When my brother, my sister and myself—all of us CPAs—bought out my father from our CPA firm, he joked that it took three people to replace him. My father had started the practice from scratch in 1979 with me as his first employee. I answered the phones, scheduled appointments and handled the daily routines in the practice. Several years later, I decided to become a CPA.
In those days, I was able to get certified as an accountant from the “school of hard knocks.” In other words, my father taught me accounting and what he didn’t teach me, I taught myself from my brother’s accounting textbooks. I passed the CPA exam with flying colors and got certified. That same year, the law passed requiring 150 semester hours of college credits and a bachelor’s degree. I had just made it under the wire.
My sister and brother also became CPAs and joined the firm. After we bought the practice from my father, I became the managing partner. Most accounting firms have enough personnel issues without adding family into the mix. In our firm, not only were all the partners’ siblings but the rest of the staff were my sister’s classmates.
One of the classmates needed correction and this was addressed with the employee by my brother, the personnel manager at the time. Soon thereafter, the same employee went socializing with friends including some staff from the office. She began saying things she shouldn’t about the office and some clients—a swift kick under the table could not get her to stop. We had enough and decided to let her go. Since she was a friend of my sister’s, my sister would have nothing to do with it. This caused tension in the office between all of the siblings. It also put a strain on my sister’s friendship with the former employee who felt my sister should have “stuck up for her.” It was an untenable situation.
My siblings and I all had our own niches. I was the auditor, my sister was the payroll/compensation specialist while my brother was the tax expert. We each had our own particular ways of doing things and we were driving the staff crazy. They had to remember who was whose client and then handle each job accordingly. Even when we all did a task together, we each had our own different requirements.
Since we each had our own niches, my siblings and I were going down different paths as the executives leading the business. There was no unified leadership and no unifying system of operation.
Amidst all of this, a medical situation arose and I had to undergo emergency surgery. Following the surgery, complications set in and the doctors didn’t expect me to live. Obviously I survived and lived to tell the tale. But, the emergency threw the practice into a turmoil. We knew we could no longer continue this way.
When I had recovered, I contacted Sterling for a copy of their management DVD. I watched it first and then asked my brother and sister to watch it. We then spoke to several other CPAs who were Sterling clients. We felt we had to do something or else split up the business and go our own ways. So, the three of us signed up for Sterling’s executive consulting program and made a point of doing it at the same time so we would be on the same page. The program was delivered at Sterling’s offices in Glendale, California, and included management courses and customized consulting.
We went to Sterling and were completely enthused with the program. Each day we would study our courses; at night, we would return to our hotel suite and review what we had learned. If one of us were behind the other on a course, we’d work in the suite to catch up before the next morning. We would talk at length about what we could do with what we were learning—we were working it 24/7.
When we returned home, we implemented the procedures we could and then asked Sterling to come out and get the staff fully on board. Since Sterling’s staff were the training professionals, we decided to leave it to them. Sterling came out and trained the staff on the Sterling program and implemented various procedures. They accomplished a tremendous amount in just five days.
Early on, one of the major changes we implemented was to hire an office manager; I was holding this position myself, along with all my other duties. I was the top earner even with the office manager workload. My Sterling consultant pointed out we were giving up a lot of revenue by having me do tasks an office manager could do. It took us a bit to come to that conclusion. I was reluctant to bring in someone who was not in the family and give that person that kind of responsibility. Luckily, my sister-in-law was looking for new work and came in to develop the office manager position and get it up and running. Then, with Sterling’s help, we found a wonderful gal to take it over. We sent her to Sterling for office manager training to develop her human resources talents and so we would all be in sync.
Thanks to the Sterling program, we’ve become so efficient and the office runs so smoothly that 95% of our business comes in through word of mouth. The tax season is busier because we have more business, but we are more organized with much less stress. Everyone works in tandem as a team to get things done. During the summer months, we are able to work 4 days a week and enjoy other activities.
It didn’t take long to recover the cost of the Sterling program and see our income rise. By the end of our first year, revenues were up by 29% and we had worked 100 fewer hours than any previous year. Nowadays, revenues are up 300%; profitability has soared and is up by 1277%. That’s right, 1277%.
I usually go out to Sterling once per year to continue my training. For me, it’s continuing intellectual education, my mental spa. I tweak the practice, get it under better control and get completely reinvigorated. It’s like a motivational seminar.
Before Sterling, I used to work and work and work. These days, I still work and work and work but the difference is, I get to do the work I want to do. And I have time to do other things I want to do outside of the practice.
Whereas once we worried about having to break up the business my father started 33 years ago, now we have a thriving, smooth-running practice.
Jennifer Walkup, CPA