In a profession where the traditional definition of quantum change means wearing a striped shirt instead of a solid oxford, CPA and business advisory firm Sikich has, in just over a decade, established a progressive roadmap for multidisciplinary practices.

The Aurora, Ill.-based firm, which in the mid-1990s made a risky but game-changing decision to expand into what were then considered non-traditional services, has morphed into one of the Midwest's most respected regional practices, with 10 offices in four states, 55 partners and 2009 revenues of $52 million - a 15 percent jump year over year, ranking it No. 57 on Accounting Today's 2010 Top 100 Firms list.

As a result of its proactive penetration into practice niches such as technology, investment banking, and wealth management, roughly 50 percent of the firm's revenue currently stems from non-traditional services.

"We didn't want to strictly rely on one or two services," remembers firm chief executive officer and managing partner Jim Sikich. "We took a look at the industry at the time and there were the consolidators [Centerprise, cbiz and American Express] and we knew we didn't want to follow that model. That relied too much on partners selling additional services to their clients, and CPAs aren't the best salesmen in the world. Technology was beginning to play a big part in the industry, and that was something we knew we should be in."

Twelve years ago, the firm completed its first major acquisition in IT - Intelligent Computer Solutions - the nucleus of what would eventually become its 80-person IT consulting and value-added reseller arm, which reported some $14 million in revenue and took the No. 14 slot in Accounting Today's annual VAR 100 rankings. The unit was, for the fourth time in five years, named to the Microsoft Dynamics Inner Circle, a designation bestowed on just 1 percent of Dynamics partners.

"When you're a traditional CPA firm, about 80 percent of your business comes back every year," Sikich said. "But when you branch out, you may be re-inventing 40-50 percent of your revenue each year. In investment banking, which is transaction-oriented, you could go for several months without revenue."

More recently, the firm has completed a total of seven mergers in just over one year, a buying spree that included two IT consultancies, Hal Weinberger Consulting and MAS Consulting of Chicago; an M&A practice, Levi Littell Herbst & Co.; and a design firm, Icon Digital Design & illustration.

"Even when we do a merger, we don't rely on cross-referrals. Just 7 percent of our clients use more than one service," said Sikich. "I think that speaks to the fact that that's not what our model is about. We take a soft-sell approach with clients."

He revealed that some M&A candidates approach the firm, but Sikich employs several intermediaries to mine potential acquirees outside of Illinois, and the firm has identified nine Midwestern states where it would ideally like to have a presence.

"Sikich is as entrepreneurial as they come, and it all starts with their leader, Jim Sikich," said Allan Koltin, president of Chicago-based consultancy PDI Global, who has advised the firm on a number of occasions. "Jim understands it is all about recruiting and motivating top talent, as well as having the willingness to invest and take risk."

Bearing out Koltin's accolades, Sikich was inducted into the Chicago-area Entrepreneurship Hall of Fame in 2009, an award sponsored by the University of Illinois at Chicago Institute for Entrepreneurial Studies.


The roots of the modern firm date back to a one-man shop in 1928 in Champaign, Ill., a practice that eventually became Filbey Summers & Co., where Sikich was eventually made partner. In 1982, several of the senior partners divested their interests, whereupon Sikich and Jerry Gardner remained to form Sikich & Gardner. The firm was later rechristened Sikich & Co. and eventually truncated to its present nomenclature of Sikich.

Last year, the firm formed a number of vertical offerings, including construction, HR and marketing, and filled them with specialists in those disciplines.

"If someone is in the construction field, we have our client-centric team that specializes in construction tell the client, 'Here's what we can do for you,'" Sikich said.

One of the firm's rising service verticals is its investment banking arm, according to Chris Geier, partner-in-charge of Sikich Investment Banking, a unit that, among other things, provides buy- and sell-side services for middle-market companies. "Investment banking is currently among the top three services of the firm," revealed Geier, who came aboard two years ago. "One of the few things we do not do is trade anyone else's money or the firm's money."

He explained that the unit, which is under the umbrella of Sikich's in-house broker-dealer line, Sikich Corporate Finance LLP, is comprised not of CPAs, but rather those with a veteran pedigree in transactions and private equity.

"We go out and recruit people with a strong background and who know this business, not take CPAs and try to turn them into investment bankers. The same for our wealth management arm - we don't just take a couple of people, get them licensed and then say, 'Hey, we offer wealth management.'"

About 20 percent of the clients for the investment banking unit are previous firm clients, with the remainder coming from the outside. Geier recalled the case of one client who was in the market for an acquisition: "So we sat down with him to understand his business and prepared a 65-page document for him. We told him that, for a variety of reasons, it was probably not the best time to be a buyer."

Geier said that Sikich Corporate Finance would someday like to establish a merchant-banking component: "There's a lot of low-hanging fruit out there."


In addition to its full-time HR department, the firm has a talent acquisition manager who develops the collegiate recruiting process to fill the pipeline.

For new employees at the firm, Jim Sikich hosts the Communication Education Orientation Luncheon, an informal gathering where new hires are indoctrinated into the firm's culture and history.

Sikich has also garnered a slew of "Best Place to Work" awards, while Jim Sikich was named Innovative Firm Leader of the Year by the Leading Edge Alliance in 2009.

Said Sikich, "We're still on the M&A trail, and we will continue to look for firms and establish new service areas like revenue consulting. We're just starting a separate unit for litigation support and business valuations. We're not growing just to grow, but the more talent we can have, the better."

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