Growing Your Firm with Bob Lewis
Randy talks to Bob Lewis, who was recently named one of Accounting Today’s Top 100 Most Influential People in Accounting, about how CPA firms must position themselves in the fast-changing accounting landscape—especially as Covid rages on. Bob gives his insights into the best ways to develop prospects and referral sources, cross-selling strategies, the importance for firms to find a market niche, and the best ways for firms to position themselves through mergers and acquisitions.
Today, our guest is Bob Lewis. Bob founded the Visionary Group 25 years ago to help CPA firms grow. He helps firms grow both organically, and through custom mergers and acquisitions. Organically, Bob and his team help accounting firms refine or establish a business development and sales culture. He helps firms determine the best prospects and referral sources to pursue, develops processes to cross-sell to firm’s existing clients, and works to teach CPAs how to develop or refine their sales skills. On the M&A side, Bob helps firms by expanding their existing markets, establishing new geographic locations or adding a service or industry niche. And because of all the work he’s been doing with firms around the country, Bob was recently added to Accounting Today’s Top 100 Most Influential People in Accounting. Bob, welcome to the show.
I’m just fabulous! That was a great introduction! So, Randy—
Let’s take a minute—I’ll kind of explain what we do, and let’s go from there, okay? Would that be good for your audience here?
That’d be great. One thing before we do that, I just want to let everybody know that I’ve known you quite a long time. When we started Tri-Merit you were helping us with marketing materials and things.
Long, long time ago.
That was a long time ago. But I hadn’t seen you in a while, and you’ve been popping up at conferences, and I’ve been seeing marketing pieces with you lately. So obviously, you’ve been making the rounds. So it’s good to see you, it’s good to reconnect—we got to reconnect, I think was last January. Maybe it was.
In Vegas I believe.
That’s what it was.
It was January in Vegas, that was right before COVID became rampant. And none of us could go anywhere.
Exactly. And that—I look back to, you know, nine months ago and think “Man, I used to travel.” But, that’ll happen again. Alright, so again, welcome. I want to go through a few things today. One, if you can give us a quick background, you know, what is it that you guys do? I gave a little bit in the intro, but you could probably explain it better than I can.
Okay, the “brief infomercial” for those three people listening—no, I’m just kidding.
No! You’re dissing my audience!
And Randy and me are two of them!
So what we do is we only focus on CPA firms—that’s been our entire concentration. We know this market inside-out. We do three core things with firms: We act as the chief growth officer for firms across the country, handling all their marketing and business development, or working with in-house marketing professionals for firms that have a more established footprint.
The other thing we do, and we do quite a bit of this, is we do a lot of custom merger and acquisition work. So we find firms that are not up on the market yet for our clients, either to tuck them into an existing location or to open up in a new location, like a “platform city,” as we call it. And occasionally, which has been a growing occasion and more firms are looking to merge upward, as opposed to being the acquirer—looking to merge up or to exit out and sell. In fact, I just got off a phone call this morning with another one that’s looking at how to get out or what to do.
The last thing we do, and they certainly all ties these are all connected to growth is, we look at the succession planning inside these firms. And in a short story here, Randy, this is all tied together. So the reason why a lot of firms are looking at merger and acquisition, having to merge up, is because their succession teams don’t really have the skillset to develop business to pay out the exiting partners. So when you look at the organic side of the house, that’s the sales culture side—it’s a little bit of a hole right now, and I can explain why that happened. The succession teams that are in place are good solid people, but they don’t have the selling skills. The firm is left at the end of the day going, “How am I going to get paid out?” And their only option is often to merge upward.
So, one cure can solve a lot of problems if we can teach these people how to sell. And Randy over the years, the reason why people haven’t sold—we’ve had a really strong economy for what, 15 years at least? You’ve got a staffing shortage of CPA firms, that for accountants, there’s less people sitting for the exam every year. So work has been spoon fed down to people for the last 15 years. So now I’ve got a 40-year-old professional who’s never sold—he or she just has never had to. And now, they want to be the one with a seat at the table, and the partners are going, “Well, to get a seat at the table you need to bring in work, you need to have a network,” and they have to start from scratch at 40. And that’s kind of really the conundrum that’s existing in our firms right now.
