Friday, May 14, 2010

Howard’s Inner Circle, No. 13: Two Diverging CPA Firm Business Models

Being a detached, independently paid and unpaid observer of CPA firms for over two decades allows me to freely comment.

The early successful business model was a firm with a number of rainmakers, often as little as two or three. They were great at business development especially via one-to-one contacts, and also adept at maintaining and working a tight referral network where referrals were expected to go both ways.

Over time, this well-established model has morphed itself into two new distinct business models. One is where those rainmakers have become the executive committee of a CPA firm that runs in a corporate style. Where previously, firm policies and strategies were hashed out in open discussion at partner meetings, decisions are now made at closed executive committee meetings. And no matter how it is sugar-coated, it is understood who are the powers-that-be, and how getting into the inner sanctum, the management committee, is only done by invitation or by a successful power play.

Contrast that with the second business model that also developed from the earlier rainmaker model. These are firms that strive to operate as a team with management building consensus and having a real understanding of the importance of the various individual’s contributions in the firm’s successes.

If I were to predict which of these two models will prove better, I would select the later. This modified team approach:
• Grooms successors;
• Encourages collaboration;
• Has greater multi-disciplinary capacities;
• Rewards innovation
• Promotes a firm-wide project management instead of a capture-what-you- kill mentality;
• Is more susceptible at building real working alliances;
• Taps well into intergenerational resources;
• Promotes widespread mentoring in both directions;
• Supports technology at all levels; and
• Is structured for everyone to be focused on their roles in business development.

In both models relationships remain the key, and referrals are still the main source of new business. The real difference is the lack of community in the corporate model. Although lip service might be given; it exists only in name and spin. The second model, the modified team approach, with a real manager rather than a CEO, truly promotes community. This approach will turn out better in the long run as all indications are technology, globalization, outsourcing and many other factors are permanently changing the rules of the game. Businesses and professional firms will be seeking to become members of various communities and will do so only by building trust and cultivating loyalty as the basis for relationships. Only one of these diverging CPA firm business models lives that.
© 2010
The above is from the newsletter, Howard’s Inner Circle, which periodically appears on the blog, “Instigator” at It may be reproduced in full if that fact is stated and Howard Wolosky is credited as the author.

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