CPAs Who Innovate: What box?

October 11, 2017By Stephanie Parton, CAE, INCPAS Vice President - CommunicationsArticle, Blog, Changing Role of the CPA, Innovation, The Changing Role of the CPA

Meet the innovative virtual CFO firm that’s disrupting the profession

Summit CPA Group was founded in 2002 as a firm that wanted to change the way people think about accounting. Co-founders Jody Grunden, CPA, and Adam Hale, CPA, didn’t want to just do accounting work. They wanted to make a difference in business owners’ lives.

“Traditional accountants generally focus on the past way too much in my opinion,” Grunden said. “We wanted to be more of an influencer for those clients. We wanted to talk strategy. We wanted to be proactive instead of being reactive. So, we turned a traditional financial statement review meeting into a strategic meeting focusing on forecasting and the metrics that are used to build it. Only about a quarter of the meeting talks about the past. The remainder of the meeting is strategic in nature focusing on the past influencing the future.”

Summit CPA Group wanted to educate business owners and teach them to build and manage a profitable business. This “want” eventually evolved into what is now their primary service and cornerstone of their company. In 2004, they named the offering “Virtual CFO Services.” “We help small business owners make informed decisions that generally translate to increased profits and cash accumulation. That is why I think we’ve had such high retention with our clients,” Grunden said. “For me, that has been the most rewarding part of being a business owner—helping other business owners.”

Summit CPA Group prides themselves on offering completely different CPA services. They’re not competing against other CPA firms in the traditional sense. They are competing against a position of value. They take over the role of the CFO.

“We didn’t want to deliver a product that everyone else delivered—that’s boring. We wanted to give them a service that offered a greater value than what they could get even by adding an employee to their team. It came from the idea that we wanted to do something different, give them more value, and then it developed from there.

“What we’re doing is providing a similar service and ‘feeling’ as what’s innate at the big companies. That’s something that most small businesses have never had the chance to experience. Most small business owners feel isolated because they have no one to talk to. As a Virtual CFO, we can talk to them as a peer and give them a straight, candid answer. That’s what they really want. They want confirmation. They want to be able to bounce ideas off a peer. The entire experience is pretty eye opening for most of them.”

Like most great innovators, Grunden and Hale wanted to find a solution to a problem and make life better for themselves and those around them. Grunden says the idea for Virtual CFO Services was a selfish thing at first. He was his kids’ hockey coach and had to be present at all of the events. Hockey season, as you may know, falls at the exact time as the traditional tax season.

“We didn’t want to deliver a product that everyone else delivered—that’s boring. We wanted to give them a service that offered a greater value than what they could get even by adding an employee to their team. It came from the idea that we wanted to do something different, give them more value, and then it developed from there.

“I knew I was taking weeks off at a time to go on a hockey trip and it wasn’t fair to the other employees,” Grunden said. “It wasn’t fair to ask my team to work hard while I was traveling around the U.S. or Canada for a hockey tournament. It didn’t feel right to me.” Grunden found a solution to his problem by looking for ways to change the way typical CPA firms do business. His answer was taking a traditional tax client that they would meet with once a year and looking at how they could really help their client, and in the same process help Summit CPA Group and the culture the duo wanted for their firm.

The process developed into taking that annual tax client and turning them into a monthly client. Then when it came time for their tax return, it didn’t take as much time. That approach was so successful that clients started asking for weekly meetings. Clients were so excited about the level of service they were receiving from Summit that they started referring clients to them.

Summit CPA Group is headquartered in Fort Wayne, but their team is distributed and works primarily from home. Their virtual office consists of 40 employees, all but four whom work remotely. Employees are located in 10 states and their client base is represented in over 40 cities across the country.

Summit CPA Group initially performed their Virtual CFO Services communicating over the phone and during in-person meetings. It wasn’t until 2009 that they started transitioning the service to 100 percent remote. In order to give the client the feeling that they are part of their team, they utilize the latest technology through video chat and screen sharing with tools like Sococo and GoTo Meeting. This is Summit CPA Group’s primary means of communication with clients. Because they can service clients anywhere, they have expanded their service across the United States.

Hiring at Summit CPA Group is all done virtually as well. It’s pretty eye-opening for new hires. Grunden says 99 percent of the new hires have never worked virtually before. So, employee onboarding is an extremely important process and key to Summit’s high employee retention. New hires receive a “care package” in the mail which includes a laptop, big screen TV (four monitors), headsets and a technology stipend which they can use for various home office needs throughout the year.

The onboarding process includes being buddied up with a seasoned employee. For example, Tom is a new hire who has been with the firm for 90 days. He is buddied up with Angie who is the senior team member on the account. They hang out in a virtual room all day with video and headsets on. They can have casual conversations as they work through the day.

When nearly all of your employees work virtually, staying on top of technology is imperative. “You have to be adaptive and make changes quickly. That has never been an issue with me, really, in anything I do,” Grunden said, “which is atypical for accountants.”

Grunden and Hale are constantly looking for the newest and greatest thing. Five years ago, Hale was looking for a second revenue stream that could take advantage of the distributed model. He determined that 401K audits could be that avenue. He did his due diligence and sought out an expert in the field. They were able to bring in Kim Moore to run this new opportunity. Since 2012, Moore and her team have been able to grow the 401K audit department from an experiment to currently performing in excess of 120 audits a year. They were able to take full advantage of the distributed model working virtually with their clients.

