The members of our Best Accounting Firms to Work For list are always unusual - after all, what's more unusual than being best? - but this year's top firms in two of the three size categories are even a little more unusual than usual.

That's because both Johnson Jacobson Wilcox, the No. 1 firm in the small firm category, and large firm winner Kaufman, Rossin & Co., are repeat honorees from last year.

IN LAS VEGAS, BUSINESS AS USUAL

Gary Johnson, Johnson Jacobson Wilcox president and managing partner, credits the Las Vegas firm's staying power to consistency.

"The economy in Vegas still has got a lot of challenges, to put it mildly," Johnson explained. "What has been good for us is that our people can all trust we're not going to be changing things up on them."

One positive move for the firm was restoring raises for its 24 employees back to "commensurate with what they were in previous years." Employee benefits also remain intact.

Johnson acknowledged the firm's five forward-thinking partners for this rebound.

"Our investment in the future is not going to be to cut benefits and salary so we can make a few more bucks," Johnson said. "My partner group is completely behind that, and understands that so we can pass this firm on... We have such a fantastic group of partners that believe in the future and the future of our people."

Johnson Jacobson Wilcox also rewards its staff in smaller, more personal ways.

Employee anniversaries are celebrated with small gifts proportionate to their time with the firm. The firm administrator customarily contacts the employee's spouse or partner to find out what he or she would like in a certain price range. This has led to everything from nice watches for 20-year benchmarks to a couple's weekend getaway, and even an attempt to replace a piece of jewelry one of its 15-year employees lost in a home burglary.

The ceremony is also accompanied by positive testimonials from fellow employees at the staff member's five-year mark.

"The employee gets to walk out and feel appreciated by the firm and by their peers," Johnson said. "It should be a special occasion."

IN MIAMI, YEARS OF WISDOM BUT YOUNG IN HEALTH

Large firm honoree Kaufman, Rossin & Co. will celebrate its own benchmark next year when the Miami firm ushers in its 50th year. The firm will have help from long-time accounting services department employees Rose Taksier-Jones, who will observe her 44th anniversary with the firm by compiling a scrapbook for the occasion.

"She is collecting memoirs and articles from our veterans to put it out as commemorative [book]," explained Jim Kaufman, the firm's chief executive and managing principal. "It's the sweetest thing really."

It might not make Rose's scrapbook, but the biggest development this year for the repeat No. 1 firm was 15 percent internal growth in the fiscal year ending May 2011.

That improvement, in addition to "validating our culture and how we treat our people" and adding "enthusiasm and excitement to the organization," said Kaufman, also allowed the firm to reverse the salary freeze for its 284 employees and plans to restore their 401(k) match this Dec. 31.

These developments are individually communicated in biannual reviews with employees, when Kaufman says the 36 partners and management stick to their mantra of "actually doing what you say you're going to do."

The firm's emphasis on physical fitness, which includes an on-site gym, sauna and massage room; yoga classes; and an annual tax-season weight-loss competition, recently gained a competitive edge when the firm beat 14 other South Florida CPA firms to win the softball league finals.

Thirty percent of the staff participate in these health initiatives, which Kaufman said, "are such a tradition here and really part of people. The absence of it would cost us employee satisfaction and productivity."

IN OMAHA, AN OPEN DOOR POLICY

Omaha, Neb.-based Lutz & Co. was this year's only newcomer to the Best Accounting Firms to Work For top three, emerging first in the midsized category.

The ascension might be partially due to an interior redesign.

Last year, "the biggest change we went through was from a much more closed-office to an open-office environment," shared managing partner Gary Witt.

The layout was decided upon during the firm's quarterly "Grub with Gary" sit-downs, during which design input from any of the 107 employees and 20 partners was heard and considered. The resulting décor change mirrors the firm's central philosophy of inclusiveness.

"We're open with everybody, know everybody and work together - it's all about team, and not about individuals," Witt said. "Partners are hands-on, working with staff all the time and there's a lot of exchange back and forth. People are very comfortable talking to partners; it's not like [partners] are up in their offices, too busy to come down."

The firm's geographical positioning also didn't hurt, as Lutz benefited from a Midwest economy less hard hit than other regions. Employee compensation, raises and benefit packages have not been affected by the downturn.

Firm communication, however, has changed.

Lutz recently "revised performance reviews, to step back and communicate with staff people and make sure we were focused on the right things appropriate to them," said Witt. "We made them much more honest and career-oriented. We are more frank about it."

The firm also offers a bonus program that allows employees who bring in new business to earn 10 percent of those client's billings during the client's time with the firm.

Because the firm has not had to lay off any staff, those that "weren't fully deployed all the time" were made available at no charge to Omaha's not-for-profit organizations through an internal program, which to date has tabulated more than 560 service hours to various nonprofits.

The staff also finds time for creativity, with employees continually imagining new, unique "reasons" for the firm's weekly jeans day, from local sports-related triumphs to historic dates.

Office attire gets even more casual during an "ugly sweater relay"- one of six to eight events that make up the biannual Lutz Olympics. Other past Olympic relays have included recycling and math problem-solving.

Lutz also hosts family events to celebrate the end of tax season as well as summer and various holidays throughout the year.

"Our profession is hard enough, especially with the depression," said Witt. "We do everything we can do to make work-life balance better and the people here engaged. We make the workplace as open and friendly as we can so people enjoy their job."

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