Practice Profile: To the four corners of the world

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When CPA firm Gerson Preston Klein Lips Eisenberg & Gelber relocated its headquarters from Miami Beach to the trendy Design District of Miami three years ago, local artist Ricardo Casado was hired to paint a mural in tribute to the Regional Leader’s 60-year history.

Displayed in the firm’s Miami office, the 72×48 abstract oil painting depicts Gerson Preston’s milestones, beginning when Gary Gerson opened a solo shop in 1959. After serving in the Navy during the Korean War, Gerson returned to South Florida, where he had earlier graduated with a master’s degree in accounting from the University of Florida — becoming, he was told, the youngest CPA in the country at 21. After the war, he served as an officer in charge of the Navy Area Audit Office in Orlando, and that experience, along with his local University of Florida connections, helped launch the practice.

Also essential, both to Gerson’s early business and the $19 million, 73-person firm it would become, was his philanthropic activity.

“When I started, I was always interested in charities. I started working in charities, working for Mount Sinai Medical Center, in the South, a nonprofit hospital, a teaching hospital,” he recalled. “The more money I spent, the more work I did, the more business came in — from the University of Florida, from Mount Sinai. Then I started giving scholarship money to the University of Florida, Florida International University, University of Miami.”

For all his charitable work, Gerson has received numerous awards and recognitions, including having the University of Florida’s accounting building named after him, and being inducted into UF’s Athletic Hall of Fame in 2002 for his work as an academic tutor to the Gators football team in the 1950s — making him the only non-athlete to receive that honor. A former president and chairman of the board of the Mount Sinai Medical Center, Gerson was also named an honorary lifetime chairman earlier this year.

Personal accolades aside, Gerson attributes the growth of his business to this philanthropy. As he became more connected in the wealthy and philanthropic circles of South Florida, he met clients seeking investments offshore and in real estate projects in the booming Miami area.

“A lot of that business came from foreigners,” he shared. “All that disruption in South America, people wanted shelter for their money. South Florida was a place for investment, security, out of South America. One of the biggest things, part of the practice, was real estate.”

In 1970, Richard Preston joined Gerson at the firm and became managing partner in 2004. Gerson Preston opened a second location in Boca Raton and the firm’s partnership continued to expand. Steven Klein came on board in 1988, and became Preston’s successor as MP earlier this year.

Klein handles a “tremendous amount of international work” with Alan Lips, who joined the firm in 1995 and became partner in 2002. The firm’s international services include corporate and investment structuring and planning for both inbound and outbound transactions, U.S. income and estate tax planning and compliance, and litigation support.

“For myself and Alan, many years ago, there was so much activity between Miami and Latin America and South America,” Klein explained. “Awesome opportunities. Relationships evolved, and there was lots of kinds of work in servicing the clients who had inbound tax needs — how to plan, to feel comfortable operating in their home country and in the U.S. Relationships evolved and we would be referred to others … Fifteen years later, we see not just South America. We’re at a nexus point. The world knows Miami, Miami holds an appeal as a destination, a point of interest for international folks.”

Global expansion

Casado’s mural charts this widening of Gerson Preston’s geographic reach over the years, spurring the firm to join global associations like the International Association of Public Accountants and TIAG Alliances, a network of independent professional service firms. The firm continues to find opportunities — and bulk up Klein and Lips’ frequent flyer mileage — in new countries as corporate tax reform has made the U.S. an even more attractive base for foreign companies.

Gerson Preston recently realized great potential in Italy, for example, after hiring accountant Nicolo Fabbrizio, a native of Genoa who had previously worked at Big Four firm PwC in Miami and had many clients in the cruise industry.

Fabbrizio “wanted to go beyond that,” Klein reported, “after seeing relationship opportunities while there. He wanted to build a practice that worked with the Italian business population wanting to do business [in the U.S.].”

