Leadership is often seen as a mysterious art, and people frequently chalk success in high positions up to charisma or some other similarly nebulous and unmeasurable criteria.

That’s something of a copout, though. In the six years that Accounting Today has been compiling its list of the Managing Partner Elite, a number of common characteristics have emerged among the top leaders of U.S. accounting firms — characteristics that anyone can develop, regardless of how “charismatic” they are.

For instance, great leaders make plans.

Strategic plans. Succession plans. Staff development plans. Business development plans. Disaster recovery plans. To say nothing of employee benefit plans, 401(k) plans, tuition reimbursement plans, compensation plans, and plans to take some of their younger staff out to lunch.

Elite managing partners not only make all sorts of plans, they follow through on them, with careful execution and frequent updates that involve feedback from all levels of staff. They adapt their plans to changing circumstances, whether internal or external, and they use the revised plans to continue to shape an uncertain future.

Great leaders also hold themselves, their partners and their employees accountable for the successful execution of all of their plans, and they use clear, measurable criteria to determine success. (“We’re going to be great!” isn’t a plan; a plan is, “We’re going to be the No. 1 provider of cyber-security assurance in our state.”)

Planning isn’t the only element of a strong firm leader, of course. A belief in creating a unique firm culture is very valuable, as is an appreciation for the value of technology (though they don’t need to geek out about it), and they all put an enormous amount of effort into building up the people around them.

With all that in mind, here is the 2017 Class of the Accounting Today Managing Partner Elite. (A slideshow version of this report is also available.)


Wayne Berson
Wayne Berson

ON THE BRIDGE

Wayne Berson

BDO USA

CEO since 2012; joined in 2001

Big ships are notoriously hard to steer, but you’d never know it from the ease with which the South African-born Berson has navigated BDO, a $600 million firm when he took the helm just five years ago, to its current position as a billion-dollar firm — the first new one in almost a decade.

Given the firm’s high-profile streak of mergers, it’s tempting to write all that growth off to indiscriminate M&A. That’s wrong on two counts: Over a third of it is organic, and Berson takes a disciplined approach to picking potential partners, vetting them against a careful set of criteria. He has also kept the firm growing with three major new offerings in hot areas — wealth management, cybersecurity, and a cloud-driven outsourced finance and accounting service called BDO Drive — without losing sight of traditional services like audits of SEC clients, where the firm is regularly a leader in signing on new engagements. At bottom, though, Berson attributes his ability to double BDO’s revenues and staff to a strong focus on culture, calling it a “key enabler of our growth.”


Tanner MP Jeff  Bickel
Jeff Bickel

PROPER PRIOR PLANNER

Jeff Bickel

Tanner

MP since 2010; joined in 2005

It’s our contention that possibly the single-most important thing a firm leader can do is to make and execute plans, and Jeff Bickel of Salt Lake City-based Tanner is a past master of the form. When he became MP seven years ago, he launched a strategic planning process for the firm that developed a consensus among all the team members on their mission and future direction. That led directly to an explosion of new consulting service offerings — seven in seven years —that have helped propel Tanner to revenue growth of over 60 percent, and staff growth of over 75 percent, even as it brought on more new partners than any other firm in the area.

The firm’s 120 staff are a priority for Bickel, with a serious focus on talent development and coaching, retaining top talent, and creating an environment where “all of our professionals have the opportunity to move up.” You could say he’s planning on it.


Powerful Accounting founder Dawn Broline
Dawn Brolin

LIVING THE FUTURE

Dawn Brolin

Powerful Accounting

Founded firm in 2011

There’s a certain dream for what the CPA firm of the future will look like — it’ll be virtual, with employees working remotely, leveraging the latest technology to bring high-value-added services to its clients — and it turns out that that’s the way Dawn Brolin runs her practice right now. For Brolin, though, it’s not about dreaming — it’s simply what works best. When she started her original bookkeeping business, she had a newborn and a one-year-old, and technology was key to her being able to balance being both a mother and a business owner. And while she swore when she started Powerful Accounting that she’d never have employees, technology enabled her to build systems that on-board those she eventually realized she needed, while the cloud and remote-work tools allow them to work anywhere, anytime. What’s more, all this technology lets her small firm serve clients all across the country — or at least those who want to live in the same future that her firm already inhabits.


PKF O'Connor Davies MP Kevin Keane
Kevin Keane

PURSUING A VISION

Kevin Keane

PKF O’Connor Davies

MP since 1998; joined in 1979

While it’s fair to say that Kevin Keane has grown up at PKF O’Connor Davies — he has spent his whole career there, after all — in a sense, the firm has grown up around him, too. It had 50 employees and two offices when he took charge 20 years ago; now it has 750 employees in nine offices spread from Washington, D.C., to Connecticut. What’s more, the firm’s current strategic plan is a formalization of the vision he brought to the role, and his dedication to a strong firm culture has driven the development of the team of leaders, partners and staff that has turned that vision into a reality — including the recent milestone where it renamed itself to reflect its new position as the lead North American firm in the PKF global network.