Then let’s let’s expand on those ideas then. So you mentioned the sales end of things: helping internally teach the existing staff how to bring in additional business. You talk about the M&A side of things. And then the three things were the M&A—both growth from an M&A standpoint and growth from an organic standpoint, were those the three aspects?
Yeah, that’s really the core here. And if we look organically, if you take like a—I’m gonna use a $10 million firm just for easy math, if you’re a million dollar firm, just take one tenth of this conversation, okay? But if you’re looking to grow by 5%, on a $10 million firm, just 5% organically, that’s a half million dollars a year of new work, right? The problem is, you got runoff. So runoff is work that doesn’t repeat, clients that leave. You know, if you do any consulting and evaluation, practice anything at all, the average runoff in firms can be anywhere from 10 to 15%. And it’s not that you’re losing clients because of poor work, it’s just it’s non-repeat work. And if you’re doing any level of consulting, I’ve seen firms with 40% run off. Big firms.
So if you add another 10%, on that $10 million, just being conservative, I now need $1.5 million in revenue to get to $10.5 [million]. That’s a big change in the number. And now when you look at that, you look at how many people in a $10 million firm bring in any material level of work, the answer is often handfuls. As that number, $1.5 million gets bigger, it becomes more difficult for them to hit their growth model, because the other people inside the firm are not really bringing in enough work. That’s what we call incurred leverage, by the way.
So when we’re looking at this then, that scenario you just said, we’re a $10 million firm, we want to grow by $500,000; in reality, we’re gonna have to grow in this scenario by $1.5 million to get that $500,000 because of runoff, because of maybe even D clients getting rid of business, maybe it’s consulting services that are just not continuing every year, or specialized tax planning that’s not happening every year. All those things can contribute to this runoff that you said, and then I’m guessing that the majority of that new business, the $1.5 [million], or even potentially $2.5 [million], is coming from just a few people inside the firm. Is that normally correct?
That is a very accurate statement. And now, it doesn’t mean that more people in a $10 million firm—look, if you have a $10 million firm, using an average of $200,000 per head per professional, I’ve got 50 people, okay? So if I’ve got 50 people in the firm, if I have five of them, bringing in a material level of work, that’s typically a high number. And typically, the percentage we see is about 5%, bringing in material level of work. So in an about 50 person firm, I’ve got two to three partners bringing in the bulk of the work.
Some firms that have more of an advanced sales culture, or they have a lot more consulting, you’re going to see that number bigger because consulting—selling consulting—is a different artform than working on annuity work. So people who have more of a consultant-focused business have more skill sets and development business because they’ve had to they’ve had to learn to do it to adapt.
But they also probably have more runoff because those are probably a lot of one off consulting, right?
Well, yeah. I mean, if I’m going to do evaluation—the simplest one to look at is, if I’m going to do an evaluation on Tri-Merit, okay, I’m probably not going to do that every year. So I have to find a new Tri-Merit to do a valuation on next year to replace that. That’s just about a baseline of an example as you can get, but think about things like succession planning, you do inside these firms: one-off tax planning, estate plans, trusts. Developing those things are valuations big. But any kind of project work that’s in place—that’s why companies that sell like a lot of software, that they do software integration as part of the product line, you know, because the firms that may do that—they’re always on the hunt looking for the next project, because they have to replace that backflow.
Yep. So then I’m guessing, and just from knowing the industry—I was in public for a long time before starting Tri-Merit. But I’m guessing that the majority of that business is coming in, we just said, from a couple of people, and I’m guessing those you know, handful of people that are bringing in the business are the ones that are are looking to exit sometime soon as well. So how do we, you know, develop this growth strategy internally, if only two or three people I bring in new business? How do we train the rest of the staff, I guess?
