by Seth Fineberg

While many resellers and consultants are developing niche practices and services for various vertical sectors — such as nonprofits, manufacturing and retail, to name just a few — others are finding it more lucrative to work with CPAs and, in some cases, technology experts to dig deeper into individual niche areas.

And, in many cases, they have discovered that those segments are underserved.

The clear trend among major accounting technology vendors, from Intuit to Best Software and, to a degree, Microsoft, has been to develop vertical-specific software, such as Intuit’s Master Builder for construction, Best’s Abra Suite for human resources and payroll, and Microsoft’s Navision link with Serenic Navigator for nonprofits. This has been driven largely by CPA and technology firms’ general need to diversify and better serve their client base.

But some users have chosen to use more general accounting packages to run their specific niche businesses and, in many cases, have found that it just doesn’t work as well as it should. This is where the CPA consultants and technology specialists come in.

Brian Price, who oversees the technology practice of Dallas-based CPAs PriceKubecka LLC, serves clients in a number of vertical industries — manufacturing being one of them. His firm is a known Intuit consultant, as well as a reseller of Softline BusinessVision and AccountMate. Recently, he had a case where one of his clients was using a general accounting system that did not quite fit its specific needs.

The firm’s client, Precision Set, manufactures precious-metals jewelry — primarily rings — and slowly discovered that the Peachtree accounting software that they were using could not keep track of all the company’s inventory. Price decided to call upon an area technology specialist and reseller he knew — Tamlin Software Developers — to try and deal with the problem.

“The system my client was on didn’t allow them to add certain features that they needed. Their inventory is huge and this sector has major inventory cost issues and lots of math questions we couldn’t capture with the current system,” Price said. “We recognized also that, even though I resell accounting packages, I don’t have the strength on the detail side and Tamlin did. They don’t necessarily have the time to do the consulting, so that’s where we come in.”

Tamlin devised a solution using Visual AccountMate —which it resells — and the company’s own manufacturing industry add-on, whereby the client’s specific needs could be met.

“Basically, Brian came to us with a client that needed profitable enterprise optimization, and while there are decent manufacturing solutions out there, there isn’t anything for some specific sectors, such as jewelry manufacturing,” said Tamlin president Linda Bryan. “They needed to track inventory at all times and our manufacturing solution can do it.”

Bryan and Price admit that it took the client some extra costs and several months to get up to speed on the product, but Price advised them that the return on investment would come within a year and would be even more advantageous over time. He was right.

“My role, in the end, was keeping on top of all the bumps, and keeping the client in the process. You just don’t hand it to a third party and expect it to work,” Price explained. “This company is now getting its investment back, but it’s nothing compared to what they will see in years two, three and four.”

As for Tamlin, it is interested in working with other CPAs in digging deeper into certain niches, and found that during the tight economic times of the past couple of years, this practice has helped.

“We are coming off some lean years, and have gotten a fair amount of business from CPA referrals,” Bryan said. “Lately we had been thinking of digging deeper into manufacturing, and have plans to work with sectors like oil field, simple food, and forestry products.”

The leaner financial times have indeed sparked many technology consultants and resellers alike to dig deeper into their specialty areas. San Antonio-based Business Computer Systems is all too familiar with this practice.

The firm has resold Best Software products since 1989, and a few years ago it modified MAS 90 to a nonprofit product that it sold off before Best bought MIP. In recent history, the firm has developed an expertise in two very specific niche areas — depot equipment repair system software and equipment rental software.

Like other technology consultants, Business Computer Systems realized that it had an opportunity to develop expertise in an underserved, underdeveloped area. It conducted its own research, interviewed potential customers, and evaluated the costs and the potential return on investment. Today, this specialty focus has proven to be quite profitable, though firm president Clark Haley admitted that it would not be as successful without partnering.

“Our focus on vertical niches has allowed our company to remain profitable and retain employees, even through the last several years, when many of our reseller friends have been struggling,” Haley said. “But don’t expect you will develop this kind of expertise and win deals on your own. We partner a lot, and our partners are advocates. Most resellers have a tendency to go broad rather than deep, but my advice is just do what you know and partner with experts.”

One of Haley’s many partners has been the Appleton, Wis.-based regional accounting and consulting firm Schenck Business Solutions. Much like Price’s firm, Schenck often acts as the consultant and does the initial discovery of a client’s needs, and works with a number of technology experts who have appropriate add-ons for specific vertical clients.

“When you meet a client, often they need more than what they have, so we choose to partner a lot, because we are fortunate to have good partners,” said Laurie McNicoll, who heads up the firm’s technology practice. “For example, we have a partner who has done great things with Abra Suite for HR and payroll. We tried that area and weren’t successful, but they are the expert. We revenue-share and it works out. Ultimately, we focus on our client base and dig in deeper where we can.”

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