Focus on what counts

Co-Managing Partner Patricia Cummings is featured in Crain's New York Business Regarding Innovation in the Accounting Profession and Corporate Culture

January 20, 2016
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Women Partners Help Transform CPA Firm Culture
As seen in Crain's New York Business

When Patricia Cummings first started working as a CPA in the New York area a couple decades ago, the notion of work-life balance was pretty foggy, and not wholly endorsed. As a single mother raising a daughter, Cummings found the path to becoming a partner a rocky one. “I had to be an overachiever,” she said. “Most firms hire 50% women and 50% men, but women tend to leave firms at a faster rate than men.”

Cummings, who is now co-managing partner of Citrin Cooperman’s NYC office, said that when you reach the senior ranks of most CPA firms, even today, only about 19% of the partners are women. The main reason, according to Cummings, is not a lack of talented female accountants, but rather a scarcity of female accountants with a resource that both professional women and men value: flexibility.

For industry veterans such as Cummings, who was an audit partner at Grant Thornton for 17 years prior to joining Citrin Cooperman in 2013, the traditional top-down-driven model of CPA firms, where partners sometimes work 12 to 15 hours a day, especially during tax season, has continued to lose its luster. Meanwhile, a new model is emerging, particularly suited to the work-life-balanceexpectations of Millennials that includes fluid work hours, the ability to work from home part-time and more favorable parental-leave policies.

Cummings has done her part to strengthen that model at Citrin Cooperman. She helped put in place a new women’s initiative program called Count Us In. “It includes a very robust parental leave policy, giving people the continuation of compensation to allow them to spend more bonding time at home with the baby,” she said. The policy applies to adoptive parents and also includes paid time off for non-primary caregivers.

While similar programs have become reasonably common at CPA firms, Citrin Cooperman has taken its approach to retaining women employees a step further with an option it calls Leaning Out. “A lot of times women will need to take time off, and won’t be ready to come back for a few years” Cummings said. “They won’t remain employees of the firm, but we will stay connected. We will provide them with technology; they’ll be able to attend our events, our outings, our holiday parties; we’ll be inviting them to all of our networking functions.”

The goal, said Cummings, is to keep women employees connected to the firm’s culture so that when they are ready to return to workforce, the first firm they think of is Citrin Cooperman.

Jennifer Prosperino can relate to that goal. Prosperino, a principal specializing in personal wealth and business management at Berdon LLP, a 375-person firm with offices in Manhattan and Jericho, N.Y., recalls having young children while being the only female partner at a five-partner firm earlier in her career. “They expect you to be the male in your relationship,” she said. “You’re lucky if you find a firm that believes you can be a successful businessperson and run a household at the same time.”

Prosperino, who has an 8-year-old and a 9-yearold, required a flexible schedule, and decided to find a firm that would allow it but still keep her on a career track. “I’m part-time, I work three days a week, two from home, which is perfect,” she said.”

Prosperino said her flexible schedule makes her work more efficiently. “I don’t waste time,” she said. “When I’m in the office, I’m not walking around.”

And it’s not just professional women who are benefiting from such life-enhancing changes. Citrin Cooperman’s Cummings is the first to note that along with the initiatives her firm has created to support its women employees, it also offers similar benefits to the men at the firm. “I’m currently working with a young male partner who has young children, is interested in his religion, and wants to work hard here,” she said. “We want to set up all our people for success.”

What the Best New York Area Firms Are Doing to Get Even Better
As seen in Crain's New York Business

When it comes to public accounting, Dom Esposito has seen it all. In a career spanning 46 years, including Grant Thornton, where he was chief executive of the U.S business, on through to his current gig at CohnReznick, where he is partner and director of growth and national strategies, the accounting industry veteran has stood witness to the profession’s growth and evolution through a variety of economic climates. His conclusion? “The key to this business is branding yourself.”

Not an easy task. In the challenging New York area economy, one of the most competitive marketplaces in the world, CPA firms have experienced massive consolidation over the past couple decades. With growth rates close to being flat, the surviving mid-market firms must strive to continually improve. Most firms typically first look within. “What do we have today that we can build upon? You don’t start with a clean sheet of paper,” said Esposito. “You build off what you have.”