It’s a little bit of a mixed bag now. So it could be some of the younger professionals that are bringing in work, like some of the younger partners. But at the end of the day, those partners are also doing a lot of line production. Administration in the firm—they’re handling so many other issues at the time to compression on their time is very limited. So how much time they even have to go out and develop the new work becomes an issue.
To me, the easiest thing to do—like Randy, if you’ve never sold before, which I know you have because you’re in a company, which requires catch, okay? If you didn’t need revenue, selling would be easy. It really would be! But the easiest place for people that don’t have a lot of sales acumen and skills in place—you start with the existing clients, okay? You’ve got a relationship with the existing clients, you’ve got all their financial information, you can identify where they’re having problems with cashflow issues, or maybe even simple things like using credit cards—can you reduce the credit card costs? There’s companies out there that specialize in that. All these different things.
But looking at even more corporate basic issues, look at their AR. If they have an aged AR, that could be a sign that they don’t have a collections process in place, they aren’t doing their billing efficiently, that they’re having the wrong kind of client that isn’t paying. So simple things like that, then all our records are right there—so you need to teach the staff how to begin to look at the client differently outside the scope of like a tax or audit engagement.
The only other big signal is looking at the age. So if I’ve got, you know, let’s face it, the Baby Moomers are 65 now, Randy, soon to be 66. They’re about to have a birthday, the average Baby Boomer is going to be 66. They own—estimates are—about 60% of the businesses in the United States. So if I’ve got, you know, 20, 30% of my clients, which is probably a low number, in their mid-60s, ovsisc businesses, how are we helping with transition planning? That’s an easy pick, because that involves sometimes changes in financial reporting, tax strategies, valuations, all kinds of work that fuels the firm, and the staff can at least identify it, if not learn how to sell it. That would be a huge advantage for firms.
So then you’re hitting that number, organically, internally, without even having to go out and pitch new business to new clients.
The way we typically get the numbers, let’s assume that it was a $1.5 million number they have to hit. We’d like to break it into four buckets. One is direct prospects that you want to go after, because you want to be selective if we go after they have the kind of like A-level client that you want next. Then we look at referral partners. So what efforts do you have in place marketing to referral partners. Because referral partners will often stereotype a firm. “You’re my auditor, you’re the guy, you do audits.” Like, “Whoa, that’s what we do for your three clients we’re working with, but we do many other things.”
And referral partners, if they can convert them, and get them engaged to work with our banking clients or whatever, law firm clients, that’s an annuity feed. So you look at the direct clients, they’re direct prospects. You look at the referral partners. You look at those existing clients, as we talked about, and then you look at value pricing. You have to look at how can you value price.
Now, you can’t do contingent fees anymore in the CPA profession—at least not overtly. But you can value price on a fixed-fee engagement and make more than rate. And that’s another way to make up that $1.5 million target. Or if you’re a smaller firm, whatever that number flows out to be.
By the way, anybody that is listening, we have a pretty interesting growth model for firms. It’s a one page Excel spreadsheet, it’s really simple to use, and it allows you to calculate different percentages for runoff and growth and adding an M&A deal. Happy to send it out to anybody who just wants to send us an email, and we’ll we’ll plug it out and send it out to you, and then you can play with a model and do what you want to do with it. One page very simple to use.
That’s great. So at the end, we’ll make sure that you get out some contact information, so people that are interested in that, I think that’d be great to get into their hands.
Alright, so let’s go into that growth in general now. We’ve been, you know, training employees, we’ve been showing them how to identify additional work. But growth for growth’s sake is great, but there has to be a point to it other than just “Let’s get bigger on the revenue size,“ I’m assuming we want to increase the value, or we want to increase the take-home pay for all employees, you know, partners, employees—we want to make ourselves be a target potentially for acquisition. I mean, so when we’re looking at growth, what’s the point that we’re trying to accomplish?
Okay, there’s two components to the growth side. All steps that you do inside the firm should be looking at how do you build the value of the firm. So let’s start with that. So the question becomes, “How do I make the firm more valuable, should I be able to put it up for sale today?”