LaPorte CPAs president and CEO Ted Mason
Ted Mason

MAN WITH THE PLANS

Ted Mason

LaPorte CPAs

President and CEO since 2002; joined in 1980; rejoined in 1991

For most firms, the future is a thing that happens to them; for a select few, the future is a thing they shape. LaPorte is one of those few, thanks to the plans Ted Mason has put in place. The long-range strategic plan he initiated when he took over has guided the firm to its current position as a regional leader, with a vastly expanded set of specialty services and a long line of successful mergers under its belt. The succession plan the firm has had in place since 2009 — along with its growth plan programs for seniors, managers, and senior managers and income directors — are building up its next generation of leaders. And while Mason may not have planned Hurricane Katrina, the disaster recovery plan he had put into place beforehand allowed his Louisiana firm to be back up and running within a week. The future belongs to those who plan for it, and Mason is making sure LaPorte is one of those.


N&K managing principal Alton Miyashiro
Alton Miyashiro

WORKING WITH PEOPLE

Alton Miyashiro

N&K

Managing principal since 2001; joined in 1989

Accounting firms don’t have factories or massive pieces of equipment; they have people, and it’s a major part of a strong leader’s job to create an environment that empowers, encourages, develops and retains those people. Miyashiro is a great example of that kind of leader, with a long list of initiatives along those lines, from the Work Environment Committee he implemented to sustain and improve N&K’s culture and the eight other committees that give younger staff a say in what happens at the firm, to the development programs and conferences he sends young leaders to, and the host of other perks and incentive programs initiated on his watch. It must be working — the firm has been named a Best Place to Work in Hawaii six different times, and has also been named one of Accounting Today’s Best Firms to Work For.


Richey, May & Co. MP Ken Richey
Ken Richey

NICHE-MASTER

Ken Richey

Richey, May & Co.

MP since 1996; co-founded firm in 1985

It’s one thing to have a broad vision of a firm with explosive growth that reaches from coast to coast — it’s another to achieve it with a narrow, disciplined focused on just a few specialty niches. That’s what Ken Richey has done, leveraging a unique expertise in the mortgage banking and real estate industries to turn a six-person local shop in Denver to a 142-person firm with staff as far away as North Carolina.

Careful niche selection (it also serves the alternative investment industry and private equity, among a few others) and a commitment to staff development and expertise have helped give the firm a national reputation — as has Richey’s determination to keep up with technology to deploy the most useful innovations for clients and staff.


Ted Rose
Ted Rose

PIONEERING INNOVATOR

Ted Rose

Rose Financial Services

Founded firm in 1994

For the most part, great leaders don’t need to be deeply engaged with technology; they just need to appreciate its value. But there is a small subset of firms whose success is predicated on deploying and even developing the right tools, and Ted Rose’s is one of those. A long-time pioneer of accounting outsourcing, Rose has led his firm in continuous innovation and improvement, including building an entire suite of custom software that aims to give his clients powerful tools for automating finance and accounting functions with digital workflows, and even developing a mobile app to give them near-real-time access to critical financial information. Rose isn’t just focused on empowering his clients, though; he aims to empower his employees, too, giving them a positive culture and the tools they need to serve the firm’s clients in a manner consistent with Rose’s vision of outsourced accounting — a vision, by the way, that more and more firms across the country are starting to adopt.


Jane Scaccetti
Jane Scaccetti

CREATING STRUCTURE

Jane Scaccetti

Drucker & Scaccetti

CEO since 2013; co-founded in 1990

The first thing Jane Scaccetti did when she accepted the position of CEO at her firm was research firms that had survived beyond their founding partner — and then put into place the lessons she learned. Foremost among those was giving the firm more of a corporate governance structure, giving the executives in charge the ability to focus primarily on their roles, even as a new and very inclusive executive committee was established to oversee them, and an expanded administrative group was staffed to support them. With all that in place, she developed a cycle of three-year strategic goals that are carefully monitored and measured, and created and phased in a formal compensation system that gives partners clear guidelines and holds them accountable for them. Building that kind of framework for success is a core part of the job of a great MP — and a big part of what makes Scaccetti a great model for new firm leaders.


Carmel Wood
Carmel Wood

TAKING THE LEAD

Carmel Wood

Huselton, Morgan & Maultsby

Managing shareholder since 2010; joined in 1991

The Managing Partner Elite isn’t really about managing — it’s about leading. The kind of leading Carmel Wood did when she launched Huselton, Morgan & Maultsby’s accounting services department. Or when the firm tripled its presence in Dallas on her watch, adding two new offices. Or when she successfully navigated the firm through a series of planned and unplanned departures in the shareholder ranks that threatened to derail the firm’s highly advanced succession plan. Or when she led the firm to create a new human resources position to boost retention. Or when she led the search for a firm association to join — and found a great match for HM&M in the BDO Alliance. Or what she’s doing now, in spearheading the development of the firm’s data analytics skills to boost its audit capabilities. All that doesn’t sound like managing to us; that sounds like leading.

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Daniel Hood

Daniel Hood

Daniel Hood is editor-in-chief of Accounting Today and Tax Pro Today, and has covered the tax and accounting field for over 20 years.