According to the most recent Rosenberg MAP Survey, at firms that generate between $10 and $20 million in revenue, women account for 17.8 percent of partners. At Kansas City, Mo.-based MarksNelson, they make up 36 percent — more than twice the average.

So what is MarksNelson doing right?

“I think the word is out that women see that MarksNelson has put together a culture where everyone learns to adjust,” explained the firm’s managing member, Mark Radetic. “We make it clear to everyone, if you’re a partner, whether male or female, you’ve got to live our mission, you got to live our vision and you’ve got to adapt to the culture that we’ve put together.”

When it comes to preparing women for leadership, the firm starts the moment female employees walk through their doors. “Mark has been my mentor for 15 years,” shared Angie McElhaney, a partner and the assurance and business advisory department chair at MarksNelson. “Over the years, Mark talked to me about my career path and direction. As a result of those countless meetings and discussions, becoming partner was a specific goal that came out of it.”

Radetic describes McElhaney as MarksNelson’s “first home-grown female partner.” She became a partner one month shy of her 40th birthday, which was an affirmation that she holds in high regard. “I started out as a receptionist at a CPA firm and I had mentors all along the way who encouraged me to get involved in accounting and go back to school,” McElhaney recalled. “That evolution from receptionist to becoming a partner at a CPA firm was one of the biggest events of my life.”

 

PLENTY OF WOMEN

MarksNelson doesn’t set a number of how many women should be recruited to the firm, because there are a high number of women already working in the accounting profession. “What you’re finding in the industry is that 62 percent of all accountants are women,” Radetic noted. “You’re going to find the opportunity to recruit more women because right now there are more out there.”

Once women join the firm, MarksNelson tries its best to retain them by honoring work-life balance. “Women have unique situations that we have to look at. Flextime is important,” said Radetic, who pointed to Sara Stubler, a manager at the firm who took the initiative to develop the international tax practice for the firm while she was part-time. “Even though Stubler was on a flex part-time schedule, it did not inhibit us from pushing forward with her,” he noted.

“I wouldn’t have been successful in taking that lead role to develop the international practice without the firmwide support,” said Stubler. With two sons ages 14 and 12, working on a flexible schedule is a win-win for her. “The nature of our business just tells us that we need more hands on deck during the busy season. That gives me the flexibility to work fewer hours in the summer when my kids are out of school,” she said. “The biggest thing for me is that I’ve always wanted to exceed expectations in both places. Sometimes that’s the biggest challenge of all. In the workplace, I always wanted to make sure clients know how to reach me because my schedule shouldn’t impact their ability to get answers. I think that is the big part of being able to be successful.”

MarksNelson implemented its flextime policy nearly 10 years ago.“It was something that we wanted to benefit the whole firm and not just women. It is something that started with women’s issues that turned into something that we needed to address,” McElhaney explained.

“Women are no different than men; they are some of the best and the brightest out there and why would we not want to take the opportunity to embrace that and retain them here?” asked Radetic.

The firm also gives audit managers like Brandi DiGiorgio reasons to stick around by giving her the opportunity to hold several leadership positions. After the firm started to take a deeper look into marketing, they tapped DiGiorgio to become a member of the marketing committee. “That really gave me a lot of exposure to the inner workings of the firm,” shared DiGiorgio. “It was a combination of me reaching out, being interested, and inserting myself into those leadership positions, as well as the firm being open to allowing me to be a manager, a working mother, and being able to handle client responsibilities and leadership responsibilities.”

DiGiorgio was then tapped to head the firm’s manufacturing niche. She leads partners and managers across MarksNelson’s various services offerings. “This helped me to get in front of partners and managers who I typically don’t work with,” she explained. “I allowed myself to become more involved in the community, organizations, and speaking opportunities, which opened those leadership doors and more just by allowing me to be in that position internally and externally where I am seen as a leader.”

