Art of Accounting: I specialized in a non-specialty
I am frequently asked why I never specialized in something. Actually I did specialize — I was an “expert generalist.”
I checked back on my columns here and have written about this a number of times. However, since my expositions about my specialty were in the context of other discussions, I decided to use this column to bring the pieces together to explain my “specialty.”
As a generalist, I was a client-service specialist. I was the guy that looked at the whole client and tied in every facet of his or her life in my suggestions and recommendations. I have spent my career doing this. I felt I was pretty much better in almost every area than anyone else, except someone who was a dedicated expert in a particular area of interest. Throughout my career this has stood me in good stead, since I had (and still have) partners who specialized in the technical areas clients needed coverage in.
At one point in my career I was the tax partner and another point I was the audit expert. I even had the credentials to prove it. I was a team captain performing peer reviews. I am admitted to practice before U.S. Tax Court and have argued cases there. I am one of a small group that has all five AICPA professional designations: PFS, ABV, CFF, CITP and CGMA. I worked hard at maintaining my skills and was able to recognize when I needed to bring in an expert — it wasn’t that often, but often enough to make me feel I wasn’t shortchanging my clients by trying to do everything myself.
My value as an expert generalist was a big asset to my clients where I could recognize varied situations and was able to integrate the many facets of services they required while also considering their long-term plans, personality and family dynamics. I also became a trusted sounding board and what I truly valued — the first person the client called when a new opportunity or problem situation arose.
Until I merged with Withum over 13 years ago, I had my own practice with one or two partners. One such practice grew to 50 people without any mergers or acquisitions, so we did pretty well there. Besides my technical specialties, I was the analyst, the overseer, the client contact person, the troubleshooter and the sizer-upper. Clients called me when they needed a calm head and wanted to hear a composed voice able to think objectively, creatively and prospectively. My training placed me in that position. In my own practice this was a valuable trait, and it created strong client loyalty and bonding and great growth for our business.
Today, as part of a large firm with experts in almost every discipline and industry, my value is to recognize when someone needs to be consulted with and to introduce the client to them. This has happened myriad times and clients get the best of both worlds — a trusted advisor they can rely on and a technical expert for what needs to be done. This works great.
I think this type of relationship also exists at many small firms where the partners have relationships with larger firms that can provide the needed expertise for their clients. The Withum Partners’ Network actually facilitates this by providing CPE that introduces smaller practitioners to experts at our firm and makes available phone-calling privileges for quick answers to many questions. I personally get over 30 calls a month from colleagues.
With the complexity that exists in today’s worlds of business, accounting, taxation and technology, I am not sure my career would follow the same path if I was just starting out. I do know that I had no plan to become an expert generalist — it just happened. It happened one assignment at a time that I took on where I had no experience at all. I was a businessman and needed to make a living. I knew that the more work I did, the more I made.
I also crave learning new things and have an eagerness to do so, so I went head first into every new project. I also never minded working hard and long hours. In doing so, I was learning new things, so that propelled me to work harder. Where it was necessary I ran things by more experienced colleagues and never was denied their assistance and oversight. My payback to them is my doing that for as many colleagues as I can. Therefore I welcome calls with questions, especially on practice management issues. So do not hesitate to reach out to me — I will appreciate it!