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Case Study: How Squire Found Business Advisory Success

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Jan 6th 2016
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Having served businesses in Utah for 43 years, Orem-based Squire & Co. has spent the past 15 years offering technology and advisory services alongside tax and audit work. Due to an increased focus on those services, the firm now earns nearly a third of its overall fees from advisory work.

With a concentration on strong regional sectors, such as construction, direct sales, manufacturing and distribution, technology, and life sciences, Squire claims it has established itself as “a firm that really understands those companies,” according to partner Jonyce Bullock, who heads Squire's advisory practice.

After a tax internship with Squire during college, Bullock joined the staff after graduation and was there when the decision was taken to expand its advisory profile. She took some time out from her busy schedule to share some of Squire's advisory insights with AccountingWEB and explain how those services have become such a significant part of the firm's offerings.

The Challenge
The firm moved into advisory when partners were looking for ways to keep people busy during the non-busy season. With the arrival of more accessible PC accounting systems, the partners recognized that it was likely to lose write-up work and realized that if they switched their focus to supporting clients with software and training to do the work themselves, they could maintain those relationships.

“People enjoyed it and had a passion for it, but pretty soon they realized that you couldn't just do it during the summer or you wouldn't do it well,” says Bullock.

The firm brought in an experienced partner from Grant Thornton to set up a technology department within the firm. He brought with him a “trusted advisor” perspective influenced by David Maister, whose work remains part of Squire's in-house reading list.

Bullock joined the new technology team, which installed and supported on Peachtree, QuickBooks, and Great Plains (later Microsoft Dynamics GP) systems. Another team within the firm offered advisory services, such as CFO/controller outsourcing and strategic planning.

The Process
The two teams increasingly found they were serving the same people and doing similar work. “I would be out supporting someone on QuickBooks, but they would be asking me strategic questions. Or a business advisor would hear their clients complain about their terrible accounting systems and that we could help,” says Bullock. Around five years ago, Squire merged the two teams into one advisory group.

Squire continues to offer outsourced accounting packages for business clients, taking in preparation of financial statements and tax returns for each year. Accounting systems helped open the door, “but it turned into a much better relationship from there,” says Bullock.

“As employees and consultants, we were able to enjoy a deeper relationship with clients by meeting them multiple times rather than just once a year. We'd be there and realize they needed help with financial statements to get a bank loan, or maybe we could help with projections to get a handle on cash flow,” she says.

Some of Squire's advisory work has not been so traditional, she continues. “Some things happen because we're there. One client wanted to buy an airplane, so we helped him do that. We worked with brokers to locate the plane, helped with the purchase, and acted as a point of contact for all those involved in the transaction. Whether it's an airplane or a building or something else, we're in a great place where we can help with almost any business decision.”

The Evolution
Getting to that enviable point took a decade and a half of hard work and commitment. For each employee, says Bullock, “it had to be a full-time endeavor; people couldn't just dabble in on the side.” They had to decide which department they committed themselves to and there was acceptance throughout the firm that the advisory side would take time to build up.

“Over several years, you may have a few people who may not be as productive as they would be if they stayed on the audit side,” she says.

The advisory business is continuing to evolve. “The products we support are changing,” says Bullock. In the past three years, for example, Squire has seen a major shift from desktop and server-based programs to cloud accounting systems, such as QuickBooks Online (QBO).

“We were early adopters of QBO and had to lead the way with training â€“ one of our employees helped to write the certification program. I know QuickBooks Desktop with my eyes closed, so it's been a challenge to get used to changes there,” she says.

But cloud technology has brought more predictability and convenience to Squire's advisory work. Ten years ago, Bullock and her colleagues would spend a lot of time on-site. “Now we can do it with a phone call because we can look things on-screen at the same time. And we can do it quicker, so they're happier. But we do have to look at other ways to sustain the relationship because we're not seeing them as often.”

These differences made it easier to implement value billing and service packages. Previously, if the consultant came up with a packaged solution, there was a higher risk that it might end up involving things like server fixes that were outside the scope of the original package.

“If I can get an Internet connection, I know how QBO will behave,” says Bullock. “But I don't know how QuickBooks Desktop will behave on your server.”

Add-ons, such as Receipt Bank, Expensify, and Bill.com, give the team ways to offer business services in new packages: “When you come to Squire, you will do receipts with one product, bills with another, and we will come up with a whole solution based on these apps. If people drop off shoeboxes, I now have a way to automate that. Because it's more controlled, I feel safer for value billing.”

The add-on boom has broadened Squire's menu, but even at a firm with this level of experience, Bullock confesses that finding the right ones is hard. “There are so many add-ons that we're almost frightened to pick one in case a better one turns up.”

Negotiating Obstacles
Successful business advisors need different skills than traditional accountancy skills. When people start out in Squire's advisory practice, they shadow senior managers for several months and go through role-playing exercises to learn how to find out what's really going on with clients.

“We call it doing a needs audit, but really all it is is asking good questions,” says Bullock. â€œI like to start meetings by asking, ‘At the end of the meeting, you'll be happy if … .' I have them fill in the banks and start the conversation in the direction they want to head. Or I'll ask, ‘If there were one or two things you could solve today, what would they be?'”

Accountants are problem-solvers, she says, and this can undermine their ability to listen. “As soon as clients start to tell them about problems, they want to jump in to fix them. We encourage our people to listen longer than they would normally so they have extra chance to understand the client's issue further.”

With a significant portfolio of audit clients, the advisory wing has to make sure it does not deal with those clients. While Squire may lose out on some engagements, it has also prospered through serving clients that have gone through public offerings and ended up continuing with the firm when the audit goes elsewhere in the new corporate structure.

Measurement, too, poses a few challenges. “Inside a 40-year-old CPA firm you have measures that have been used for years, such as the billable hour. They don't make as much sense in an advisory world, so we have to find ways to compare what we do with other departments,” says Bullock.

When it comes to recruiting, the emphasis on advisory has given Squire an advantage with candidates who are looking for something more than just a career of tax or audit work. But on the other side of the coin, “Our employees are really good at what they do, so our clients try to steal them a lot. Retaining staff is more of a challenge if they are seeing clients more than once a year,” she says.

Final Thoughts
Bullock stressed, in no uncertain terms, that advisory services are likely to be the biggest area of growth for the profession in the next few years. Moreover, any firm thinking of moving or currently stepping into more of an advisory role should simply “go for it.”

“I think that's where accountants should be if they don't want to miss the opportunities,” she says. “We tend to be risk adverse and wait until we're perfect before we try it out. I like to tell people we've got to get the boat into the water and get it out into the open sea. Then we can correct the course. People should try it out.”

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By benplint
Jan 18th 2016 07:02 EST

Nice post. Loved it. I am owner of a wide shoes store and love these kind of posts related to business success. Thanks for sharing.

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