Taking departmentalization one step further: Developing a niche

Article by Maria Hurd, published in her firm's newsletter, the Belfint Bizz.

April 15th ……the end of busy season! Or was it? Before departmentalization, April 16th marked the beginning of "audit busy season", which was inevitably followed by the "busy season" for the October 15th tax extensions and then, December tax planning, the last busy season of the year, before the next busy season, and the "Ground Hog Day" push to April 15th began again. Trying to be all things to all clients was wearing thin, so we made our non-proprietary structure official in 2007...Belfint, Lyons & Shuman departmentalized!

Departmentalization has been an effective way to allocate our resources more efficiently. As the size and diverse nature of our clients continues to increase, their needs become even more complex and varied, allowing additional opportunities for our staff to develop an untapped niche. For example, by choice, serendipity, or a little of both, I have helped BL&S grow the retirement plan audit area from a few clients in 1998 to a department that now services more than triple the number of repeat engagements as well as numerous one-time engagements.

There are many untapped specialty areas that a CPA, future CPA, or financial professional - YOU - can choose to pursue. The first step is to assess what expertise is required for a specialty, whether it is forensic accounting, valuation services, litigation services, governmental entity audits, personal financial planning, internal control consulting, elder care, software consulting or any other specialized taxation or auditing field. Anyone who wishes to pursue a specialized field should set personal goals including:

Technical competence

A priority in providing excellent service, especially with a niche, is to learn the technical accounting and regulatory specifics for the relevant industry. You may need to spend personal time reading industry journals and technical updates, in addition to attending conferences and obtaining industry certifications evidencing that the professional is in fact, an expert. This is not a one-time effort. For example, after obtaining a "Retirement Specialist Designation" through the Wharton School of Business Certified Employee Benefit Specialist Certification Program on my own time, I continue to study both new audit pronouncements and retirement plan legislative updates.

In the next year, new rules will require different and much more extensive reporting and disclosure for 403(b) plans and multiemployer plans. Legislation in specialized areas constantly changes and requires that we invest time continuously acquiring and refining the expertise that differentiates us from our competition. Servicing a specialty niche does not happen effortlessly.

Marketing

In the retirement plan audit area, satisfied clients, attorneys, and third party administrators have been our greatest source of new business. The best thing we have done has been to consistently service our clients and service providers promptly and well. Additionally, attendance at professional events, offering seminars, and becoming an active member of industry trade groups has increased the firm's visibility. Speaking at seminars and other professional organization events, serving as officers of professional organizations like the Wilmington Tax Group, advertising in local publications and our website, and providing pro-bono services to local service providers in need of expert assistance, have all helped us market our firm as the local expert in an otherwise untapped niche.

Attending CPE programs for retirement plan administration professionals, rather than CPAs, has been an excellent way to network with referral sources, since it has shown them the firm's commitment to the practice area. Networking and relationships have been and are enormously important.

If you think there is a specialty area you would like to develop, don't wait for the firm to select you as the champion. Show initiative. Talk to your mentor or a Director. Build a network. Make a commitment to specialize by learning how to speak your clients' language by fully understanding their business, operations, and regulatory environment. The hardest part is to show that the investment time and professional development will add to your firm's bottom line. As a professional, you have no basis in your own time. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. If you invest your time in acquiring the needed expertise, and your niche thrives, developing a specialty area will be the greatest personal and professional reward. A life-long, profitable career with your firm is just an added bonus!

About the author:
Maria Hurd, CPA, is the principal in charge of employee benefit plan services at Delaware-based Belfint, Lyons & Shuman P.A.

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