After Fabbrizio got his green card in August 2017, he joined the Gerson Preston team and has been developing that Italian client base. The country’s maritime industry has provided opportunities for the firm to serve clients in yachting, cruises and smaller supplier companies with revenues ranging anywhere between $5 and $50 million, Klein said.

Italian clients are also very interested in real estate, one of Gerson Preston’s most successful industry focuses.

“We are in a very real estate-driven economy,” Klein explained, noting that the firm also has many other fast-growing niches, including professional services, health care technology, and wire and cable, among others.

Gerson Preston entered that last industry by providing audit services to a Chinese client with a U.S. subsidiary that provides wire and cable work to deal with emergency situations. The client also needed help navigating tariffs as they sought source materials from other countries, and Gerson Preston’s multicultural staff proved crucial in the advisement.

“An Asian employee made this doable, from a communications standpoint, and with cultural issues, how to communicate an issue,” Klein explained.

Largely due to location, Gerson Preston employs people of many ethnicities and backgrounds, which eases the challenge of multicultural dynamics that come from working in so many countries. In addition to Spanish-
speaking and Chinese professionals, the firm currently employs people from Russia and Ukraine, among other countries, Gerson reported.

“International issues are not all similar, but we’re comfortable in that realm,” Klein explained. “Alan has expertise in that area. Many [business owners] come here, and have been represented by firms that don’t have the depth in dealing with this. There are many issues to unwind. At the end of the day, it’s not just filling out forms for the most efficient tax structure. What Nicolo and I have learned is that it’s not just counting on tax expertise, but the ability to deal along multicultural lines. You can have all the expertise in the world, but you’ll get nowhere if you’re not comfortable dealing with different cultures.”

Understanding international nuances also requires the firm to prioritize traditional communication methods.

“One thing that runs through our core, that we maintain and have always been proud of, is the quality of our work,” Klein explained. “Anyone senior in our firm — I doubt there’s a client that doesn’t have their cell number … It’s matching the future to the past. The past, if you want to call it that, is passionate client service, communicating and visiting clients. Everything is not done with the computer or on text. Marrying that with the technology, the modern technology — they have to coexist, where I’ve found that in many organizations, one overwhelms the other.”

Building on the excitement

As Gerson Preston maintains these strong client relationships and establishes new ones both at home and overseas, Klein expects the firm to continue its strong organic growth. Save for the addition of one partner years ago, Gerson Preston “grew to who we are absolutely, truly organically,” he said, though he recognizes a need to ramp up marketing efforts.

Future plans involve “keeping our senses alert to the world around us,” Klein shared. “Knowing the four corners of this world don’t end at the front door and back window. And now we are focused on increasing the exposure of the firm. We’ve never been a firm with high-profile marketing but with the future, we recognize and are excited to expand the footprint of awareness in the business community, in all aspects. There is an excitement — the younger [staff] becoming partners, moving offices … It’s part of the process, the evolution of the firm. We are excited about who we are, the message of the firm, and communicating that.”

For his part, Gerson, now 86, still goes to work every day in the firm’s newer Miami office, a relocation he was initially reticent to make.

“There is so much activity in South Florida,” he explained. “For 50 years we were in Miami Beach in our own building. The partners wanted to go in a real growth area, north of Biscayne Boulevard. There is tremendous growth all around us — they were right. I tell people, it’s a good course I took, same house, same wife, same business. Now you want to move after 50 years? They are beautiful new offices, and there is growth all around us. The younger partners are very happy. I’m happy.”

At a glance

Firm Gerson, Preston, Klein, Lips, Eisenberg & Gelber

Headquarters Miami

Managing partner Steven Klein

No. of partners/staff 13/73

Year founded 1959

Services Assurance & accounting; tax; advisory; private client services; litigation & business valuation; transaction services

Industry specialties Aviation; communications; employee benefit plans; financial services; health care; hospitality & travel; manufacturing & distribution; media & entertainment; nonprofits; professional services; real estate & construction; retail & consumer products; technology; transportation & logistics

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