Accounting firm alliances are often lauded for their sharing of best practices, referral networks and technology services, but it's their portal into international markets that has become increasingly attractive.

Even within the vast global network of the world's largest international accounting firm alliances, personal connection is emphasized.

The Leading Edge Alliance, an international association with 180 accounting, financial and business advisory firms in 100 countries, offers this in the form of conferences, according to president Karen Kehl-Rose. The association's 300 special interest groups often fill up to 15 concurrent sessions during their global conferences, in addition to hosting focused year-round meetings.

"When you make a referral and go down the list to see someone's name and the city they're in, but don't know them -- it makes a difference face to face; bonds become stronger and stronger," she explained. "It isn't the same as a meeting and getting a feel for someone; I've seen that develop more and more."

Kehl-Rose witnessed this advantage when the potential client of a Top 100 Firm was seeking advice on opening a location in Italy, so the firm's managing partner brought the partner of an Italian member firm onto the call. "He was able to say, 'I know [the Italian partner], I met his family, and last year we went to Turkey,'" she said. "The earth is no longer round -- everyone reaches out and touches everyone."

 

OPPORTUNITIES ABROAD

Secondment programs are now offered by more and more international alliances as an opportunity for employees to temporarily work in the offices of another member firm abroad, learning both new markets and business practices.

Ottawa-based accounting firm Welch LLP recently sent a staff auditor to Australia via its membership in 145 firm-strong global accounting and business advisory association BKR International.

The difference in Canada and Australia's busy seasons made for a smooth four months of relocation, according to Welch managing partner Michael Burch, who deemed the firm's first experience with secondment successful enough to repeat in one of the association's more than 70 other countries.

"It was personally advantageous ... . He got to see the difference in how they run their practice and work on some jobs he had never seen here," said Burch. "And after he got back, two or three clients of ours with Australian clients needed help, and he was able to work on those assignments and provide that link."

The program also functions as a staffing tool, Burch added, especially for that auditor's fellow 20-something demographic.

"From a recruiting perspective, a lot of young kids that are at the top of their class want to experience everything," he continued. "This could entice them to join us."

Terry Snyder, president and chief executive officer of PKF North America, an affiliate of PKF International, agreed, calling it a "tremendous recruiting mechanism," not only for firms, but for associations as well.

As the Baby Boomers reach retirement, firm alliances look to retain strong membership numbers while drawing on the expertise of younger generations, which the Leading Edge Alliance hopes to accomplish through its "very active" young professionals network, according to Kehl-Rose.

Led by a steering group of nine members, the group sends out an annual member-wide satisfaction survey to capture what young professionals are looking for or missing in their firms. They also recently established a worldwide volunteer day.

 

NEW FRONTIERS

Secondment programs also serve well in an emergency, according to Snyder, who recalls one busy season when a tax partner in Hawaii became ill and a "high-level tax person" from a member firm was sent over to help out.

"Being able to move people for support seems to be natural, but it's sometimes more difficult than you think," Snyder acknowledged, citing some of the difficulties in securing visas for Americans working abroad. On the flip side, U.S. firms have found value bringing talent into the country, he continued, such as Top 100 Firm EisnerAmper in New York, which took advantage of Australia's tax season to bolster its work with hedge funds in its first quarter.

Job Dieleman, PKF North America's vice president of international business, helps facilitate these and other connections between the 100 PKF North America firms and the alliance's 144 other international firms in 125 total countries. Since his role as a PKF regional director was originated almost six years ago, Dieleman has noticed an increased focus overseas.

"It's all about business development today," he said. "Six years ago, the U.S. was growing so fast, there was a shortage of people to do work [abroad]. Today's climate is different; it's all business development, and international business is an important component of that. Many other parts of the world are growing fast, and big, midsized and smaller companies are looking for growth outside of North America, which is really driving a lot of the demands on the global network. International referrals have gone up tremendously in the last five years."

They have also crossed previously less-explored borders, with Dieleman recently coordinating connections for PKF North America member firms in countries like Jordan and Haiti.

Meanwhile, association DFK International's affiliate firms help New York Top 100 Firm Friedman LLP conduct business in Bejing and China, according to audit partner and former DFK president Bruce A. Madnick.

DFK's 380 international firms meet annually, and more frequently by region, with managing partner meetings among the association's 25 U.S. firms serving as a "cornerstone," Madnick said.

"We share technical financial information about the firms," he added. "We each act as the other firms' board of directors to critique and improve their operations and offer suggestions on improvement."

 

ONLINE EXPERTISE

While this high-touch exchange is valuable, technology allows for more real-time feedback.

"The greatest benefit is that with any type of client involved, [the firm] can ask a global question and within a 24-hour period get an answer, from any place in the world," Madnick said. This assistance also extends across client categories.

When a member firm "gets in an industry they are not totally comfortable with, and they need help, they can reach out to an affiliate for help putting a proposal together, and they have technical information to draw on," Madnick continued. "A lot of firms do a lot of writing for each other, and our library of resources is always highlighted in conferences. There are always hot topics to discuss."

The Leading Edge Alliance launched a new Web site in January that better organizes these insights. "Each expert has an electronic file drawer," explained Kehl-Rose. "You can look under health care for hospitals and find an expert or pick a person by expertise listed and it will include their biography, thought leadership pieces, firm marketing materials, and other related information. That way, when you're looking for a partner on a proposal or help with a certain project, you can look through file drawers for the best match, or just e-mail the whole group."

These tools, nonetheless, serve as a conduit to more in-depth contact and valuable face time.

"The cross-pollination around the world is really great," Kehl-Rose added. "And the meeting numbers are up."

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