The Top Recession Lesson for 2010

Lesson #1: Reading situations clearly and quickly, without rose-colored glasses. Next question: What to expect for 2010? Join the survey; see the results.

by Rick Telberg
At Large

While some accountants and CPA firms have been reacting to the business downturn by hunkering down, a few notable firms and their enterprising leaders are finding new opportunities for growth. Their strategies provide clues to success in the new economic environment of 2010.

Local firms like Fitts, Roberts & Co. P.C. in Houston; Meyners & Co. in Albuquerque, N.M.; and Barfield, Murphy, Shank & Smith in Birmingham, Ala., are seizing opportunities to improve operations, upgrade staff, win new business and gain market share. Their stories emerged from a panel discussion I moderated at the annual CCH user conference.

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To be sure, none of the firms has been immune to layoffs. But partners at each firm believe their firms are stronger now than before.

Bruce Malott, managing partner at Meyners & Co., acknowledged “people are afraid.” Clients are skittish. Even a Fortune 1000 prospect that he thought he had locked up for state and local tax planning work put the deal on hold as part of a general corporate freeze on new spending. “And we’d have saved them millions,” an incredulous Malott said.

Still, at the end of this business cycle, Malott expects to have a bigger, better client list than before.

Malott is offering prospects a free “Tax Optimizer” engagement, in which his staffers may spend two days probing the company’s state, local and federal tax issues. “There’s always something to find,” he says. “And sometimes you get the business.” In one case, his team found a way to save a prospect $1 million; they were hired on the spot.


At Fitts, Roberts & Co., tax partner and IT chief Kay Parker said recovery begins with “overcoming partner fear and inertia.” That done, the firm is adding new talent in strategically important areas. At the same time, costs are coming down. For example, her firm is taking advantage of lowered prices on rent and their broadband connection.


At Barfield, Murphy, Shank & Smith, Managing Partner Don Murphy is working with staffers to help them understand the effects of the business downturn on the community, their clients and the firm. It’s essential, he said, for staffers at every level to understand as much as possible about the economics of a CPA firm. It makes them better businesspeople and gives them a deeper bond with the firm.

Each of these firms moved fast to adjust spending and refocus growth strategies.

Barfield, Murphy, Shank & Smith, for instance, quickly assembled a special team of firm experts to deal with clients facing particularly severe difficulty. They call it the TurnAround Services Committee, or TASC Force. Headed by each of the firm’s three founding shareholders, the TASC Force provides services such as business health checkups, financial benchmarking, human resource management, credit underwriting data assistance, cash flow projections and cost control.

Fitts, Roberts & Co. P.C. has snapped up talent in business valuation and state and local tax and maintains quarterly marketing meetings guided by a consultant to stay on top of new opportunities.

You can glean a few good lessons from these firms in being adaptive, agile and aggressive. The first lesson: Read the situation without rose-colored glasses and react quickly. Next week, we’ll gather a few more lessons from these savvy CPAs.

BUSY SEASON FORECAST: What to expect? How to gear up? Join the survey; get the results.

COMMENTS: Rants, raves, questions, ideas? E-mail Rick Telberg.

Copyright 2009 AICPA. Used with permission.