Art of Accounting: First-time partner, part 1

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When I started my practice it was an easy transition from a job, a large moonlighting load, some savings and little responsibility since I was not married and did not have the pressure of providing for a family. All I did was drop the job. I had more time and started calling on everyone I knew who I thought could either become a client or refer one to me.

I never had the problem or experience of waking up one morning on my first day after becoming a partner in a firm wondering what to do or what was different. However, I have spoken with many who have and have found that most did not know what to do. Their title changed, but there was no guidance about what they were expected to do.

The first time this really caught my attention was about 30 years ago, making me sensitive to this ever since. One of my friends became a partner in a Big Eight firm and about two months afterwards the partner in charge (PIC) of his office called him in and told him he had a $2 million benchmark. He asked what that meant and was told he was responsible for bringing in that much new business in the next year. He said he never sold and that he was an auditor. He added he had a big client load and didn’t know if that was possible. The PIC said that he had to meet his target and nothing else mattered. If he was concerned about his client load, then he needed to manage it better or have other people take over and assume the responsibility—but he had to meet his target! He said he did not know how to sell and was told to learn, but he had to meet the target!

He was shell shocked for a couple of weeks until he told me about the “impossibility” of what he had to do. We spoke about his workload, clients and what role he played with them. Somehow we focused on special projects he could do for some of his clients. Well, he was now a partner in a Big Eight firm, with two of his clients in the top 100 of the Fortune 500 list. We came up with four services he could perform for each of them. The first client he spoke to engaged him for one of the projects, which ended up being $2 million in billings. He got additional services from almost all of his other clients, greatly exceeding his budget, and grew to become a star partner. Never again did he review an audit report. He also never learned to sell—all he did was point out latent needs of his clients, and they asked him to fill them.

The lessons I learned here were that partners (or anyone) will rise to the task when faced with no alternative; that most clients need additional services and it is necessary for us to uncover that need and we can if we focus on it; that uncovering needs is “selling”; that becoming a partner involves continued and continual growth and doesn’t mark the pinnacle of a career, but another starting point; and that growth means venturing elsewhere on ground not yet walked.

This is the start of a series of columns on becoming a new partner that will be posted periodically, but never more than twice a month. I anticipate five or six such columns. Hopefully I will get comments and calls that I can respond to with these columns. I also believe many of my remarks would benefit experienced practitioners as well and welcome comments from them too.

Edward Mendlowitz, CPA, is partner at WithumSmith+Brown, PC, CPAs. He is on the Accounting Today Top 100 Influential People List. He is the author of 24 books, including “How to Review Tax Returns,” co-written with Andrew D. Mendlowitz, and “Managing Your Tax Season, Third Edition.” Ed also writes a twice-a-week blog addressing issues that clients have at www.partners-network.com. Art of Accounting is a continuing series where Ed shares autobiographical experiences with tips that he hopes can be adopted by his colleagues. Ed welcomes practice management questions and can be reached at (732) 964-9329 or emendlowitz@withum.com.

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