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Art of Accounting: Retreats for one- or two-owner practices

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I am a strong proponent of partner retreats and offsite meetings. Most large firms have them and I had retreats in my small firm since I became partners with Peter Weitsen in 1988. I also organized regular offsite partner meetings going back to the late 1970s in my previous practice. Further, I presented many practice management programs espousing retreats along with the benefits of them.

Earlier this year I was asked to submit a proposal to facilitate a retreat for a top 200 firm and decided to lay it out in a detailed manner so I could use it as an outline for a handbook or kit I would then write on running a retreat. I have also collected 1,000 pages of material that I would use and incorporate into that handbook.

Last week one of my partners referred a sole practitioner who asked about facilitating a retreat for about 10 solo owners. I called the accountant and we spoke for about 40 minutes about the feasibility of putting together that program. If we did, the likely time would be next summer. Right now I have no idea if we can get this done, but I dusted off my notes and have some comments I am sharing here.

  • I prefer an in-person program. I feel it makes it easier to interact and to form friendships during the meals and breaks. However, depending on circumstances next summer, it might be wiser to prepare for a virtual retreat. If we can do it live, then we will.
  • Each participant would need to provide their firm’s requested data that I usually get when I am engaged to facilitate or conduct a retreat. This is a lot of work. In many cases, I assemble it the way I want and in the order I want to discuss it. I have also used interns to assist me. For the group retreat, I will provide detailed lists of what needs to be prepared and sent to me.
  • The way I envision the program is that I would receive all of the data, eliminate any outliers and prepare a composite average, which would be provided to the attendees. Individual information would be kept confidential, but each owner would have theirs to refer to. I would also use the separate information in my discussion, but in a way that does not indicate whose it is. However, anyone can mention their information in the discussions, and they would probably get the most benefit from the meeting.
  • I would prepare an agenda for the retreat, which probably would be a day and a half of 75-minute sessions with 15-minute breaks, and 45 minutes for lunch. If we start at 8:00 and finish at 5:15, we will have six working sessions the first day and three the next day, ending at 12:15. I do not expect a speaker during the brief lunch timeout. This is a tentative time sequence.
  • Obviously a live program would be much better, but I think the virtual format would work quite well and would save the travel and hotel costs and time. Further, the virtual format could include firms from different parts of the country, which could add different perspectives.
  • I have found that virtual meetings begin more promptly and end on time, and I intend to rigidly keep the time schedule. This will permit the full time to be utilized as planned.
  • A week later we would have an exit conference from 8:00 to noon with a single 15-minute break.
  • I will prepare a meeting agenda for the exit conference.
  • At the exit conference each would agree on action items and a method of implementation. It is probable that the action items would be different for each owner. That’s OK and would be worked into the agenda. Even within a single firm, the action items are different for each partner. A 35-year-old partner would have different interests and plans than a 55- or 65-year-old partner. Two 40-year-old partners usually have different interests in how they envision their and the firm’s growth.
  • A major problem with retreats is the lack of implementation. What I now build into my proposals is retaining me to oversee the implementation for six months after the final retreat meeting. This is costly and likely costs me some engagements, but if they do not carry through with what has been agreed to, then the value is not really there. In those cases, I’d rather not be involved at all. At my stage, I am more concerned with creating value than making a living or establishing relationships where I could get additional work or merger and acquisition commissions.
  • With the virtual group retreat, the implementation would, by default, be done by the owners, which I am dubious about. So, if we decide to proceed with the group retreat, the owners have to resolve to follow through on what they agree to do. I know this is not easy, but if they won’t follow through, then they should skip it.
  • I think the optimum working group size would be 10 participants. However, for two owner firms, both can attend. I would not include firms with more than two owners. They are large enough for their own retreat, and their metrics and interests would not be consistent with a one- or two-owner firm.

The above is all preliminary and just my first thoughts. If you are interested, let me know and also please email me your comments. Further, I have some articles or parts of speech handouts on retreats I could send you. Email me at GoodiesFromEd@withum.com and just enter “Retreat” as the subject. If you include comments, then provide your direct phone number and, if necessary, I will call you to discuss.

Do not hesitate to contact me at emendlowitz@withum.com with your practice management questions or about engagements you might not be able to perform.

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 along with the Pay-Less-Tax Man blog for Bottom Line. Ed is an adjunct professor in the MBA program at Fairleigh Dickinson University teaching end user applications of financial statements. 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) 743-4582 or emendlowitz@withum.com.

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Partnerships Practice management Ed Mendlowitz Business development Small business
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