- Buying a CPA firm
- Growing a client base
- Building a network across small CPA firms
- The value of a strong support system
Hannah Curtis started her career at BKD and had an incredible opportunity to buy an existing firm when she was 24 years old. Read her story below!
I grew up in Utah where sports and family were a big part of my life. I went to Dixie State University in Utah to play college volleyball. I ended up getting married at the young age of 20 - one of the best decisions I’ve ever made - but that led me to move to Wichita, KS where I finished up my accounting degree at Wichita State.
I started my career at BKD. I did a split internship with BKD beforehand where it was half audit, half tax, and I chose the tax route because I saw my career going further that way as I could better assist my husband with his real estate investments. I absolutely loved my time at BKD. I wanted to be a partner - the culture was amazing, I was challenged, and I felt appreciated.
What led me to leave BKD was an unexpected opportunity. There was a CPA firm (Ken Green & Co CPAs) down in Dallas where the owner was looking to build an exit plan and sell the business. The owner of the firm is Ken Green and I knew his ex-wife, Tracie. She knew Ken was looking for an exit path, so she vetted me for about a year and half - always asking about my work and about BKD. It was a tough decision because I was essentially giving up my dream of becoming a partner at BKD, but I decided to go for it. I’m currently in the process of buying out the firm on a five-year plan.
It’s been about 2 ½ years since I joined the firm, so I’m essentially doing everything at this point as the owner. Ken’s role has faded as far as everyday responsibilities, he still handles one large client that he has a strong relationship with.
I handle about everything else as far as day to day goes. I have been able to have the autonomy to make a lot of changes and have been able to incorporate much more technology into the firm which has been a huge value add. As a small firm, I get to wear many hats. From taking out the trash to managing high profile clients, I get to do it all! From my perspective, that is the beauty of a small firm.
I also brought someone from BKD with me to be a co-owner, so we have two partners and then 14 staff. Aside from growing in my technical accounting knowledge, I’ve had to learn a lot about being an entrepreneur and running a business such as managing staff, payroll, and bills; which in turn has helped me give advice to the business owners that I serve as clients.
Since I’m still at a public accounting firm, my days are very cyclical to the time of year. January - April is our busiest time, during which I will typically work 70-75 hour weeks. We don’t have a bad extension tax season, so it dies off heavily after April 15th. During the busy period, it has been much harder to balance my time than it was at BKD because there is significantly more client contact. Instead of doing a huge hundred hour return for one client, I’m spreading that same time over hundreds of clients. That translates into a higher quantity of emails, phone calls, and client meetings.
Right now is a fabulous time in my life. Post October 15th through December 31st, my days primarily consist of tax planning and some one-off requests for clients. This period is when I can catch-up, enjoy life, and remember what is important. For example, this December I’m going to Peru to explore Machu Picchu for 10 days.
That’s one of the best pieces of advice I received from a former co-worker. She said you should never feel bad about exploiting the slower times at work - soak it up and make sure you feel refreshed for the periods you won’t be able to take that time for yourself.
One thing I felt I did a very good job of is that I really took advantage of my time at BKD while I was there. I took the saying “carpe diem” into my work life and tried to soak up as much knowledge & experience that BKD could offer. I knew the work I put in in the early years would pay off later in my life (at the time, I thought it would be in the form of becoming a partner at BKD) and decided to invest in my future. I consistently worked more hours than anyone else in the entire tax department that year because I had the mindset to learn and grow as much as I could. This is a bad joke I told my husband, but I felt like my time at BKD was like earning another college degree, and I should have been paying them instead of vice versa based on how much I was learning!
I learned a lot as far as technical accounting goes, but I was able to extract leadership skills from the people that were there. You gain insight on how to handle the business, communicate with clients, and properly manage staff.
I think attitude is number one. Working 80 hours a week is not super fun all the time but having a good attitude and keeping your goals at the forefront of your mind will help you grow while being challenged. You need to become comfortable with the uncomfortable. Even in my current role, I’m often uncomfortable, but that makes me push myself even further. Soak up the uncomfortable and have a good attitude while doing it.
Another piece of positive feedback I got was my ability to work as a team, which comes from my background playing sports. That team dynamic translates to public accounting and really all work environments in my opinion - you share in the wins and losses, and by pouring yourself into the team you will all be better connected to your work and your goals.
If anyone out there reading this is thinking about buying their own CPA firm, I highly recommend you keep the prior owner on for at least one or two years. Ken had been growing the firm for 40 years and some of the clients have been with him the entire time, so it takes time to transition that reputation and loyalty, and you want the prior owner to be an advocate for you.
We currently have about 2,000 clients and we grow about 10% annually through client referrals without doing any marketing. Our biggest problem is managing that organic growth. I would like to get to the point where I’m networking and actively looking for new clients but right now growing the client base is luckily not a problem we have.
Personally, I don’t consider myself a ‘stereotypical’ accountant and I often get that comment from clients. I’m very outgoing and I love to talk to people. In a partner role, a lot of what I do each day is to generate business by maintaining client communication and relationships, so the people aspect is a huge part of the job you would have to enjoy. And that’s not solely from a client-facing side as you have to manage your own people and staff as well. You need to have the confidence to answer hard questions and be the person that has the final say in decisions.
It goes without saying, but you also should enjoy doing taxes. Although I’m a partner, a lot of my work still consists of doing the actual tax preparation and/or review, so you better really love that part if you want to do this full-time.
One of the problems I’m trying to solve is how to grow the resources available to small firms but still maintain that boutique and family aspect. At BKD, we had the support needed to dive into any issue since we had a national office doing the research beforehand and could call on the experts for some added guidance. Now, when the CARES Act or any other tax regulation comes out, it’s just me and my partner doing the research and we don’t have any other outlets to bounce ideas off of or help interpret.
A long-term goal is to build a type of network between a group of small firms where we can utilize each other as a knowledge resource. I want ambitious, motivated CPAs to not have to wait for the timeline of the progression of a large public accounting firm and have the resources to venture out on their own if they want to go that route. They would have the autonomy to run the CPA firm themselves but have the support from the rest of us.
I’d like to add that having a support system cannot be understated. I would not be where I am today without my support system, and particularly, my husband. Whenever I’m about to break he reminds me that I can do anything and having something like that in your own life is vital during difficult personal and professional times.
I’m also a believer in creating a board of directors for yourself, a group of friends and family that you can call on for advice and to remind you what is important. Situations will come up that you will want your own trusted advisors to help you make the best decision.