Now, you may never want to sell your firm, but if you’re operating the firm under the premise of becoming more valuable, you’re probably making more profits from it and/or developing a firm that your succession team actually wants to buy into.
The third option, of course, is, you know, you’re also market-ready, should somebody knock on the door, or you have to make a change in direction and have to merge it up, you want to be able to get optimal value. And optimal value is a very variable question. Some people’s optimal value is not money, it’s a solution for their clients and their employees. There’s a lot of ways to look at value. But the other side about growth is you do have to get bigger. It is a revenue play. And in this market right now, when you look at the cost of administration, recruiting, technology, all the regulatory issues involved, it’s hard for smaller firms to survive, because they can’t do all the pieces.
And that artificial intelligence, it’s creeping around in the background, just creeping around out there. It’s coming up, it raises its head, that’s gonna automate a lot of compliance work. And when that happens, if you don’t have enough size and leverage, you’re going to get hit hard, and the cost of that technology for the automation is going to get more and more expensive, plus the implementation of it. And it’s hard for a small firm to really be able to adapt.
That’s one of the reasons why there’s actually a lot of M&A going on is some firms are just giving up. They just, they can’t hire talent, right on their own. They’re not large enough
Let’s talk about the M&A activity then, obviously, you just mentioned one reason M&A has been has been big in general, what are you seeing in the M&A circuit right now?
Okay. Well, COVID was a just phenomenal year for M&A. People were like, “Oh, let me just sell my firm in the middle of a pandemic when I’m perfectly alive.” So we have recently seen the ice melt on M&A: We’ve had a massive amount of activity all year. I mean, just all year. Conversations have been going on, but getting deals to close. And that’s even evident in what you see in the papers, when you read Accounting Today, not a lot of deals flow from that. Honestly, to be blunt, most deals that occur never hit the paper. They just really don’t. But the big name ones always do.
So we have closed this year—just in the last month—we’ve closed three deals. And we have right now, four more under Letter of Intent. We are doing searches all over the country for dozens of firms right now, all kinds of sizes from small firms all the way to the Top 20 kind of firm in different cities. There’s a lot of hesitancy in some of these deals still, because people are not sure, depending on the mix of the firm, their client bases have been impacted quite heavily by the pandemic. But some of the firms are really killing it right now. They’re having record years; other firms are not—they’re having a lot of difficulty. Can you imagine if you had a firm that specialized in restaurants?
Yep, it’d be tough.
We’ve talked to quite a few of those, by the way, and they’re about half the size of what they were. We talked to a firm in Hawaii, right before the pandemic. It was looking to merge up and out. They’ve probably lost half the revenue. It’s just, you know, it is what it is, I mean, Hawaii is all commercial tourism, and that shuts down. That’ll come back, but you know, then they’ll reposition and get back in the market.
Everything’s gonna stabilize. I think the question is, people are getting older while it’s stabilizing, and eventually, they’re going to be forced to make a decision to get out at some value that may not be what they optimally want. But you know, at some point, you have to move on with your life and get you know, you’ve moved into the retirement stage
The M&A side, though has been very interesting. Values have fallen a little, but they’re still reasonable out there. There’s a lot of activity in small firms.
Is it still—I mean the smaller firms acquiring small firms, or?
Yeah, there’s a lot of people that are—I had this conversation the other day with another, actually a peer, because we’re trying to figure something out in the market we don’t understand. We’re seeing a lot of smaller firms getting acquired quickly, and they’re not getting acquired by the larger firms, because the larger firms don’t want the really small firms, because they don’t fit in their portfolio, right?
So what we’re thinking is going on is there’s a lot of people that, you know—“I was a CFO of a company, I’m no longer the CFO of a company because of the pandemic, I take my severance or my whatever, and I buy an accounting firm, a small practice.” That’s where I think a lot of that market is going right now. I’m not sure how long that’s going to sustain itself, but it’s just been an unusual trend we’re seeing for some of the smaller firms turning quickly. And normally, they aren’t the most attractive—but there are, by the way, 39,000 small firms in this country.
