sector are feeling the graying of the Baby Boomers, and all the issues of succession and generational transition that brings, particularly to family-owned businesses.
As he saw more and more of his business-owner clients wrestle with those problems, Brownlee began thinking about how to turn the ad hoc services he had provided in that initial deal into a coherent offering that was both repeatable and offered rewards that were more in line with the value offered.
The end result was Brownlee Encompass Partners, a soup-to-nuts business transaction advisory group that is launching formally this month. The group can take an owner through the entire process of selling or transitioning their company to a third party or to the next generation, including valuations, vetting buyers, structuring deals, handling negotiations, reviewing contracts, and more.
Though it is housed in Wymer Brownlee's Enid office, it is a separate entity. "We needed to package it differently," Brownlee explained. "When clients come in, I can say, 'We have this special affiliation with this group. They have this office in this special spot and that's all they do, is help families either monetize their business or transfer their business to the next generation.' ... Everything about Brownlee Encompass Partners will be affiliated with Wymer Brownlee, but feel different, look different, be in a different space."
Besides Brownlee himself, the new venture calls on the skills of two other experts. First is Tom Evans, president of valuation and consulting firm Encompass Financial Services. "He does a lot of transaction work, he does real estate brokerage and auction, he does valuation and appraisals, he does a lot of small-business consulting," Brownlee said. "He is the definition of a great entrepreneur, but he has also built this incredible reputation in this part of the country. He is exceedingly well-connected and he is a great creative thinker. He understands business in its purest, but he also understands how to connect people for the benefit of all."
Rounding out the three principals is Troy Phillips, the president of Enid Mack Sales Inc. -- a family-owned truck dealership that he is actually in the midst of selling. "Troy came to me because, going through this exercise, he realized, 'I don't know how to monetize my business,'" Brownlee explained. "And I got involved and I asked Tom to get involved, and then realized that the three of us would make a pretty dynamic team with each of those respective experiences."
Besides an extensive professional network in the oil and gas and trucking industries, which are prominent in Oklahoma, Phillips' personal experience with his own business is a major selling point, according to Brownlee: "He not only can say, "First of all, I did this myself, and these are the guys that helped me do it, but here's how I did it.' Because he has run a large organization, he can be a valuable resource to those companies from an operational standpoint."
Since Brownlee and his partners began offering these services on a case-by-case basis to select clients, the group has done 15 deals, with roughly one a month in the past four months -- a pace Brownlee expects will pick up with the formal launch of Brownlee Encompass Partners.
"If we could get to the point where we were doing two deals a month, that's where we'd like to be -- that's maybe doubling the number of deals that we're able to do," he said. "Obviously, it will take some time to get the pipeline built. Some of these deals take 45 days, and some of them take two years."
That steady pace reflects both the complexity of the deals, and a conscious decision not to market Brownlee Encompass Partners in any official way. Instead, the principals have spoken with "a select group of prospective clients, and they've responded very positively."
"Between all of our clients, there's enormous potential," Brownlee explained. "It doesn't have to be big deals -- we helped sell a local funeral home that was a mom-and-pop. They had finished their hundredth year as a family business, and they sold it this year. That wasn't a huge number, but it's huge to that family, and it allowed them to retire, and it allowed them to move to Oklahoma City, closer to better medical care, and it allowed them to move closer to their grandkids, and it monetized something that they spent their whole life working for."
The principals' breadth of experience and connections allows them to work with clients across a wide range of industries, though Brownlee noted that they did not anticipate much work in the retail sector. "Most of our experience has come from rural Northwest Oklahoma, so retail has been a difficult sector in these smaller communities," he said.
For the moment, the venture has no staff other than the principals; Brownlee foresees eventually hiring additional employees, but also noted that Wymer Brownlee can provide a certain amount of ongoing administrative and staff support.
In the end, as with many another great service offering, the proof of the pudding is in the client reaction: "Our clients are relieved -- they really haven't known where to turn and, more importantly, who to trust," Brownlee explained. "You're taking what is oftentimes their life's work -- and sometimes a multi-generational life's work -- and you want to do that right the first time and you want to do that with people who have the right heart and protect your family and help you make good decisions. Every single person I have spoken with in our client base has been
really relieved and grateful to know that there is some help with that for their family to maintain continuity."
INSIDE WYMER BROWNLEE
The Brownlee Encompass Partners venture isn't Wymer Brownlee's only new initiative. Focusing on providing a holistic approach to the right clients is key to Brownlee's strategic growth plans for his firm.
The firm focuses heavily on tax prep and financial planning, Brownlee said, but between technology and the current staff crunch, that can be problematic: "If all we do is prepare an accurate tax return and manage a diversified portfolio, I'm not so sure that that's not just slightly above being a commodity," he said. "As technology continues to improve and advance, both of those services become more commoditized and available without the human element. I really want to build a practice where there's a value-add, and there's a deep, meaningful relationship, and they come for something other than a product."
After a leadership meeting, the firm is focused on determining the "sweet spot" client base "so that we can really focus on being intentional about creating holistic relationships," he said. "I want to do better work and be more valuable to our clients than any other advisor."
At the moment, the overlap between tax clients and its investment clients, which the firm serves through its affiliation with broker-dealer HD Vest Investment Services, is only about 30 percent.
"You would think, at the high level that we try to perform and educate and train our teams to, that our concentration overlap would be more than 30 percent," Brownlee explained. "We've been talking to tax staff about how do you make investment introductions; we've been talking to the investment team about how do you make tax introductions, and yet still we are at 30 percent, which to me is astonishingly low. We really think that part of the reason that overlap is low is that we find ourselves prisoner to the volume. To get 4,200 tax returns out, you really can't spend a lot of time thinking about which of these clients really needs holistic investment planning, because we're primarily concerned by the deadline."
Helping support this transition is the firm's recent creation of the "Office Without Walls" -- it invested $200,000 in a completely cloud-based technology system, so staff can work from wherever they happen to be. "It doesn't matter where you live or where you sit," Brownlee said. "You can be working on a return in Alva and reviewing it in Tulsa, and everything is digitized." That requires a mindset shift on the part of management in terms of analyzing where value and profitability are being created, he noted.
All those changes -- in services, in focus and in technology -- are adding up to value for all the firm's stakeholders. "Now we're starting to add more value to that client relationship, and giving those folks a higher level of service than we've been able to give before," Brownlee concluded. "And probably the two most important things that will come out of that is that we will give them the service and the relationship that exceeds their expectations, and it will allow our team to have a much better work-life and family-life balance."
AT A GLANCE
Firm: Wymer Brownlee
Headquarters: Enid, Okla.
Managing partner: Kyle Brownlee
No. of staff: 59
Year founded: 1969
Services: Accounting, tax, financial planning, HR consulting, IT consulting. Business transaction services through separate group, Brownlee Encompass Partners.
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