CPA firms are wrestling their way through partner retirements and the accompanying succession issues in numbers that the profession has never seen before. It's the Baby Boomer Bubble, up close and personal.

Our succession planning should focus on replacing that retiring partner's contribution on several fronts. Depending on the role of the retiring partner in the firm, we will experience varying levels of pain surrounding things like replacing significant knowledge or technical expertise, backfilling a block of hours to get the work done, and shoring up voids left in firm leadership. These are all significant issues and deserve a plan of their own.

But the biggie, and the focus of this article, is the transition of client relationships. The premise underlying this discussion is that most of the firms I work with, and somewhere around two thirds of all multi-partner firms out there, have an unfunded partner buy-out or "retirement" plan. That means that retirement payments over an extended period of time will (hopefully) come from the continued operations and profits of the firm.

The currency that the firm will use to pay out that retiring partner is really the annuity revenue stream from the clients whom they used to serve. A successful hand-off and the retention of those clients is the only way that the unfunded plan has a chance to survive.

If you buy into the critical importance of client transition and retention, then we should expect that most firms have developed both a pretty good transition process and some well-defined requirements for the retiring partners. Unfortunately, more often than not, that is not the case. The American Institute of CPAs' 2012 Succession Survey, conducted by the Private Companies Practice Section and the Succession Institute, reported that 78 percent of firms do not have client transition expectations with financial penalties for retiring partners if they are not completed.

If you are one of those firms in the 78 percent bucket, the balance of this article will give you some ideas on how to do a better job with client transition. Please pull out your partner agreements, dust them off, and see if they even deal with this critical issue at all.

 

SET THE DATE

First, make sure that you have a mandatory retirement date for partners. The point here is that there should be a target date (for instance, age 65) that we all know is coming and controlled by the firm. There is no way to create an effective transition plan without everyone knowing when it is.

I recommend that the client transition process begin at least two years before the partner's expected retirement date. For the largest clients or the ones with the closest relationships to the partner, you really need at least two cycles for a successful hand-off to the successor. Every partner's book includes some easy ones and some very difficult ones. The easy ones may include 1040s or small-business clients or, hopefully, a number of accounts in which another partner or senior manager is already very involved. The tougher ones almost always involve very close personal relationships and friendships that have developed over the years. Here's the critical point: It is usually more about the retiring partner letting go and facilitating the hand-off than it is about the client accepting it. Just because the client has a new person to handle their account doesn't mean that the friendship with the retiring partner ends.

The transition plan specific to the partner should be developed with the managing partner. Clients should be grouped into categories based on the expected ease of transition and specific steps determined for each group. For the easiest ones, it may be just a phone call from the partner talking about the upcoming retirement and who will now be handling them, while others may be an introductory meeting, and still others will require a much more significant time commitment with shadowing in meetings and the year-end process. You'll know that you have been successful when the client is calling the new partner and the retiring partner has less and less to do. I really like to see the workload of the retiring partner almost gone during the last six months. During the two-year transition period there should be quarterly update meetings with the managing partner to review the completion of the plan.

The previous discussion assumes that there is a qualified person at the right level with a fairly good personality match who can step into the relationship. Please make sure that a part of your plan is to free up the right people to take the key relationships of the retiring partner. Too often, I see that the right partner in the firm to take that really large, important relationship is already filled up. So, we try to give it to managers, or the retiring partner hangs on to it. It may seem counterintuitive to create even more transition issues in moving clients to make room, but to make sure that you have the best home for some key accounts, that is, in fact, what the firm needs to do.

Now, to the most controversial issue: The trend in more and more firms is to build the client transition expectations into their partner agreements -- i.e., a two-year notice and the completion of a written transition plan with the managing partner. If the retiring or departing partner fulfills the expectations, then a successful transition of the clients is much more likely, and there should be no penalty for any subsequent losses. However, if the partner does not meet the firm's transition expectations and clients depart within a relatively short period of time (say two years), then the partner suffers a reduction in retirement payments. This is not where the majority of firms are today, but it is where they are going.

As the Baby Boomers retire, the likelihood of multiple partner payouts within your firm increases. A well-executed client transition plan is the best protection for the firm and the best insurance a retiring partner has that they will receive those unfunded retirement payments down the road.

Gary Adamson is the president of Adamson Advisory, specializing in practice management consulting for CPA firms, and was recently managing partner of a top 200 CPA firm. Reach him at (765) 488-0691 or gadamson@adamsonadvisory.com.

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