Tracy Crevar Warren has built a successful consulting business as president and CEO of the Crevar Group, which provides growth consulting, training and coaching for accounting and other professional services firms.

For over a decade, she served as chief marketing and business development officer for Dixon Hughes and helped the firm grow from less than $10 million to over $120 million in revenue. Warren has served as president of the international Association for Accounting Marketing (AAM), and was named by Accounting Today as one of the 100 Most Influential People in the accounting industry. She is an author and frequent speaker on various growth, business development and marketing topics for local, regional, national and international audiences. She talked to WebCPA about trends in the profession.

Q: What's your perception of the market for firms these days?

A: There's been lots of speculation about the market tightening. We've been saying that this feeding frenzy we've been on ever since Sarbanes-Oxley hit eventually was going to come to an end and things were going to start tightening. I'm really starting to see signs of that in talking to people. A lot of folks have been so used to having more work than they can handle, and all of a sudden we've got this generation of managers who haven't had to sell before. They haven't had to go out there and work on developing business for themselves, positioning themselves as problem solvers, and they don't necessarily have all the skills that they need to have. People are saying, "Come in and help us work on that with our folks to do what we need to do to rebalance the business."

Q: What prompted you to create a structured program for these firms?

A: About a year ago, I had gone to speak to a group and the person introducing me asked, "How did you go from being a marketing and sales director to a consultant focused on practice growth?" I started thinking about that question and realized a gap existed in the profession.  When you look at marketing and business development, ultimately it's to position a firm for growth.  Unfortunately many firms fail to properly align marketing, sales and practice growth - and lackluster performance often results.  When I got back, I started looking for a comprehensive picture of practice growth. What are all the components of it? And I only found bits and pieces. People had defined different things, like this is what this sales process might look like or this is what profitability might look like, but I didn't see a big picture. With a new environment looming, this need seemed greater than ever.  So I started mapping it out. Can you imagine doing an audit or a tax return without having a game plan or standards or processes? The mapping process is important because it creates pictures that provide understanding and simplification. This is essential as firms are faced with the challenge of having to do more with less staff. In addition, it provides best practices to an entirely new generation of leaders as an influx of key firm founders look to retire over the next decade.

Q: What are the key components of the growth picture?  

A: Practice growth in the past has been primarily bottom line focused. But the new picture of practice growth includes three key components.  I call them the 3 Gs of Practice Growth - growth of its people, growth of its clients, and growth of the organization itself.  Once a solid direction based on the 3Gs is firmly in place, the mapping process can continue. Practice growth can be accomplished through a combination of three strategies: organic, merger and acquisition and/or a bundling of the two. Organic growth comprises of the most diverse and expansive component of the picture - organizational excellence; development of leadership and people; customer service; client development, niche development and globalization.  Although each firm's model will be roughly based on these key elements, they will differ reflecting unique strengths, interests and market conditions.   

Q: You mentioned globalization. Are many of your clients starting to work with multinational companies?

A: Our world is getting smaller. Maybe it's a manufacturing operation and they're saying, "We're going offshore to start a plant in maybe China or India to do something there." For a smaller firm, it may be connecting with their international association and having opportunities to refer business back and forth across the globe. Other firms are looking at opening offices in those places too. I think it really depends on how the firm is structured and what their goals are.

Q: How do you go about achieving growth?

A: If we are really going to tackle growth in a new environment, we've got to start getting strategic about it.  This new mapping process will provide firms with a roadmap.  I think the next step is to go through due diligence and say, "What are you doing well already? What do you partially have in place? And what are the other areas where you really need to spend some time working?" I call it "clearing the clutter." If you can break it down into those three simple components, it becomes very clear as to what you really need to do and what your team really needs to be doing. And then you're communicating a very clear message to everyone in your organization. Whether it's a partner having meetings with the staff, or whether it's a meeting with the executive committee, everybody has a very clear picture of where the organization is going.

Q: If firms want to focus on development, what's the next step?

A: If firms expect their staff to help grow the organization, it is important to show them the way. Although professionals may want to be involved in practice growth activities, they simply may not have the necessary skills. I find that practice growth core competencies are among the most valuable skills for tomorrow's leaders. There are a number of options for in-house classes and outside training programs to provide these essential skills. Not only will this extra effort enable firms to grow but it will help in attracting and retaining new talent in the future.

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