CPA firm owners, craft your sales pitch now for smooth succession
A significant number of owners of CPA firms would prefer to transfer ownership internally rather than externally. They go to great lengths to train staff to be outstanding professionals and figure that the client service experience is all the motivation needed to be a partner or owner. However, selling or transferring an interest in a CPA firm requires salesmanship and a strong pitch is no different than selling any other asset.
A strong sales pitch to an internal candidate should never be canned and needs to be tailored to the audience. You will need to be prepared to present your pitch in stages and reinforce the proposal along the way. To start crafting or to update your sales pitch, here are six key elements to maximize the interest in ownership in your firm by an internal person:
1. Focus on appreciation of income and assets. Have candid and transparent discussions with potential owners to demonstrate how well the firm’s value has increased over time. The business is an asset that appreciates and will continue to do so in the future. In fact, over the past three years, most CPA firms across the U.S. grew in value. Share industry data, such as the annual Management of an Accounting Practice (MAP) benchmarking survey, to back up your story. Similarly, show internal candidates how much a typical partner’s income at your firm appreciates over time. You won’t reveal each partner’s income, but instead an average income change over time using real data.
2. Talk honestly about liabilities. Of course, if income or assets at your firm have not been so great, you want to discuss that too. You can’t make a pitch that everything is turning to gold when it isn’t. Set honest and realistic expectations with potential buyers. Don’t ignore the negatives but don’t stress out over them either. A candid conversation is the right way to frame the candidate’s active engagement in wanting to make things better so it is better for them as an owner.
3. Highlight influence, access and impact. You have been able to do more for your clients as a partner or owner than you ever could as a staff accountant. You have broader access to knowledge and contacts. You regularly meet with CEOs, bank presidents and other influential contacts who are important for building careers and lives. Share those stories with the successors you’re grooming and articulate the impact made.
All employees, especially younger ones, want to know that what they are doing for clients is making an impact. In the 2016 Deloitte Millennial Survey, 60 percent of senior millennials (department heads of above) and 45 percent of junior millennials responded that the impact they make on clients/customers is “very influential” in framing their decisions about work and loyalty. In your pitch, don’t overlook the fact that partners and owners define both the impact they want to make and lead that process for the firm. You’re in a better spot to make a difference, and that’s incredibly attractive to successors.
4. Emphasize lifestyle and freedom. Discuss how a successor will have more control over their own lifestyle as a partner or managing partner. Sure, owners often have to dig in—hard—to make sure the firm is performing to its vision. But there are perks like decision making, control and scheduling freedom that are incredibly valuable and shouldn’t be discounted as part of this buy-in pitch. Authority to set boundaries with clients regarding limits to an engagement, and the best ways and times for contact, are important benefits to ownership.
5. Be well prepared. Take a strategic look at how you frame the pitch, and then use role play techniques to hone it. Turn to a trusted advisor—be it a noncompetitive business owner, longtime professional colleague or a third-party consultant. As with any new sales prospect, this pitch to a successor will not be a once-and-done deal. Think of this process as a sequence—something you’ll need to focus on periodically over time.
6. Demonstrate confidence. Being an owner when you have not been one before or owning more in the firm can provoke anxiety. Articulate and define where your own confidence comes from, and where your confidence in the candidate comes from. Present a budget to help the successor or successors become better leaders and communicators, and the curriculum you feel would work. Listen closely to feedback and work together on resolution with an agreed upon timetable.
Your successor, much like any other consumer, needs to know the risks and rewards, and what’s in it for them. As an owner, you may not be ready to leave today, but it’s incredibly important to think through and act on these steps to properly craft and position a sales pitch to your internal successor. Put plans in place now to ensure the firm stays on track for future viability, stability and success.