When firms, like individuals, reach milestones in their lives, itâ€™s a typical time for reflection. As the venerable Metro Washington, D.C., firm Aronson marks its 50th year in business, ruminations on the firmâ€™s success inevitably turn to the contributions of Lisa Cines.
A 29-year veteran of the firm, Lisa served as managing officer from 2001 through 2010. During her tenure, Aronson doubled revenues to its present $50 million. Since 2010, Lisa has contributed in her role overseeing the firm's future growth through organic and merger opportunities. I've met few firm leaders who have such a deep understanding of firmwide growth.
As top officer, she helped leverage a penchant for specialization that started with the firm's entry into government contracting in the 1980s. Today, the niche represents 50 percent of traffic and has evolved into comprehensive service and consulting offerings.
The firm has also pulled ahead of the pack, anticipating emerging needs and meeting them with innovative strategies. Under Lisa's leadership, Aronson worked to establish its partners not only as competent technicians, but also as thought leaders in niche areas. These include government contracting, nonprofit organizations, real estate, construction and technology.
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Aronson has demonstrated a consistent capacity to embrace new approaches, including early adoption of niches. Proximity to federal government clients led to a specialty in government contractors. At a time when few firms specialized, Aronson determined that serving government contractors would not remain an audit sideline, but would become a firm niche.
To that end, the firm took a hard look at the contractor market and was not content to deliver the need of the day. Instead, Aronson listened harder and anticipated more creatively than the competition. I refer to this as looking at the market from the outside in, with an eye to the client's needs, not your firm's current capabilities. It also involved services to clients developed from individual one-off projects into packaged solutions leveraged across the client base.
The focus on specialization extends to how the firm grows its talent. Aronson established a rotation process that gives new hires exposure throughout its areas of specialization before they identify a preferred niche. By the end of their second year, new members are expected to be ready to select a "major."
This distinguishes the firm from many, including the Big Four model in which new hires are traditionally assigned to a department and expected to remain there. Even business developers, which Aronson used before it was common practice, are aligned with specific industries and service lines.
Aronson has been an early adopter in technology and innovation, too, especially around communication. For example, a firm newsletter was established before these were commonplace. Currently, Aronson is an early user of social media, with webinars, blogging, a LinkedIn account and e-blasts to provide two-way communication with clients and friends of the firm. A client who calls for information is not just sent a brochure, but may be directed to a specific blog post or webinar.
Communication is consistent and delivers solid content and the peace of mind that comes from association with a reliable source. Consulting and other services are developed with an eye to meeting client needs.
The focus on niches and customized communications led to the development of market segments and thought leadership. While most firms were busy sponsoring golf tournaments and placing ads in professional publications, Aronson was earning name recognition by publishing and consulting. The firm's Web site reflects that persistence. Most firm sites are filled with chest-thumping and self-congratulation. The Aronson home page communicates the firm's interest in delivering needs-based solutions through relevant news, articles, blogs and links.
Another component in the Aronson success formula is the firm's approach to regulation. Many firms grudgingly acknowledge changes in the Tax Code and other regs, seeing them primarily as an impetus for pursuing CPE.
At Aronson, however, new standards drive innovation and thought leadership. A new regulation is considered a platform for a new consulting or service offering. For example, the new lease standards are being closely watched, as not only will they have an impact on financial statements, but will impact how costs are recovered by government contractors. Regulatory news also becomes a subject of observation and commentary by Aronson experts. In this way the firm adds value and builds client loyalty.
In conversations with Lisa Cines, I was impressed by what I learned about the firm's focus on innovation, keeping offerings fresh, and establishing niches with creative service offerings and thought leadership.
And although she steers the discussion away from her own role, the impact of Lisa's contributions on Aronson's success is clear. But where I see an impressive firm, Lisa sees a firm with a long way to go before it reaches its full potential. This is the Aronson way - a mindset of continual improvement.
In fact, both visions apply. At 50, Aronson is well established and respected for its accomplishments, yet its leaders remain eager to embrace new opportunities and pathways to growth.
Gale Crosley, CPA, is founder and principal of Crosley+Co. (www.crosleycompany.com), providing revenue growth consulting and coaching to CPA firms. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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