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.

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