Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Howard’s Inner Circle, No. 25: 1+ 1 = …

I noticed a significant, surprising, and welcome change at the recent New York State Society of CPAs’ 2010 Practice Managing Conference. All four accounting firm managing partners freely shared on a panel and in roundtables at lunch their views on firm mergers and acquisitions. It wasn’t a discussion in the clouds as they didn’t play it close to the vest as many managing partners normally do. They openly shared providing extensive details on all aspects of the merger process including their individual firm’s merger philosophy, retirement funding, capital requirements, payouts, and method of integration.

Here is my take on their cumulative M&A wisdom:
1. A Real Due Diligence--Determining compatibility of cultures requires “dating.” It goes beyond financials, getting firm information, and meetings with the managing and other partners. It can involve walking around a firm unaccompanied and going with a prospecting partner to present a proposal to a possible client.
2. Use of Guarantees--To get needed buy-in and alleviate anxiety, incoming partners can be guaranteed in the first two years that they will earn at least what they previously earned. Some firms have a no-harm, no-foul one-year period that allows for a quiet unraveling of the merger or the departing of an unhappy incoming partner. This option is rarely exercised and included to provide comfort that the merger isn’t cast in stone.
3. Maintain a “No-Jerk” Zone--Closely evaluate incoming partners so a problem partner isn’t brought aboard. Interestingly, the other incoming partners are usually happy that individual is gone.
4. Pay Attention to Integration--Transition should begin quickly and be comprehensive. Benefits, culture, career development, and opportunities should be detailed. Training is instituted right away as well as meetings are conducted to provide quick and effective integration of practice areas and niches.
5. Belief in Increased Value--There is a significant distinction between an actual merger and an acquisition. Just calling something a merger doesn’t make it so. A real merger is based upon a substantial potential for increased value. 1 plus 1 equals at least 3. For example, it might be that growth is identified by the offering of more services to key clients of the firms. This is in contrast to an acquisition which is simply a retirement payout to retiring partners. The ultimate actual payouts with regard to mergers and acquisitions significantly reflect the differences.
6. Individualized Guidance--Professional coaching should be given to each partner so they fully understand and acclimate to the new firm.
7. Understanding Why--The reason for a firm merging in often involves succession issues such as retirement funding or an inability to grow. In contrast, the more dominant firm might need a niche, more staff, or expansion into a new geographic market. Both should understand why the merger is being sought by the other. A merger should always be part of a comprehensive strategic plan.
8. Better Usage of Staff--A merger allows a firm to reassign staff and place them in more suitable positions. Larger firms permit greater specialization whether it is a particular practice area like taxes or a niche like litigation support.
9. Greatest Difficulty--There are always problems incurred with a merger or acquisition. Even if everything is done right expect some. The most common one involves software, such as when the two firms were using different tax software. It can take a full one-year cycle to rectify.
10. Be Realistic--In a merger there is usually one dominant firm and that firm’s culture and processes and procedure will, with minor exceptions, normally control. It is rare to see a real merger of equals. The reason is for that to be successful there needs to be the creation of an entirely new culture with attendant new processes and procedures.

I walked away from the conference with the distinct impression that each of these managing partners represents a new type of firm leader. One who really understands that win-win is an integral part of their successful firm business model.
© 2010
The above may be reproduced in full if that fact is stated and Howard Wolosky at http://howardwolosky.blogspot.com is credited as the author.

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