A Conversation with Jeff Arnol, managing partner of Kessler Orlean Silver & Company, P.C.

It's no ordinary CPA firm that would send out holiday cards where the partners are depicted as turkeys or sled dogs. But then, nobody ever said the Deerfield, Illinois firm of Kessler Orlean Silver & Company P.C. (KOS) was ordinary. Their Web site says it this way, "It's our exuberant commitment to put you above all else." With clients and staff alike, KOS strives to use a personal touch and a healthy sense of humor. In a conversation with Managing Partner, Jeff Arnol, you get the impression that the people at KOS are a nice bunch of professionals who are highly capable, and who don't take themselves too seriously. That's why, a few years ago when it was time to send out holiday cards, Arnol said, "let's do something different than what everyone else does."

That first year, the cards featured a caricature of each partner involved in a playful scene like a favorite hobby or sport. The cards were so well received that they did it again the second year, in 2007. That time, each card featured a dogsled where the heads of the dogs were the partners, and the drivers were the founders. For 2008, they opted for Thanksgiving cards with a turkeys-in-the-field theme instead of Christmas cards. The heads on the pilgrims were the firm's founders, and the heads on the turkeys, the partners. For Arnol, this may be even more fun than for the other members of KOS, since each year, he and the firm's administrator, Norine Yedlin, create the cards in secret and have the pleasure of surprising the rest of the team with the finished product. They also get tremendous feedback from their clients who start asking in the fall what the theme of the cards will be.

You've got to love accountants who don't mind poking a little fun at themselves now and then. But in talking with Arnol, it's clear that KOS is also a firm that expects excellence. "We take an active interest in our clients. We want them to know that we care about their businesses and that they are valued as individuals. In troubling times, you manage your practice differently, being sensitive to the reality that some of your clients are struggling, and you do what you can to help them navigate the challenges."

As for relationships inside KOS, the leaders goes out of their way to ensure that the firm is an enjoyable place to work, where all members of the team have opportunities to develop and advance in their careers. With that in mind, Arnol says that KOS entered 2009 determined to focus on goal setting and accountability with each partner and each employee. "What we do is identify overall goals for the firm, and then consistent with that, goals for each individual that are jointly developed with a manager." Throughout the year, individuals are able to work on their goals and measure their progress. The targets may include additional training, higher levels of production, enhanced technical expertise, or the development of particular skills, like marketing. Always looking to move forward, Arnol also expects to rely on their outside consultants at Golden Marketing for projects like refining the firm's brand name, and conducting 360-degree evaluations and client satisfaction surveys.

As for Arnol himself, who is a CPA and an attorney, becoming part of KOS was a lifestyle decision. After starting his career in a fairly traditional way - in the tax department at Arthur Andersen - he explored his options at a couple of other CPA firms as well as in a law firm before coming to KOS. Since that was 20 years ago, it seems safe to say that he finally found what he was looking for. Not only is the practice and client base a good fit, but the shorter commute to the KOS office makes it possible for him to be more involved with his children, who he says bring a lot of joy and satisfaction to him and his wife.

Impact of the Economy on Business

"We're pretty optimistic," says Arnol, but still concerned about the firm's clients in vulnerable industries like real estate, construction, and retail. Plus, some of their professional service clients have felt the impact pretty deeply, he says, while others are barely impacted. "Illinois in general is a fairly white-collar community, but nobody is insulated from the downturn. Wealthy individuals who lose 20 percent or more of their net worth have no choice but to make lifestyle changes."

For the firm itself, daily operations are pretty much business as usual, says Arnol. They continue to hire at the same pace as always and to plan for expansion and growth. "Most of the firms that fail to do that will not be set up in a few years to capitalize when the economy recovers. In the near-term, CPAs will have to work harder than usual. They will need to take better care of clients and pay closer attention to details. Instead of trying to do it all, in this economy, they should look for clients that work well with their strengths."

When asked what his advice to aspiring accountants would be, Arnol seems enthusiastic about the profession that has been good to him. "Accounting is a great choice because it offers a lot of diversity, a lot of opportunity to find a specialty that appeals to you. But as a trusted adviser, you have to maintain the highest levels of professional standards and integrity. Treat every client as if that client were your best. Don't just do what was done last year. Think for yourself and apply common sense." On second thought, he adds "with our tax laws... common sense is not always possible."

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