I had been running my own CPA firm for three years and was experiencing levels of stress I had never before imagined. Prior to this, I had been working as a CFO in the corporate world but was tired of working for others; I wanted to run my own business. In 2005, I bought an existing CPA practice and for the first time in my life, I was in business for myself. At first, I was elated that I had made this dream come true. That feeling quickly dissipated when the reality of running a practice hit me squarely in the face.
The biggest problem was in the personnel area. I had a divisive employee who had been there before I bought the firm. She was rude to clients and demeaning to the staff. If you asked her to do something, it was a fight—everything was a fight. She was costing me clients which I didn’t know at the time. They were leaving and I had no idea why.
During tax seasons, I worked seven days a week and missed my wife and three sons. Although I was in the office all the time, the staff weren’t. For them, it was business as usual, regardless of the time of year. I didn’t know how to motivate them or get them to operate as one unified team.
The economic downturn struck. My firm had been heavily focused on restaurants and small businesses. The ones on the edge were going out of business, being bought or simply closing their doors. I was trying to get ahead of that curve. Revenues were up slightly but I could see the handwriting on the wall—if I didn’t make a change things would get worse, probably much worse.
The continuous stress was oppressive and was the overriding effect of what was going on in the practice. It was taking its toll on me, my family and my life. Since the staff took their cue from me, it was affecting them as well. I didn’t know what to do or where to turn, I just kept plowing through my work.
I had received a letter from Sterling inviting me to watch their free practice management DVD. I requested a copy and my wife and I watched it together. The DVD touched on everything that was causing me stress in my practice. A Sterling consultant also performed a complimentary analysis of my practice. I liked the idea of regaining control of the office, the staff, and my life. I decided to do the management boot camp at Sterling; an executive training and custom consulting program that would show me how to run a business.
On the courses, I discovered the management tools I needed and how to apply them in the real world. I also worked with my consultant. She and I devised a custom plan to resolve the issues in my practice. Since it was November when I returned home, we first focused on straightening out the communication channels within the office and the staff. This immediately started to smooth out the practice.
After tax season, Sterling helped me cement my thoughts concerning my rude employee; I let her go. Once she was gone, clients came forward with their complaints. I realized how much business this one employee had been costing me, not to mention the staff problems she had created. Her dismissal dramatically improved the atmosphere in the office.
With my consultant’s help, we began to implement the rest of the Sterling program step by step. The program brought us back to basics. We organized the functions in the practice and wrote descriptions for each position. We then moved around some of the staff so their jobs best matched their skill sets. From there, each person was trained on how to do their job.
I asked Sterling to come out, train the staff on the Sterling program and help on some of the implementations. I was trying to implement everything on my own and needed someone to come in and reinforce everything. The consultant was tremendous to work with. She got along very well with the staff; they looked up to her and trusted her which enabled them to speak freely of any concerns. We implemented a system for tracking production and a bonus system. We showed the staff how their productivity directly affected their livelihood. The bonus system motivated them to work hard and bring in more business. The consultant also helped with receivables, showing the staff how to effectively communicate to clients and get their bills paid. By the time the Sterling consultant was done with her visit, we were all on the same page.
We began to do more advertising which helped us get new clients. Without all the stress, I could pick and choose our clients. I didn’t feel like I had to take everyone who came along and I could get rid of some of the C-level clients. Sterling helped me increase both the size and quality of my client base.
Thanks to the Sterling program, my staff know what they are supposed to do, when they are supposed to do it and why. We are able to track what we need to track to make sure the practice is running smoothly.
In three year’s time, we’ve had a 35% increase in billings and collections and a 15 to 20% increase in profitability. Now our returns are done much more quickly and efficiently. That’s because the staff now have the proper paper flow to follow and they operate as a team.
The stress which had taken over my life is gone. Now I have time to be with my wife and sons and do other things outside of the office. I realized that when I started my practice I was basically a technician who happened to own a business. Now I am a trained CEO and technician. I needed both to successfully run and grow my practice.
Rob Foncannon, CPA