IGAF Firms Interview with McKonly & Asbury

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This is one article in a series of interviews with firms that are members of the International Group of Accounting Firms (IGAF).

What makes McKonly & Asbury (MACPAS) an exceptional firm? There's no quick, simple answer to that question, but one factor does stand out. They are rule breakers, and proud of it. Breaking the rules isn't something most of us associate with great accounting firms. But at MACPAS, headquartered in Camp Hill, Pennsylvania, from the most senior partner to the newest employee that's just what they do. The result? Astonishing growth, consistent quality, and several years in a row on the list of Best Places to Work in Pennsylvania.

Founded back in 1973, the goal was to provide the expertise and efficient service of the big national firms, but without the rat race and the impersonal aspects that often accompany size. "Treat people like people, not like numbers..." that was the idea.

Thirty-five years later, the staff of eight has expanded to a well-oiled team of 110. It's all tied in with their focus on growth, says Managing Partner, Terry Harris, and the firms' innovative approach to workplace management.

MACPAS became "rule breakers" when they adopted the Gallup Organization's Strength-Based Management philosophy outlined in their books, First Break All the Rules, and Now Discover Your Strengths. Now every team member takes the StrengthsFinder profile test and the results are incorporated into the individual's evaluation, and also into a career development plan tailored for that person. Employees are encouraged to nurture their innate talents and strengthen or work around their areas of weakness. The goal is to build a firm of "Great Managers." According to the Gallup research, great managers equal engaged employees, and that leads to the best possible service for clients and profitability for the firm.

In addition, the firm has invested heavily in technology, which Harris says, also sets them apart. That way, employees have all the technology tools they need to do their best work.

Harris himself is a perfect example of what is possible when business leaders let individuals grow. He's been with MACPAS for 30 years, after starting as an intern while in school. After graduating from Pennsylvania's Elizabethtown College, he was hired and within a few short years - by age 27 - he became a partner. For him, hard work, an understanding of business based on working with his father, and solid people skills made him something of a natural in the accounting world. His drive to excel fit right in with the MACPAS philosophy, and the firm recognized his abilities and encouraged his development.

Now Harris is the Managing Partner, the Director of Real Estate Services, and is a recognized expert in the real estate and affordable housing industries. True to the MACPAS way of doing business, he has been encouraged to develop his talents in a wide range of industries, including business consulting, construction, and manufacturing. He's also a member of the American and Pennsylvania Institutes of Certified Public Accountants and serves in various capacities as an officer and board member of several community, business, professional, and civic organizations.

Because he has a staff made up of capable and qualified individuals, Harris only needs to devote about 15 percent of his time overseeing his niches. The rest of his time is spent in business development, maintaining the firm's vision, and nurturing the culture that sets MACPAS apart. That includes providing mentors wherever they are needed within the team.

Of course, the purpose of establishing a team like this is to ensure that clients are well-served. A big part of Harris's job is to manage risk as it relates to new and existing clients, and working to keep his leadership team on the same page as the firm moves ahead.

This focus on culture is probably a big reason why, for five years in a row, MACPAs has made the list of Best Places to Work in Pennsylvania. This year, they went a step farther, and were named one of the Best Accounting Firms to work For in the U.S., by Best Companies Group and Accounting Today magazine. Honors like those don't happen by accident. They come from innovative management and the commitment to putting people first.

"Being a great place to work is one of our primary goals as a firm," says Harris. "Our formula for success starts with great, talented people on our team. This award is continuing and objective proof to us that we're doing the right things to attract and retain great people. "We are fortunate to have some of the best and brightest talent in our industry working for us and we hope that this honor will continue to help us keep the high-caliber professionals our clients have come to know as part of the McKonly & Asbury team."

Business in a Challenging Economy

For most accounting firms, traditional services are affected to a small degree during an economic downturn. MACPAS is no exception. "The accounting profession is pretty resilient," says Harris, "but there is some price pressure." After all, companies still need to have taxes and auditing done. Only CPAs can audit, and most long standing clients want to continue working with their trusted advisors for taxes as well.

MACPAS has three components, auditing and accounting, taxes, and consulting. Consulting is about 30 percent of their practice, and it has felt the economic crunch dramatically. "Most firms will agree that consulting is where they feel the impact. These are not recurring services," says Harris. "They have to be sold every year." When money is tight, some companies opt to bring those services in-house. But... the firm's Banking Internal Audit niche tends to do better in a down economy. "As regulation intensifies, clients need us even more." It doesn't hurt that MACPAS has the best expertise in Pennsylvania, adds Harris. Twenty-two people serve the Banking Internal Audit niche, and the MACPAS professionals have developed an excellent reputation throughout the state for their quality service in this key area.

"It's the firms that have a high concentration of their business in residential home building or in the auto industry that will feel it the most," says Harris. Like most every business these days, MACPAS is not unaffected by the slow economy. But three decades of fostering a culture of excellence and a fairly diverse array of services that are supported with strong expertise has limited the impact.

A firm like MACPAS that has built a foundation of strength and quality may sway a bit in the wind. But as the storm intensifies, they'll still be there, holding the umbrella for their clients.

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