Sometimes organizations influence and shape their leaders. Other times the leaders shape their organizations. Every once in a while, however, a leader influences not only their firm, but, with the help of their staff, they significantly impact the community around them. Such is the case with Sandy Abalos and her firm, Abalos & Associates, P.C. in Phoenix, Ariz.
“We do things differently here. We’re not your average CPA firm, right, we’re not your average bear,” Sandy Abalos, Managing Partner of Abalos & Associates, tells AccountingWEB. “The biggest thing we do is scheduling, scheduling during tax season because tax season can be a bloody nightmare. It can be the most stressful, difficult thing you’ll ever endure, but it doesn’t have to be. And I worked for CPAs when I was in high school, everything was at the last minute and it was frantic and panicked and client expectations weren’t managed and I remember driving to the Post Office in my little Rambler at midnight on April 15th, hoping my car didn’t fail me, dropping off a hundred extensions to get postmarked, panicked, just trembling and thinking I will never do this when I have my own business. I will NEVER do this. This is not a good thing. So we close early on April 15th, every year for 30 years that I’ve had my business. We close early on April 15th and it’s all in managing the client and the workload.”
The rest of the year is no less hectic for Sandy Abalos, who was recently recognized by Women Impacting Public Policy (WIPP) for her demonstrated leadership at the national and state levels, where she speaks regarding issues impacting the small business community. In recent years, she has been the Small Business Administration’s (SBA’s) National Accountant Advocate of the Year recipient, as well as receiving awards from numerous organizations, including the National Association of Women Business Owners (NAWBO), Working Women Magazine, Arizona Women’s News Choice Awards, and Impact for Enterprising Woman. She currently serves on the executive board of directors for NAWBO and heads the organization’s Public Policy Committee. In addition, she is a member of the U.S. SBA National Advisory Council and provides small business insights to the SBA, the internal Revenue Service (IRS) and Congressional bodies, regarding tax issues. Not surprisingly, the firm works primarily with small business owners and entrepreneurs.
“The biggest challenge of working with the small business owner is that they are doing everything, depending on the size of the business and where they are in the business,” Abalos explains. “If they’re not currently doing everything, you can be assured that they have done everything. I mean even me, I’ve done every job we have in this office and that’s why my staff love working with me, because I’ve been at their desk, I’ve been the secretary, I’ve been the bookkeeper, I’ve been the tax preparer, I’ve been the reviewer, now I’m the manager. So I’ve worked other roles and I’m very respectful of what their responsibilities are.”
Perhaps this experience and attitude are why community isn’t something that exists outside the doors at Abalos & Associates. It exists inside, too. The firm, of course, supports community involvement by all employees, based on the belief that what is invested in employees will be returned with interest, although perhaps in a different form. The level of the involvement depends on the employee and where they are in their lives.
The lives of employees have a central role in the firm. In fact, the firm motto is “Family, Fun and Flexibility”.
“Family comes first. We work to live. We don’t live to work, so families come first. And if you’ve got kids playing in soccer games, you better be at those games. I’ve even scolded staff during tax season for not attending their kids’ soccer games. I said the work will wait, your kids soccer game is only once, there will be another tax season, go to the game, get out of here,” Abalos says.
No wonder the staff loves working at Abalos & Associates. Not only does family come first, but Abalos makes herself accessible to all the staff, giving young people just starting their careers the opportunity to speak with a partner, something that they may not get in other firms. The thing they most appreciate, according to Abalos, is that the firm doesn’t have a big firm culture or protocol that has been brought into the small firm environment.
“The other night I stayed later and was chatting with one of my new CPAs, for probably about an hour, just about stuff. Not just about accounting or clients but about her, about me, where we came from, what motivates us, that sort of thing,” Abalos relates. “What I tell my staff is there is no hierarchy. I sign the checks, fine, I sign checks, big deal. I always do this speech when I bring in new people. I say ‘we’re a soccer team’, we’ve got a manager, we’ve got a captain, we’ve got a co-captain, but we are all playing the game. We are all on the field, we all have our positions and we all have our specializations and things we’re pretty good at. No one of us could do it all. It takes all of us to make the goal and that is for the clients to be satisfied with the work product and the confidence. So unless all of us are out there playing, in the same direction, for the goal, we won’t have a good team.”
The firm will be undergoing some changes next year. Tax Partner Barry Friefield and Cheryl Folkerth are both being brought in as equity partners, beginning in 2007.
“This is a big step for me,” Sandy admits. “I’ve been on my own for a really long time, but I’m excited because it’s the right people for the right reasons. It’s not because I need money. It’s not because I can’t do it. It’s because they’re the right people and I want them to share in what they helped build.”
The firm is also in the process of moving towards becoming a paperless office and project-billing. The transition toward the paperless office has been underway for about a year-and-a-half. Billing and practice management software were converted first. The current phase involves transitioning the tax software that has been used at the firm for 20 years. The entire process should take two to three years to complete.
“Really what I try to communicate is that we don’t just crunch numbers,” Abalos says when asked for the firm’s ‘elevator speech'. “We do, but we’re not just number crunchers, we go beyond that and provide the consulting and the business knowledge and help direct your business. What I do, my value is in management consulting for entrepreneurs. I help guide them through their own base. They all think they are the only ones who could ever have an issue and they’re wrong. We see it over and over again. We’re not just number crunchers.”
Abalos & Associates, founded in 1981, has a staff of 13 and specializes in the needs of the small and medium sized businesses. They are based in Phoenix, Arizona. More information about the firm is available online at http://www.abaloscpa.com/
“People respect you for what you have helped them to learn and understand, not for what you know. I go to my clients and I teach them. They are grateful because I teach them accounting and how to read their financials in term they understand, that they can absorb. I don’t talk above them, I don’t talk below them, I talk to them. I want to make sure they understand the importance,” Abalos explains. “I have new clients who have been in business 20 years and never had anyone explain their financial to them. So what I do is I teach ‘Cowboy Math’.
“Some years ago I was teaching them ‘this is what I want you to look at and this over here, and this is what this means', and the client goes ‘that’s it?’ and I said yes, that’s all I want you to focus on right now, I’ll teach you more but this is number one and he said ‘well that’s easy, that’s like cowboy math! I can do that.’” Abalos concludes. “I said, ‘you know, I’m going to use that term, because it means it’s not complicated, it’s not scary, it’s easy, it’s just cowboy math.’ To read financial statements is not that hard. Some CPAs make it hard because they want you to think that you’re not capable and they are the only ones who possess this kind of knowledge, and it’s not true. Clients can understand it better than they can because it’s their business.”