Practice Profile: Sticking with what works

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While the coronavirus pandemic has forced many accounting firms to lay off staff and cut compensation, Austin, Texas-based Maxwell Locke & Ritter has added seven to its staff since March. Those employees join another two pre-pandemic hires and five interns that the firm is onboarding virtually. All, except for one intern who was brought on full-time, follow MLR’s long-standing strategy of hiring experienced professionals.

“On an initial basis, we like people to have at least three to five years of experience in their initial introduction to the firm,” explained leading partner Kyle Parks. “More than that, even better.”

In addition to that experience level, the firm almost exclusively hires people with a CPA license, many of whom previously worked at a Big Four or other national firm. The firm’s major service lines are in audit, tax and wealth management.

MLR’s current team of 136 professionals has adapted well to COVID-19 conditions, according to firm leaders.

“We are primarily working from home,” Parks reported. “Offices are open and people are welcome to use them, but most folks are working from home. Productivity hasn’t fallen off too terribly, which is very promising. The thing I’m most proud of is not letting anyone go as a result. We haven’t had any pay cuts — no one has taken a drop in pay.”

Getting the word out

Before the pandemic, back in June 2019, the firm hired Sarah Taylor as talent acquisition and external communications manager to lead recruitment and enhance firm culture, which has helped in navigating the current uncertainty.

“Before I joined the firm, the firm hadn’t had anyone in a dedicated recruitment role,” Taylor shared. “Each service line was recruiting pretty independently, with folks bringing them in through third-party recruiters and through the employee referral program. Anyone would love for the majority of people to come through employee referrals. Now, we are invested in social media, blog content, showcasing the culture. Not just fun social media, but giving an idea of what it’s like to work here, with clients, and make an impact.”

Though Taylor has stepped up MLR’s talent efforts, the strategy behind them has been in place since the firm was established in 1991, explained Steve Knebel, who started with the firm then and served as leading partner from 2007 until the role transitioned to Parks in 2018.

“I was coming out of a Deloitte firm, and we continued to try to compete with Deloitte,” he shared. “We were a small firm, 15 to 20 people, and we had to go to campuses to recruit talent and compete with national firms. Young students, if they have the opportunity to go to a national firm, they go there for three to four years.”

Given this trajectory, MLR targeted accountants looking for a change after spending their first few years at a larger firm.

“Students coming out of school today, particularly larger universities, have larger firms on their mind from the get-go,” said Parks. “In school, they look for internships, full-time spots. It’s hard to initially get them to come our way. They have brand recognition.”

“We hire primarily out of big firms,” Knebel added. “We streamline processes so we keep those folks, and retain them. It’s worked very well.”

While MLR is not looking to hire fresh out of college (aside from interns), it’s still important to supplement the firm’s targeted job postings, LinkedIn recruiting and social media outreach with campus awareness, Taylor shared. “As Kyle and Steve were mentioning, [our recruitment strategy] was born out of not being able to attract from campuses originally,” she said. “We are still on campuses to plant the seed: Here’s who we are. Not to mention we are not going to be hiring any of you out of the intern pool. We hope you have a great intern experience, but we allow Big Four or other national firms to get students. Once they are out and want a different culture, to travel less, we hope we’re top of mind.”

“Over time, only a handful of interns stay with us post-internship,” Parks said. “Where we roll internships into full-time, there is a limited amount in that regard. Several come back for positions after they have gone away. The majority of comments [from those who do] is they like the flexibility, the work-life balance, travel mandates, those types of things. For a good chunk of folks, the pleasure is with the ability to be empowered to take on responsibility to do more and have more leadership.”

Challenges and opportunities

This year was an unusual case of MLR hiring an intern full-time out of the recent class, which Taylor said only happens about once every 10 years. Otherwise, the firm depends on the experience of their new hires from Day One.

“We assign folks to clients almost immediately, and ask them to be a responsible person for anything that happens with that client,” Parks explained. “At the same time, initially, in the onboarding process, we assign them mentors — buddies, coaches. They have periodic performance and goal review meetings to help them get where they want to go from a day-to-day standpoint. In other areas, we’re big in setting up functional teams within the firm; functional teams in essence run the firm. Things like social activities, wellness, strategic planning teams. We have a handful of partners on those teams, but teams are made up by our people and staff.”

While MLR’s talent strategy is essential for competing with larger firms, it’s not without challenges.

“Finding people has been the biggest obstacle, regardless of hiring methodology,” Parks shared. “People are in demand and hard to find. It’s a challenge, regardless of how we’ve gone about who we decided to hire. We have a group in India [of about 25 people] dedicated to us, to leverage capabilities, and combine that with the folks we bring in.”

“The biggest recruiting challenge is the recent trend of candidates re-entering the marketplace at two to three years,” Taylor said. “We do bring some folks on at three years, but we like to stretch that to four to five years. [Other challenges are] when a candidate is not ready to take on the responsibility of what is expected of them here, or when candidates are transitioning out of a different firm at the four-to-five year mark. They are burnt out, and it’s hard to communicate that we are different. How do we reach out to those people before they have written off public accounting?”

What does give MLR a recruiting advantage is its location in one of the country’s highest growth cities, explained Knebel.

“It works really well for us; we are lucky to be in Austin, in Central Texas. The [hiring] model works here, where it maybe would not in smaller towns. The inflow of people who want to live in Austin — Austin is a nice place to be young and have fun, and the firm gives them a great opportunity, where you could work in lots of different markets.”

MLR serves many industries within Austin’s biggest markets, with a focus in technology, real estate, consumer products, and its large nonprofit practice.

For the most part, the firm reports that these clients are holding up well through the pandemic, though those in the MLR’s hospitality, food and beverage, and retail sectors face larger hurdles.

The firm itself has risen to meet new demands, as evidenced by its continued growth. While Taylor has helped lead that success on the talent front, she has also found herself taking on a new role of social coordinator in the remote-work era.

“We have become experts in using Zoom and Microsoft Teams,” Parks shared. “Sarah did a great job of being social chairman — everything from firmwide happy hours to department meetings, being somewhat connected through the use of technology. We have extended that out to team members’ families. For instance, games are played for children of coworkers, and we’ve done some stuff to give the kids a break.”

The pandemic has only strengthened the firm’s values of flexibility and community outreach, Taylor reported, while highlighting new areas of prioritization.

“We have seen the importance of catering to each individual,” she said. “There is not one way to do everything. What work-from-home looks like in the future — some people have no desire to work from home ever again, some want to be home a majority of the time. In the last several months, people have struggles, they have kids at home, people need more one-on-one, group attention, or are seeking more social opportunities, or have different living situations. We are keeping a finger on the pulse of the people, so people can pick and choose, including in their communication. We are doing a good job of keeping people up to date. We have firmwide happy hours, we send out emails from service line leaders, people have one-on-one meetings to discuss those types of things. Everybody is on their own journey.”

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Practice management Recruiting Coronavirus Work from home