That’s quite a few.
Yeah, there’s only 40,000 total, roughly. So there’s 1,000 firms with a million dollars or more in revenue, is really the estimate.
Yeah, that’s a lot of firms available for merger and acquisition on one end or the other. I’m assuming when we’re looking at M&A work, obviously, you know, someone who’s acquiring or looking to merge in a firm, maybe has different ideas or reasons that they’re doing it, from the ones that are being acquired. I’m assuming when you are acquired, often it is an exit strategy.
Yeah, it’s a hybrid, often. If it’s a really small, firm with one owner, typically, it’s a straight up transition. They’re just looking at an exit strategy. If you’ve got a smaller firm with a couple of partners, often it’ll have a, we’ll call it hybrid—you’ll see one older partner who may be wanting to be out in a couple years with a younger 40-year-old partner that’s going to be there for permanent. And that’s actually what a lot of the upward merger partners are looking for—they’re looking for some succession team, they’re looking for niches. Niches are huge right now.
Oh I was gonna say that, yeah.
Yeah. Do you have an all-construction firm, are they all planning for whatever? That makes a much more valuable practice from an acquisition perspective.
Because the acquiree is looking to add that niche that they don’t have, or expand that niche that they do have?
Yeah, and typically, when you’re niched up very deeply, you’ve got good quality clients, where a generalist firm can have a diverse mix of clients that may not have quite the same value-add to the bottom line that the larger firm’s looking for.
I’m guessing it’s the smaller firm, who does not—is the generalist—it might be late in the game, if they’re looking to get merged and become that niche. I mean, it doesn’t happen overnight for you to become a niche firm.
No it doesn’t.
It takes long term planning. I’m assuming they can put that into play. Do you recommend that for firms that are, if they’ve got a 5, 10 year horizon or something? Are you involved at that point?
Oh, no—I would definitely recommend strongly that they open up some kind of a niche. It doesn’t have to be an industry niche, it could be a service. So you know, one of the easiest ones for me to grab ahold of: we’ll put up a transition planning niche inside your firm. You’ve always got a steady feed of of clients that are going to have to find a way out, or do family succession. And a lot of those services related to that, are services the firm can provide directly until you get into the brokerage on the back end, which is actually helping sell a firm. But you can align that with brokers in the market that specialize in selling that type of a company.
That to me, that would be something easy for most firms to get ahold of. It just takes a little bit of time to to lay it out. We call it a transition blueprint. It’s really not that complicated, but even some of those service entries are great. I will tell you right now, if it were me, and I had a 10 year window to exit, I’d be building a client accounting services niche, and I would be building that hard because that is what firms are looking for.
Client accounting services, that’s that’s the thing that’s really been changing lately in public accounting isn’t it?
Because that dropped for a while, correct?
Well, the problem was people refer to it as bookkeeping. And they thought of it as, you know, you could hire somebody for $12 an hour to do QuickBooks, and take care of your books. That’s not client accounting services, that is pure bookkeeping. Client accounting services is going, “Hey, Randy, you’re 100 person organization, you don’t want to focus on the accounting. Let us outsource that accounting function for you, or work with your CFO. Controller will take care of the transactional side or become your fractional and take care of the whole side.” And that’s client accounting services—not the bookkeeping, where half a million dollar company goes and gets somebody to do write up work for $500 a month. That’s why firms got away from it. Because that’s what the model was.
Now, there’s a massive ability here to be able to do client accounting services virtually. So you can do it anywhere, you can specialize your niches, and the technology is so much better than it used to be, that it’s now something that people can bring back in. And when you look at the value prop on that thing—it sounds so cool to say the word “value prop”—the value proposition on that: So if you’ve got a firm that’s charging $150 an hour for accounting services, that’s a hard number to sell. Because I look at it and go, I can hire somebody for $300,000 a year time. 150 an hour, right?
