Why accounting firms need to broaden their focus
“Broaden your horizons!” The smiling face of the late Richard Glickman crossed my mind as I stepped off the plane at Cape Town International Airport in South Africa.
Twenty years earlier, Glickman had welcomed me in Toronto with that inspiring challenge at the inaugural meeting of what was to become Integra International (Integra), a worldwide association of accounting firms.
My business partner of many years, Steve Williams, and I had just arrived in Cape Town for Integra’s 18th annual world conference, held in October 2016. This journey exemplified just how far our horizons had been expanded over the past two decades both professionally and personally.
Our firm, HMWC CPAs & Business Advisors, a local accounting firm in the Orange County city of Tustin, Calif., was launched from entrepreneurial beginnings. The founder, a native of New York, headed west to California, where he originated the firm in the 1960s, rapidly developing a reputation and expertise for the healthcare and real estate fields. Other firm members and I followed over the years, also from the east, as if in a 20th century response to 19th century newspaperman Horace Greeley’s famous enticement to early settlers: “Go west young man.”
Near the end of the 20th century, the firm had been focused primarily on clientele in Southern California. But with increasing frequency, those clients were talking of expanding their businesses across the country and beyond. We knew that, to continue serving them effectively, we would need to “broaden our horizons” far beyond our local neighborhood.
When the call came that Glickman was forming a new organization to tackle that precise concern, we readily signed on as founding members. Over the years that followed, as Integra grew from 13 initial members in North America to over 100 firms around the world, Steve and I had both served on the Executive Committee, as well as in the office of president for the Americas, Asia, Australia and New Zealand division of the group. Steve now serves on the Global Board.
Participation in Integra proved fruitful for our growing California clientele, as well as for clients of Integra member firms from other parts of the world, seeking to establish operations in our home territory. Through the process we developed first-name relationships, as well as life-long friendships, with professionals like ourselves all over the world.
Before Integra, I never fathomed finding the opportunity to gain such warm, personal connections on this widespread a basis. As I reflect back, my most profound discovery was that my new friends and colleagues and I were much more alike as human beings than we were different. We shared similar hopes and dreams for our clients, as well as for the wider world around us.
As the world conference commenced, the wide range of benefits that could be derived from participating in an international association became apparent. For the firm as a whole, as well as for Steve and I as individuals, occasions for growth and service presented themselves in a variety of ways.
An initial example came at the opening reception, held in the lush gardens of Cape Town’s Mount Nelson Hotel. There, and later at dinner down by the waterfront, I was joined by Patti Shnell, daughter of an attorney friend and referral source from California. Newly equipped with a law degree, Patti had just embarked on a year-long assignment, employing her legal skills with a firm in Cape Town, assisting refugees fleeing from countries further north in Africa. Patti shared with me and my Integra colleagues the pressing needs of the refugee community. Not as well publicized as crises in the Middle East, war and oppression in unstable African regimes have driven distressed victims to the more settled surroundings of South Africa.
Patti was clearly energized by the work, pleased that she already had eight cases. She was already hoping her stay might be extended beyond the year, so that she could accomplish even more. Judging by the interactions at the reception with those from such diverse locales as New Zealand, Israel and Washington, D.C., the refugee cause articulated by Patti was one that resonated with Integra members far and wide.
The start of formal sessions the next morning reaffirmed the decision to hold this year’s world conference in Africa. New member firms from Nairobi, Kenya and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, were welcomed as they described their firms and countries to the gathering. They were joining the 11 other firms that formed the Integra membership on the African continent. This nucleus of firms represented Integra’s growing presence in the few short years since a formal plan was initiated to serve this exciting, emerging marketplace. There are 54 countries in Africa. Integra has made a good start with almost 25 percent of those countries already in the fold.
After a session where the overall history of South Africa was summarized for the participants, the group was captivated by the keynote speaker, Zelda la Grange. Born and raised as a child of apartheid, la Grange was met and easily won over by the gracious, accepting nature of Nelson Mandela, who hired her as his personal aide. Serving him for almost 20 years, she was at his right hand, a most trusted confidant.
La Grange shared the humanity of Mandela, a man who talked of respecting people as human beings. He conveyed to her that how you approach a person will determine how a person will treat you. La Grange illustrated this insight by describing their first meeting, when Mandela took her hand and immediately disarmed her by speaking to her in her own Afrikaans language. She shared a favorite quote of his: “If you speak to a man you speak to his head, but if you speak his language you speak to his heart.” He certainly spoke to her heart, just as she spoke to ours that morning.
The next session continued an anticipated tradition that highlighted another benefit of the synergistic connections between Integra member firms. Robert Coe, from London Integra firm Wilder Coe, displayed the colorful Cape Town-themed Integra t-shirt. Attendees who shared with the group examples of work they either received or referred to other Integra firms were given one of the prized t-shirts. To further the fun, t-shirt recipients had a goal by the end of the conference to obtain signatures on their t-shirt from all the Integra members attending the conference. No matter how many t-shirts were ordered for each conference, they were gone by the time all the referrals had been shared.
Other session topics included the economy, Brexit, the new lease accounting standard, succession planning, cross border taxation, online marketing and accounting software. Participants also enjoyed opportunities for interacting during breaks, at formal dinners as well as at events with traditional African cuisine and entertainment, and a tour of scenic Table Mountain, high above the city.
The Integra International Cape Town member, C2M Chartered Accountants Inc., in addition to hosting a splendid conference, also presented the informative sessions on African history and creative online marketing concepts. Their commitment to community causes that create a tangible, positive impact on the lives of others was evident as well. The firm is a longtime sponsor of the Masibambane Sport Foundation, an organization with the vision to utilize sport as a means to develop and uplift the youth of local communities. The firm’s involvement is based on the belief that “… a passion for sport can unite the youth … It creates a platform that helps them to grow and develop despite social and economic disparities… ”
After the conference and a few days absorbing South African wildlife and culture, Steve and I headed home, filled with fresh ideas and directions for the firm, going into the future. I would begin a new journey, seeking out and encouraging prospective member firms to join Integra, to broaden their horizons. Steve, as HMWC managing partner, would be pursuing ways to incorporate new innovations gleaned from the Cape Town conference.
Even so, along with other partners, we would still find time to take part in one of the local causes our firm supported. Rolling up our sleeves, we helped provide shelter, meals and support for homeless families through our tax client, Family Promise of Orange County, while the firm’s Community Outreach Committee sought additional opportunities for staff to give of themselves in various capacities.
Though my firm’s initial goal in joining Integra International was to strengthen our ability to serve clients in the rapidly expanding global arena, an unforeseen benefit has been the opportunity to share with fellow members the mutually fulfilling commitment to serve a multitude of the challenging adversities prevalent in our world today. In so doing, the value we add to our client’s success proves even richer and more rewarding.