Technology consultancies affiliated with accounting firms often function separately from the main firm. However, SingerLewak has adopted an integrated approach between the two entities, coupled with a dedicated training staff that keeps all employees on top of new technologies and best practices.

The latest incubator of new business for the Los Angeles-based firm is coming from its recently launched cloud-computing consulting service - SingerLewak Systems.

Under the umbrella of its Enterprise Risk Management Services tech practice, the firm is able to offer a range of IT consulting, from outsourced CFO, CIO and CTO services, to ERP and business management software selection, and disaster planning and recovery.

But late last year it added SingerLewak Systems to the fold, and interest in the cloud from clients, as well as its other in-house departments, including the tax and audit divisions, is already on the rise.

Moreover, the new service offering has vaulted SingerLewak in a brand-new area of business - as a value-added reseller and consultant for cloud-based accounting and financial application provider Intacct. The ERMS unit recently conducted a firmwide webcast on cloud computing and an introduction to Intacct and SingerLewak Systems, which prompted a number of requests from other departments for more information.

"Internal communication and buy-in from top levels of the firm are critical to making these non-traditional areas work well," said Bob Green, a firm partner and head of the ERMS practice. "I am more excited about [SingerLewak Systems] than I have been about anything in a long time, and we expect the most growth to come from this area this year for sure. The CPA firm of the future is more 'cloud' on everything. It is simply more intelligent to do books in the cloud than anything you have on-premise."

[IMGCAP(1)]Prior to the launch of SingerLewak Systems in October and its new role as an Intacct VAR, the firm had previously utilized Intacct for outsourcing C-level duties primarily for client businesses that could not afford to hire for those positions on their own, or, because of cutbacks, had to eliminate them.

 

Since becoming an Intacct VAR, additional revenue opportunities are opening up, according to Jim Hart, who manages SingerLewak Systems. "We're now able to provide what we call 'cloud ecosystem' leadership and consulting, where we are helping businesses move towards heavily emphasized cloud and Web services strategies and away from typical on-premise strategies," said Hart, who added that Intacct is the first of what will be more cloud offerings that SingerLewak Systems will showcase - though not necessarily in their capacity as a VAR. "When we talk about other cloud initiatives maybe we will shepherd the deal but not be a VAR. It's a new paradigm. We've never been a reseller of a product, so it's a learning curve. What's more important is we don't consider us a separate business. There's a ton of value - when we get leads, we make sure we address them with the partners or managers if these are already accounts to begin with."

 

NON-TRADITIONAL FIRM

Those in ERMS and SingerLewak Systems in particular realize that

another key

to their success is the level of support that they are receiving from the top partners, and thus far, the firm as a whole.

"We are trying to break the ceiling of what a traditional accounting firm is and SingerLewak Systems is a perfect example of that," explained Ronit Koren, SingerLewak's director of marketing. "From the top they recognize it's important to be ahead of the curve."

Koren said that the cloud practice is already bringing in "a different type of clientele" and that too will quickly scale. More important, SingerLewak Systems has allowed the firm to broaden its market and is now serving clients in Montana, Nebraska and potentially Arizona - all outside its traditional practice areas of Southern California and Silicon Valley.

The ERMS practice under which SingerLewak Systems resides is not all about cloud consulting, although, as Green indicated, it's an area that is receiving a lot of firmwide and client attention.

Among other things, ERMS also focuses on network and security infrastructure design, architecture, management and implementation, virtualization, and Internet security. ERP and business management software selection is another key target area of growth for the practice.

"As the economy is starting to turn, people are saying, 'I'm tired of my ERP system and it's time to move on,' so they are looking for help. In some cases, they've removed their CIO and have us help conduct an independent [product] selection," said Green. "We're also seeing an increased interest in virtualization. People housing servers out of warranty and figuring out they don't know what to do if they don't go right to the cloud. Virtual servers help save money. It's nice project work and [we] can continue with managed services."

ERMS will also offer disaster preparedness, business continuity planning, and other high-level risk-management-oriented strategic advisory services, areas in which Rick Mark, senior manager of ERMS, specializes. "All structures are around protecting IP and planning for disaster recovery - that's the theme of everything we will put in place," he revealed. "When we have disparate or older systems and companies trying to get up to date without a huge investment, we have the ability to create a hybrid cloud environment, either on-premise or outside where we can secure it. Not only is our client information secure, but their customer information is secure."

 

PACKAGE DEAL

Mark, Hart and Green were at one time a part of InSync Information Management, a firm that focused primarily on IT auditing. When it merged with SingerLewak three years ago, it was folded under the ERMS umbrella.

Green recalls that it was a union that made sense because of the culture and existing knowledge set at SingerLewak, but folding in a technology consulting practice or starting one is not something a CPA firm should take lightly.

"People who try to merge technology [consulting] firms into CPA firms fail a lot. The fact that I was a CPA and CITP and that I 'got it' made them more comfortable," said Green. "If you have a CPA background and focus on systems, it opens more doors to cross-refer than not. Practitioners need to understand how vital it is that the full firm becomes educated in what they are doing if they choose to venture outside of audit, tax and other traditional areas."

 

TRAINING AND LEARNING

Education and training are vital to the firm as a whole, and technology is at the core of those efforts.

SingerLewak has had a professional training team as part of its staff since 2002. The three-person department will organize a variety of training sessions whenever there is a major IT change, such as new tax software or a move to mobile or cloud-based solutions.

Karyn Gallen, a former high school English teacher who had consulted with large businesses on tech training, heads up the department as director of professional development and training. With approximately 230 staff at six offices, there's a fair amount of coordination that needs to occur, and training session happen all year long. "When I started, it was a very exploratory venture; there was input saying we know this is a critical component of the success of the firm but we didn't know how it would come together," recalled Gallen, who stressed that her team conducts IT training, as well as all technical components of CPE. "The tech piece definitely is a huge component; making sure people use all of our tools to the optimum level is a priority."

The training program took some time to get to its current level, but the top partners at the firm were always supportive. Dave Free, partner-in-charge of the firm's Los Angeles region, recalled when he approached the managing partners about having dedicated IT training that it was a quick decision.

"I had returned from a Boomer Circles meeting in 2001, sat down with the managing partners and said we need to have a trainer and they said, 'You are right.' That was literally a one-minute conversation, so I put together a job description and decided to hire," said Free. "The challenge was defining the role and Karyn was clearly the right person for what was a very poorly defined position at the time."

Free said that it took nearly three years to get the right training programs in place and establish the idea that SingerLewak was "a training firm that will get people ready."

"Because we had invested in training and technology and we were committed to making sure they use it to the best of their benefit, we were able to grow organically more than anyone in this area for sure," said Free. "When things turned south, we had to make some cuts, so we dialed [some aspects of training] back, but didn't slash and burn. ... The key thing you have to be doing in a service firm is constantly build your talent and give them the things they need to make them unique and a long-term contributor to the firm."

Free and Gallen also recognized that the firm's model may be different from other CPA firms, in that there is more collaboration among practice lines. Their goal for the future, according to Free, is to become an alternative to the regional and national firms.

"Not that we want to compete with them - we just want to do what we do the best we can," said Free. "We ultimately compete against ourselves the most, and if we live up to our standards, we'll do just fine."

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