“We’re always looking for better ways of doing things,” Grunden said. “We’re never stuck on one way being the only way. It comes from identifying a weakness in an area and coming up with a solution to make it better.

“We take what other people are doing well and make it better. We view the world in a different way, always thinking outside of the box. Or, better yet, what box? That’s the mindset that we built the company.”

Summit CPA Group was recognized for their innovative accomplishments in 2017 with the inaugural Indiana CPA Society Innovation Award.

Perspectives on the changing role of the CPA

September 11, 2017By Jess Halverson BowyerArticle, Innovation, The Changing Role of the CPA

Today’s world is increasingly one of change. This is especially true in the CPA profession, where new technologies and strategies are changing the very role of the CPA itself. Because of all this constant change, the need for CPAs to innovate has never been greater. We posed some questions to five CPAs who have been at the forefront of innovation in their careers.

Why Do You Innovate?

Meghan Applegate, CPA, Applegate & Company, CPAs: A better question is why NOT innovate? When you go to a business to purchase services or even a product, you have expectations in your mind of what you should receive. More likely than not, your expectations are very high. As innovators in the industry, we are working hard to exceed our client’s expectations of the services they believe they deserve. Innovation would include not only cost savings, but efficiencies in how we work as well as how they work in their business, meeting their financial and strategic needs, etc. From a client’s perspective, we have been put on this earth to make their life easier. Innovation is key in fulfilling this expectation.

Kent Williams, CPA, Professor, Indiana Wesleyan University: I enjoy it! A proper balance is to keep one foot in the reality of the present and one in the possibilities of the future. As professionals we have an obligation to our clients, employees and in my case to my students to remain innovative.

Stephen Lukinovich, CPA, CVA, PFS, Mountjoy Chilton Medley, LLP: In order to meet a need the market is not filling. Further, it means CPAs are viewed as thought leaders in our field. Developing innovative solutions means spending a significant amount of time building consensus, structure, formalities, and interest. Sometimes it’s trial and error. Failure is ok—although, it’s often hard to isolate why the idea did not fully succeed. Was the failure due to lack of firm participation, inability to fill a need, failure to implement, or inability to market the proposed solution?

How do you create an innovative culture?

Kent: I believe that in order to facilitate an innovative culture, leaders must provide an environment that is free from fear, builds trust, looks to encourage, hires for innovation, celebrates and learns from failure. Start small so that employees can get their “innovative legs.” If innovative experience is good, they will want to do it again. If we want innovation to permeate the culture then we need to hire for that characteristic.

Rick Dennen, CPA, Oak Street Funding LLC: Oak Street Funding is deliberate in our attention to innovation. In addition to working quickly and effectively to meet the needs of our clients, we also meet the needs of our team by giving them the tools necessary to bring ingenuity, creativity and value to the organization. Our focus on the employee experience produces job satisfaction and pride that translates to a consultative, knowledgeable and caring approach with our clients and a distinctive client experience. We continuously ask the questions “Are we doing what is right to meet the needs of our clients as well as our employees?” and “Is there a better approach?” If there is a better way, we implement it. In addition, we are focused on working collaboratively across all departments and business lines, resulting in cross functional buy-in, operational excellence, and, of course, innovation. Finally, we embrace the latest technology and the utilization of data and analytics to help us best serve our current and potential clients.

Where do you think the profession is heading and how can innovation get us there?

Tom Gabbert, CPA, mAccounting, LLC: The CPA profession is at a unique time in history. Technology changes are streamlining accounting processes and removing geographic and service delivery barriers. As a firm, we are spending much less time getting information into the accounting system and far more time working with our clients to analyze their information and helping them make informed business decisions. I believe this will only accelerate in the next few years as new technologies are developed. I also believe that by leveraging new technologies, firms will no longer be subject to geographic limitations in the clients they serve.

Rick: While there will continue to be regulatory and reporting changes in the profession, I believe the areas in which innovation will make the biggest impacts are technology, data, and the utilization of that data. With regard to technology, it is increasingly important to utilize all of the ever-evolving smart and sophisticated technologies—for both effectively managing compliance, risk and communications, as well as connecting with current and potential clients quickly, accurately and in their preferred medium. There will continue to be less emphasis on the traditional, quarterly face-to-face meetings and more on a relationship in which the client can text, email, Skype or call at any time.

What skills do you think will be important for CPAs in the future, particularly as their roles are changing?

Tom: The CPA has always been a trusted advisor, but I believe this role will take on even greater importance in the years to come. The CPA of the future will need excellent analytical, communication and interpersonal skills. They will spend less time getting the numbers right and more time analyzing the results and working with clients to make informed business decisions.

Meghan: Communication and interpersonal skills are not only required now, but will continue to be imperative as the profession changes. No longer are CPAs able to sit behind a desk and crank out a ton of tax returns/financial statements. The clients want to see you, hear from you, and see what they’re getting for the money they’re paying you. They want that additional business/data analysis and consulting to help them in their businesses.

Stephen: Ability to identify problems that exist outside compliance. Then, the ability to develop enthusiasm surrounding innovative ideas—the risk of failure and the energy required to get it off the ground normally stymies pursuing extraordinary offerings.