Succession Planning: Preparing for Success

By Liz Gold

Jeffery Mowery describes his firm, Mowery & Schoenfeld LLC, as an attractive and viable exit strategy for smaller firms who don't have a succession plan in place. 
 
He has his reasons for this.
 
"For one, we have an excellent team who can execute the plan," he said. "Two, firms know if they come into our firm they can expect to be fully paid over a number of years. Lastly, we can retain the clients and expand the services offered. Those clients are going to be served at a very high level and will enhance the relationship."
 
Based in Lincolnshire, Illinois, Mowery & Schoenfeld, was created fifteen years ago when Mowery and his partner Keith Schoenfeld decided to leave the firm where they were both working to start their own. The move was made to align their values of using a team approach to client service and firm management, rather than an "eat what you kill" approach, as well as to focus on helping clients grow their business.
 
"The best way to have a successful firm is to have successful clients," Mowery said. "So if we can help our clients become more successful, we're going to have a great firm."
 

Seamlesss Succession Planning

In their book Succession Transition: A Roadmap for Seamless Transitions, former Plante Moran Managing Partner Bill Hermann, CPA, and Plante Moran Managing Partner Gordon Krater, CPA, focus on six key areas that create sustainable and healthy organizations - a necessity for a truly successful leadership transition: 

  • Organizational culture
  • Communication and recognition
  • Leadership selection
  • Development 
  • Experiential learning
  • Mentoring
Being a firm with more "generalist" tendencies has served them well. They work with the manufacturing, distribution, technology, and health care sectors and plan to develop those niches in the future.
 
The firm currently has three partners (with another soon to be brought on board), thirty-five employees, and $8 million in revenue.
 
In 2009, the firm acquired Katch Tyson, a local and well-established firm without a succession plan. Effective July 1 of this year, Mowery & Schoenfeld is merging with Baerson Witonski Berkowitz & Rubin, another local firm in Northeast Illinois. With this merger, the firm will gain another eleven employees. 
 
In both cases, the firm engaged Transition Advisors LLC, to help facilitate the mergers. Transition Advisors, consultants for the accounting industry, provided them with different alternatives to structuring the transaction - but Mowery said transitioning in the acquired firm was something his firm took on themselves.
 
To prepare for the first merger, Mowery created what he calls an "integration plan," which is an Excel spreadsheet and that covers all the moving parts of a transition. Relocation of Katch Tyson, office-related matters, human resources, staff orientation, accounting and audit procedures training, tax, technology, practice management, database, marketing, professional requirements (such as Illinois CPA Society and AICPA notification and peer review), and miscellaneous items like a firm-wide summer event. Each category includes a list of tasks that are assigned to a lead staff member, a due date, and comments on how to move forward.
 
"We have our own internal succession plan as well. It's not really a written plan, it's a theme that we consistently apply," Mowery said.
 
Mowery said his firm's internal succession plan is easier to implement because of the strong partner alignment within the firm. 
 
"We have a high degree of trust and generally all agree on what we're trying to do as a firm," he said. Because of the new partner coming up, it was only recently that the firm leadership looked at the partnership agreement after ten years. "That alignment is very important, and we consistently communicate that we want the people who work here to take over the firm. That has been the vision from day one."
 
Their decisions have reflected this vision. In 1999, Mowery said firm leadership actively started recruiting college students ‒ a strategy that was challenging at first due to the firm's small size. However, Mowery said it's gotten a lot easier because of the opportunities and positive culture they've created.
 
Mowery said his firm spends a lot of time and resources on hiring and developing people, along with on-the-job training. They've brought in outside consultants to develop programs on self-awareness, leadership, and marketing skills. 
 
"We have a pipeline now, and probably within the next five years, I could see us making five more people partners in our firm - all of whom we've developed internally," Mowery said. "When we do our partnership agreement, the main partners will have the Class A units, but we also want Class B units, which are basically deferred compensation plans for some key people who are coming up the ranks."
 
And, of course, the employee-friendly environment helps with the transitioning of new staff members from the newly acquired firms. One of the challenges, Mowery admits, is that with the firm's fast pace and use of technology, some new employees coming from a different culture have trouble keeping up. 
 
For Mowery, the most important thing for a firm going through a merger is to have strong partner alignment and to transition the clients in as soon as possible. 
 
"Something I learned and embraced is that in a local firm like ours, the focus must be servicing the client," he said. "But sometimes [accountants] don't pay enough attention to the people in their firm, and they're your most important asset. They make all the other things possible."
 
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About the author:
Liz Gold owns Rhino Girl Media, offering writing and editing services to companies of all sizes. A published journalist for sixteen years, Liz writes about business and culture. She can be reached at rhinogirlmedia@gmail.com.
 

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