In this economy, that task begins with a firm working to retain the clients it already has. Both the Big Four and middle-market accounting firms are focused on becoming more indispensable by branching out beyond taxes and audits to offer consulting services, investment advice and insurance planning, among other services. What makes the environment even more challenging, according to Esposito, is the Big Four’s aggressive pricing strategies, which drive down pricing for mid-market firms. Still, he said, “The more sophisticated consumer knows that a Big Four firm is looking to them to fill excess capacity.”

Mid-market firms are fighting back by offering even more services and becoming specialists. “If your firm isn’t consistently speaking about, researching, and implementing new practices, especially regarding retention, staffing, new business and succession, you will be falling dangerously behind the firms that are,” said Robert Fligel, a noted industry consultant and president of RF Resources, LLC.

Esposito says most midsize CPA firms today are picking three to five industries to focus on and in which to provide more expertise to its clients. At New York-based CohnReznick, the tenth largest CPA firm in the U.S. with more than 2,500 employees, those specialties include real estate, hedge funds, construction companies, light manufacturing, and retail and consumer products.

Mark Goodman, managing partner at Janover LLC, a $30 million CPA firm with offices in Garden City, N.Y., and Manhattan, believes the key to retaining clients is to view them as individuals, “both economically and personally,” who happen to own businesses. “We deal exclusively with private companies owned by families and individuals,” said Goodman. “We look to be involved with our clients in all aspects of their business, from their professional to the personal aspects of their finances.”

For Janover, that ideal is achieved by creating a culture conducive to attracting and retaining top employees. Goodman said his firm is particularly focused on the organic development of young talent, from hiring college students as interns to creating a favorable work environment. Janover now offers regular happy hours, dinner throughout the week during the busy season and a mentoring program that pairs new hires with experienced partners at the firm to advise themon career planning. Millennials, in particular, are more concerned about work-life balance. “We are not shy about doing things to make them happy,” said Goodman.

Another approach to getting better is to offer clients additional tools in response to their feedback. About three years ago, Kevin Keane, managing partner at O’Connor Davies, with offices in Harrison, N.Y., and Manhattan, said his firm detected “an outcry from our clients and from what we saw in the marketplace” about cybersecurity. The firm decided to respond by creating a dedicated internal IT cybersecurity group. Keane said the move impacted his firm’s clients “at a real deep level.” He explained, “Clients want to know the answers: How vulnerable are they? It doesn’t mean they can’t get hacked; the Pentagon’s getting hacked. But we can put the safeguards in place that these companies need to try to lessen that risk for their businesses.”

Keane argues that, these days, mid-market New York area firms increasingly can offer all the services a Big Four firm can offer, but without Big Four-pricing. “As an advisory/consulting group, we can provide a lot of services to a lot of different-sized companies now, that we couldn’t 20 years ago,” he said. “Most of our people are Big Four-trained, so you’re getting the same expertise at a better value.”

And as seasoned New York area partners move laterally between firms, they draw on their deep experience to bring better practices to their new firms. Patricia A. Cummings, co-managing partner of Citrin Cooperman’s New York City office, previously worked for 17 years at Grant Thornton. As the firm grew and prospered, however, she says the partners “had less of an opportunity to make a personal contribution.”

Cummings, who described herself as “very entrepreneurial,” decided to find a new work environment where she could make more of an impact. Since joining Citrin Cooperman two years ago, she said she has been focused on creating a work environment with more flexibility and a clearer path to career advancement. “We want to set people up for success,” she said.

If the talent is happier, so the theory goes, then clients will be happier. CohnReznick’s Esposito says today’s leading accounting professionals are capable of providing fresh insights to their clients, as well as the basic accounting skills.

“Let’s take a manufacturing company, for example,” said Esposito. “Many midsize companies are owned or partially owned by private equity groups. The goal is to have that entity grow in value and then sell it at a greater value.” A CPA firm that, as a byproduct of the audit, can bring their insights into improving EBITDA and working capital, that translates into greater value for the client.

Similarly, if an accounting firm has a law firm as a client and has the ability to benchmark that law firm against others in the area, it can alert the client if their rates or billable hours are below average. “New ideas are very valuable to clients—they create tremendous goodwill,” Esposito said. “This is the way we are going to distinguish ourselves from other firms.”