So set everything up, everything goes to fixed fee. So instead of charging you $3,000 a month, $4,000 a month, $10,000 a month. And I’m like “Oh, $5,000 a month, $60,000 a year, I can’t even hire a qualified person off the street for that, but I can hire an entire, complete department with a turnkey operation.”
They’re charging $150 an hour to do it, maybe $200. But the client doesn’t care, they just see the tab: a fixed fee. And that’s where the value-add comes in, when you look at your equation, and how to build to get your $1.5 million or whatever that number is you’re looking at, but you got to be able to systemize and do it. You can’t do it by adding you know, ten more bookkeepers to your staff, trying to do it that way. That’s where firms are having trouble a little bit, struggling to make that conversion. And then who do they target?
So when you do add a niche like that, or you add a niche evaluation, or you know, we’re a niche firm with specialty techs.
Yeah. I’m a niche firm.
Yeah. When you have that niche aspect to it, you know—when I was in public accounting, I merged two firms into a smaller firms, you know, they were not big deals, but at that point, we were looking at, like, you know, 1x billing was about the valuation. Is that still common? And if so, is it higher when you are a niche firm?
Okay, so let’s talk about valuation on this. The typical way we answer this question is, “All deals start in the multiple of 1x, okay?” Now Randy, your practice could go for a little bit more. Likely in this market, most of them are going for a little bit less. We see deals fall more at more 0.9, 0.5, 0.85, depending on the issue. We had one, we did a 1.5 last year. It was a phenomenal deal at the end of the day. We tried to talk our client off the ledge three times. We’re like, “We think this is a huge mistake. We’re talking ourselves out of our own success here.” But at the end of the day, it was the right thing for him to do. He was right on the money for what he was thinking. I knew why he did it—it was just a calculated risk, and it paid off for him.
But you start the conversation at 1x and say, “Randy, I have to look at your book and look and understand your practice and what it’s worth. There’s so many variables: Do you have a bench? How old are your clients? What are you selling? What’s your average rate structure? What’s your realization?” Now, if you got a niche, good chance, you’ve got a higher performing company. That could sell for a little bit more. But now it also comes down to, “Are we looking at some kind of cash upfront? What’s the payout terms? How long do you want to be around?” All these are variables that come into the equation.
I had one client who just did a deal, and the multiple went down quite a bit, because we assumed the lease. We assumed the lease that, quite frankly, he never should have signed in the first place, but we took the liability off their back—he took a liability off his back, off the other firm’s back, and it was adjusted in the price. So there’s all kinds of waste.
My point is, if you’re able to buy a firm for like 0.7 or 0.6, I would question why. Especially if you’re not paying all cash upfront, which is a high risk proposition.
If I could buy a firm for like, 0.6 value and pay him over time for that, or something in there that’s not right. Or you’re dealing with a very unsophisticated seller, but how did they build a practice that was that great if they weren’t that smart? So yeah, we haveve a ton of horror stories in M&A. That’s always a ball.
Well, I don’t think we’ll do that on this podcast. One day, I’m gonna talk to you about those horror stories just to hear—probably not on air, oh, unless we decide to.
I’ll keep them quiet, I’ll make it discreet. Nobody knows.
Maybe we’ll get out of it, but we’ll have a podcast, the horror stories of M&A, maybe after the pandemic.
Alright, so we’ve kind of gone into a lot today, you know, not real deep in some, little deeper in others, but just that whole growth aspect from, you know, let’s train internal staff to be able to bring additional business, and that can be for a few different reasons: One, let’s have organic growth and organic transformation from one group of partners to the next—I’m assuming that’s key for that.
We talked about the M&A with being able to either grow your firm or have an exit strategy for your partners or just, you know, wanting to be able to stay in your firm, but have additional services you offer by merging up. Things like that, organic growth. Anything that I missed out on, any key aspects that we need to highlight before we wrap that up?
