Practice Profile: Presenting the past as prologue
Waldron H. Rand was born on July 6, 1851, formed his namesake firm with Hazen Philbrick in 1912, and would serve as the second president of the American Institute of CPAs from 1918-20. A full century later, current members of Dedham, Massachusetts-based accounting firm Waldron H. Rand & Co. might struggle with remembering these precise dates, if not for their current display on a mounted timeline in the firm’s lobby, a product of shareholder Sharon Shaff’s recent digging into the practice’s history.
The self-appointed firm historian, Shaff has been fervently researching Waldron H. Rand & Co. milestones for years. And with the firm’s long history — the partner group believes it to be the oldest continuously operating firm in Massachusetts — Shaff had a large task at hand.
“It’s really cool,” she shared. “Waldron Rand was a CPA who was really actively involved in a small group of people who started the AICPA, and joined forces with another partner in 1912 [to form Waldron H. Rand & Co.], which from what I can tell is the oldest ongoing firm in the country. I’ve tried to find anyone older than us with the same name [since they were established] but I haven’t been able to.” Shaff and her fellow shareholders believe the firm’s 106 years of organic growth are a result of holding true to Rand and Philbrick’s founding principles. These values have been handed down through the years, Shaff explained, but she’s also read them in Rand’s books and essays, which she recently discovered and also put on display.
In 1917, Rand wrote “What is a Certified Public Accountant?” and recited it to the Massachusetts Society of CPAs, where he served as president. The speech was largely devoted to the technical requirements and expectations of a CPA, but touched on their inscrutable nature, especially compared to their professional-services peers. “The individual man, who is not engaged in the accounting end of a business or in touch with it, might go a long while in ignorance of the work of the Certified Public Accountant, although audits of the accounts might have been regularly going on; and where there is no marked occasion for explanation, the Certified Public Accountant is not given to advertising or publishing his attainments,” Rand wrote. “Everybody knows a doctor, lawyer, a preacher, a dentist, a bookkeeper, and what the name means, because everybody either has need of one, or has seen one, or heard one at work; but comparatively few persons, after all, have occasion to know the Certified Public Accountant.”
Initially driven by curiosity in her research, Shaff’s discovery of modern-day correlations in Rand’s words propelled her to seek more of his writing.
In addition to this address to the MSCPA, Shaff found a collection of essays Rand had written anonymously from 1920-22 called “Spare Moments,” chronicling his thoughts on modern life. Excerpts where Rand admonished people for harboring too much road rage or not drinking enough water Shaff found particularly amusing: “The one about road rage — in 1922? — I found it funny.”
Beyond the mundane, Rand had strong thoughts about the profession and the role of the accountant. “He really felt like you should understand clients’ business, and don’t have an ego — understand tax, and their business,” Shaff said. “You’re useless if you just go in as an auditor, and can’t relate to the client, or have an ego. That is exactly us.”
Bill Kams, who served as managing partner from 1974 to 2017, when current MP Rick Dlugasch took over, shared many of the values Rand wrote about, though he didn’t realize, until Shaff’s research, how explicitly they were stated in the past. Included in Kams’ belief system is placing less of an emphasis on titles — perhaps unusual for someone in a key leadership position.
When Kams started in his role, “I didn’t know about the book. My principles were [to have] no titles, and have a family atmosphere. The same philosophy he had, continues now. When [people in the firm] were promoted, articles came out in the local paper, and in the promotions to partner, shareholder, you never see a mention of the title, so I presume he kind of followed that.”
Regardless of his emphasis on titles, Kams was a leader of Waldron Rand & Co., and he prioritized a more casual, but close, relationship with clients, along with strong internal collaboration.
Rand had championed the same, according to Shaff: “He was predicting ‘occupying a closer, more confidential relationship with clients than ever before.’”
“One of the key things about this,” Kams added, “is we have very close relationships with clients. We can advise them on everything; people ask me all kinds of questions, and we try not to be as contrary a force as a banker or IRS agent. We’re a very casual firm, we talk to clients and don’t have airs about us. In addition to that, we create strong relationships that help with their business.”
“We have a lot of expertise in our firm,” Kams added. “Sharon does a lot of international tax, I do a lot of estate tax, and Rick in real estate. If we need help in a different area, we go down the hall — a lot of the areas are covered by senior staff. If you don’t have the expertise, go out and get it. The main goal is to keep a firm that isn’t a highfalutin firm, but down to earth.”
Partners share more than expertise, Kams explained. “Not only do we not have titles; at the partner level, we split the pot. We don’t care who picked up the client. A big piece of it, is a lot of what [Rand] said. Success is nothing unless you can develop those around you.”
This mantra is evident in the firm’s longest tenured employees, who include the administrative assistant, who has been with the firm for 35 years, long enough for the firm to help put her through school to become a paralegal, and Katherine Philbrick, daughter of founding partner Hazen and the firm’s first female partner. “This was her entire life,” Kams said. In her later years, “she couldn’t hear, but she still answered phones for us. We had a retirement party for her — she was here forever.”
The next 100 years
Looking ahead to the next generations of talent can be challenging, as it is for every firm in this time of unprecedented change, but especially for a firm so rooted in tradition. Waldron H. Rand is reticent to adopt certain professional innovations, including outsourcing, a flexible-work policy, and expanding into services like wealth management.
“Everyone’s biggest challenge is retaining staff,” Shaff said. “We are growing with the times, but keeping to whatever it is that made us what we are. We have been ahead of the curve with the technological updates we have made, including when we adopted front-end scanning and a paperless system. Outsourcing — we don’t want to do it. The relationship with our clients is important to us, and we can do it efficiently.”
While encouraging remote work is a challenge because the firm doesn’t track hours and billable realization (and because, as Kams said, they “don’t want to be a FaceTime firm”), Waldron H. Rand has instituted other policies, based on employee feedback, such as making profit-sharing contributions, half-day Fridays in the summer, and closing the firm Wednesday nights in tax season — an idea borrowed from a fellow member firm of international assocation Morison KSi.
The firm’s founding values are critical to its current identity, though Kams, Shaff and Dlugasch acknowledge the need to evolve. More flexible work arrangements, for example, will be a topic they said will be revisited. And while some historic philosophies like doing away with titles have actually come back around to be almost progressive today — calling to mind the shared-workspace, anti-hierarchal aims of startups — they might not be sustainable.
“The title situation — staff members had questions about titles. We have to think back to our values — is not having titles critical to our value system?” Shaff explained. “We’re working though deciding what we want to stay there. There’s our ‘secret sauce,’ and then there’s growing with time.”
Luckily, the firm’s goals align with this deliberate pace. “The biggest challenge is to maintain our culture as we grow — slow and steady,” Kams said. “We are not striving to be double our size next year.”
And what would Waldron Rand say? In his “Report of the President,” in October 1920: “The new practitioner must not expect to build a practice except by slow stages … . He may be greatly helped by recommendations of fellow accountants, but his new client will come chiefly because an old client has been faithfully and ably served. His increased earnings will come from increased merit.”
At a glance
Firm Waldron H. Rand & Co.
Headquarters Dedham, Massachusetts
Managing partner Rick Dlugasch
No. of shareholders & principals/staff 7/40
Year founded 1912
Services Assurance, tax, business advisory
Industry specialties Privately owned companies