 

MENTORING TO LEADERSHIP

When McElhaney was a fledgling manager, Radetic went out of his way to make sure she networked with the right people. “He was investing time and making sure that people knew who I was,” said McElhaney. “There were several industry events that I attended and it was very intimidating to walk into a room dominated by men with only two or three women in there. Mark nonchalantly introduced me to his associates and contacts. I later became a mentee to the president of the Builders Association of Kansas City.” In due course, McElhaney became a member of the board of the Associated General Contractors of America, which is in partnership with the Builders Association of Contractors. “It was very intentional with a lot of handholding and it took a lot of time.”

This kind of engagement not only helped McElhaney advance — it also set a good example. “I’ve taken a more of a pay-it-forward type of approach,” she explained. “This is the way someone helped mentor me. Male or female, this is the model I use to help mentor other people.”

Radetic recently took notes from firm administration thought leader and consultant Rita Keller, who was a keynote at a conference where she talked about the change that has taken place between men and women in the workforce. “This is not our mom and dad’s world anymore, where women stay home and men go out and work,” Radetic recalled. “Keller suggested, ‘If you have aspirations of becoming a partner, get sponsorship from a man, if you can.’”

Radetic clarified that Keller’s comment should not be misunderstood to mean that women should be excluded as mentors. “I think from a male point of view of what it used to be and what it is now, I think if that man is open and is a true leader, he will be able to teach, mentor and coach a person as to what the barriers are, what they are going to face, and the things you need to do to become a partner and a leader at a firm.”

 

LEADERSHIP ACCOLADE

In 2014, MarksNelson made the list of Best Accounting Firms for Leadership Equity, which is an award presented by the Accounting Move Project. The project first launched in 2010 through a joint venture with the American Society of Women Accountants and the American Woman’s Society of CPAs. Last year was the first time MarksNelson made the list; it is one of nine firms throughout the United States that received the award, and the only firm in the Midwest region that is on the list.

“I am a little bit surprised that more firms like us weren’t on the list,” McElhaney said, explaining that MarksNelson is open to evolving and willing to adapt to change as the new generation comes in. “As we are growing, we adapted the flextime schedule which kept everybody on an even pace because we are trying not to burn people out. There are things that we are doing for our business and we are benefiting women.”

Radetic concurred and emphasized the importance of letting prospective female candidates know about what MarksNelson can do for them. Being an award recipient helps the firm explain their objectives when talking to recruits: Instead of fielding questions about GPAs, outside activities and asking about their most challenging courses, the firm prefers to answer questions about the barriers female candidates might face while pursuing a career in public accounting. “When you look at what women are looking for in terms of their career, you better talk about how you can make this a good experience for them.”

 

MOVING FORWARD

As it moves into the future, Marks- Nelson plans to keep up with the never-ending cycle of change. It redrafted its succession plan when it tackled its operating agreement five years ago and reconsidered its no-retirement-age policy. “What we saw was a group of younger people who were talented who we did not want to block,” shared Radetic. “We set a mandatory retirement age. And from that we were able to present to our managers a 10-year plan which showed them growth that we expect to have.”

The plan included potential acquisitions and an increase in partners at the firm. “We presented to our managers the opportunities that they have. It was all within the confines of a nice work-life balance. It’s not going to take 3,000 hours for you to become a partner,” Radetic explained. “We are ready to help men and women. It just so happens that we do have a high percentage of women in our firm. ... We think it’s great, because they are some of the best and brightest here at the office.”

 

AT A GLANCE

Firm: MarksNelson LLC

Headquarters: Kansas City, Mo.

Managing partner: Mark Radetic

No. of partners/staff: 15/101

Year founded: 1968

Services: Assurance, accounting services and business advisory, business valuation, consulting, cost segregation, employee benefit plan audits, litigation support, forensic accounting, international tax, state and local tax services

Industry specialties: Automotive dealerships, construction, insurance, manufacturing, distribution and real estate sectors

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