Now, I would say just in summary: Look, if you’re looking at your firm, any size firm, look at even the big ones, you have to look at how many of your people can really bring in work. That’s the first thing. If you got people, you’ve got to have a lot of line technicians too, because line people get the work done. You can’t expect people to convert into salespeople overnight, and you have to figure out if you’ve got a herd of 10, or 20, or 30, you’re trying to figure out how to get them to sell more, probably only a third of them are going to be able to make it work. But you want to put the energy and resources into making that work.
Because those third we’ll be getting very succession team that’s going to allow you to either have more options, and quite frankly, helping grow the practice significantly. Getting them over the fear of selling is the first thing. They learn that by learning how to ask the right questions. Most of them have no idea how to ask the right questions. So I’ll ask you a question like “Randy, are you happy with your current firm?” So I’m asking you a closed question, and you go “Yes,” and then, “What do I do?”
Right! Oh, yeah.
So ask a different kind of questions! Figure out how to ask them. And it’s easy for us to show people how to learn to ask different questions, or how to ask for referrals without any rejections.
More like finding their pain point type questions, or?
So like, here: it’s all about finding the pain. We call it “the why.” Why do they want to make a change? Nobody wants to talk to a CPA firm. No company wants to talk to a CPA firm just because they feel like taking phone calls. So why did they take the meeting? Something’s going on, you have to figure out how to get there. And to get there, you have to ask the right questions.
So like, Randy, as an example, why firms don’t ask for referrals? Because they ask, “Well, Randy, you know, I’ve worked with you for a couple years now. I’d love to get some firms just like yours that would—who can you recommend?” I’m asking you a question now, I’m putting you on the spot. You’re thinking you don’t have anybody you may not want to refer and I’ve created an awkward situation.
So if I just asked you the question differently: “Randy, you deal with a lot of firms across the country. If you see one that looks like they need some help with growth or merger and acquisitions, give me a call, send me an email.” Now I’m not looking for anything from you right now, and I planted the seed, which I just did to you, by the way, Randy, I just planted the seed to you!
I noticed that!
I didn’t even plan it, that was completely accidental! But that is how you deal with a client the same way you’re just, “Hey, if you think of somebody, we’d love to talk to them, you know, give us a call, send an email.” Just make sure that, like Randy next week, I won’t call you or send you an email going, “What were those firms again?” Just let it go. Plant the seed. It may work. It may not. And we’ll move on there. Simple things like this can get people moving and talking.
No, I can see that in sales. CPAs in general, I have always said this—and hear it—that one, they don’t want to be sold to, which, you know, kind of to me translates that they feel awkward selling. So yeah, I’ve always gone with the standpoint of, one, when I’m selling, which I don’t really say, I’m just educating people. I’m just out there, I do tons of education, and I love it. And that’s what we’re doing. And then if they find it’s interesting, that it’s something they can use, then they’ll call me.
That’s the way we approach it, too. We figure, we’ll share information, we’ll talk to people about their issues. If they think we’re really smart—
—Well, maybe one of the two listeners today will think you’re smart.
But wait, we had three, remember? We had three. I really appreciate the time today, Randy.
Before we wrap up, two things we gotta do: One, and I didn’t warn you ahead of time—I like to end on a fun fact. So I don’t know if you have a fun fact about Bob Lewis you’d like to share, and it’s not, you know, you like educating CPAs. It’s like, you’re a skateboarder or a surfer or you collect thimbles or something. Any fun fact.
Shockingly, I’m not in my 30s anymore, but—or 40s. But up until like a year and a half ago, I played full court basketball twice a week for fifteen years.
So Bob, you and I got along well on that. I played three to five times a week from age 18 till age 53, until my legs couldn’t take it anymore, and I got a new knee now.
My left knee decided at one point it had enough. So but yes, I love playing. I can’t say I was good at it, I was streaky at best. But I was a great block. Nice size, I could stand there and take a charge really well.
Pick and roll? Would you roll to the basket at least and look for the ball?
I’d do a little roll. I’m better at the pick.
Yeah! I love basketball. That’s one thing I miss more than anything right now, is being able to get out and play, and I’ve been tempted to like, “Alright, let’s get down to like the lightest I’ve ever been and see if I could put a little weight on that knee—I’m not sure it’s gonna work, but…”
Yeah, I tore it. It is what it is.
So fun fact, and I didn’t know that about you! I wish I would have known that about you. I was still playing, you know,12 years ago, when we met. We could have went out on the court, I guess.
Alright, and then last thing, let’s get your contact information, whether it’s a website or LinkedIn, or whatever, so if people want that Excel, or any other information from you.
Sure. Yeah, the growth model is kind of cool, because you can play with it. And there’s no charge for it, it’s brilliant stuff. We just fire it off for you.
So we’re at (800) 995-9186 if you call in. The website is thinkvisionary.com. And then my email is
We have a lot of very interesting things coming out right now. The pandemic actually forced us to think through some things, like we’re starting to do some very interesting things with proposals right now. We’re showing our clients how to use some kind of a little more cutting edge techniques to specifically go after a company, like a technique to open a door, for one company. So we’ll see how that works out.
But you guys got to keep swinging at some different areas because everything’s the market’s constantly changing. You got to adapt.
So you’ve got to adapt and change along with it.
Well, it’s been great having you on. Great to catch up. Wish we’d go out and play some basketball—that’s not gonna happen. But I’m looking forward to seeing you at some conference sometime next fall, I’m assuming.
Hey, so Randy, remember one thing. Send that referral. You gotta send that firm a referral.
I’m calling next week!
You brainwashed me. It’s in there now I think—and I know that Bob needs to talk to you.
Alright. And again, I just really appreciate you doing this. I know you got to actually get on the road here in an hour, so I appreciate you squeezing this in.
Thank you for joining us today. And you can find all the links and show notes for today’s episode, as well as more about Tri-Merit, at TheUniqueCPA.com. Remember to subscribe and join us for our next episode where we’ll be going beyond compliance into forging new pathways of delivering value to clients diversifying your revenue streams and leading edge management techniques and styles.
Bob Lewis on LinkedIn
About the Guest
Bob Lewis founded The Visionary Group in 1995 in an effort to help CPA firms grow. He is a frequent speaker on contemporary ways to grow a CPA firm organically and through custom merger and acquisition searches. His prior experience was as a Financial Analyst and Regional Accounting Manager for Fortune 36 technology company.
Bob and his team help accounting firms refine or establish a business development and sales culture. He helps firms determine the best fit prospects and referral sources to pursue, develops processes to cross-sell the firm’s existing clients and works to teach CPAs how to develop or refine their sales skills and networking. He helps succession teams get more engaged in the firm’s growth and comfortable and capable of bringing in new business.
Bob earned his Bachelor’s and MBA from DePaul University in 1981 and 1986, respectively.
Meet the Host
Randy Crabtree, CPA
Randy Crabtree, co-founder and partner of Tri-Merit Specialty Tax Professionals, is a widely followed author, lecturer and podcast host for the accounting profession.
Since 2019, he has hosted the bi-weekly “The Unique CPA,” podcast, which ranks among the world’s 5% most popular programs (Source: Listen Score). You can find articles from Randy in Accounting Today’s Voices column, the AICPA Tax Adviser (Tax-saving opportunities for the housing and construction industries) and he is a regular presenter at conferences and virtual training events hosted by CPAmerica, Prime Global, Leading Edge Alliance (LEA), Allinial Global and several state CPA societies. Crabtree also provides continuing professional education to top 100 CPA firms across the country.
Schaumberg, Illinois-based Tri-Merit is a niche professional services firm that specializes in helping CPAs and their clients benefit from R&D tax credits, cost segregation, the energy efficient commercial buildings deduction (179D), the energy efficient home credit (45L) and the employee retention credit (ERC).
Prior to joining Tri-Merit, Crabtree was managing partner of a CPA firm in the greater Chicago area. He has more than 30 years of public accounting and tax consulting experience in a wide variety of industries, and has worked closely with top executives to help them optimize their tax planning strategies.