SS&G’s leaders found that when they accentuate the difference, success follows Featured

9:19pm EDT May 31, 2013
Mark Goldfarb, Bob Littman and Gary Shamis Mark Goldfarb, Bob Littman and Gary Shamis

When Gary Shamis, Bob Littman and Mark Goldfarb created the accounting and business consulting firm SS&G Inc. in 1987, the trio had a vision that defied the traditional accounting world.

Their radical idea: Focus on people.

“It was a real sweatshop kind of mentality for the profession,” Goldfarb says. “You worked 3,000 hours a year [eight hours a day, every day of the year]. We opened it up and created opportunities for people who worked part-time.”

That was the genesis of the partners’ philosophy that today continues to define how SS&G differentiates itself from the competition: Growth, client service and an employee-centric culture.

“All three work together harmoniously,” says Shamis, senior managing director. “If you have them all going and you focus on it, the results can be very positive.”

You’ll notice that absent among the three is the notion of operating with a generous supply of black ink.

“We always felt that partner profitability and things like that were going to be a byproduct of doing all the other things right, so we didn’t focus our business on enhancing the bottom line of the owners,” Shamis says. “We focused our business on cultural aspects that we thought would be good for our people, good for our clients and, in the end, what we thought would be good for us. It has really worked out that way.”

Today, SS&G provides various client service initiatives. Each of them is intended to make an impression.

“We publish stories about client service going above and beyond in terms of, say, driving through a snowstorm to deliver a tax return,” says Goldfarb, senior managing director. “We really try to make that part of the culture, so that when somebody calls, everyone knows here, you had better call that client back; if not immediately, certainly within the next business day.”

This mentality has helped the partners and their teams spark significant growth over the past few decades. From a small firm with about 10 employees, SS&G has grown to more than 500 employees at 12 offices in eight cities in four states, including new offices in Chicago. With annual revenue of $70 million, SS&G ranks among the top 100 independent accounting firms in the U.S., including being named the 41st largest U.S. accounting firm by Accounting Today.

Here’s how Shamis, Goldfarb and Littman grew the firm by emphasizing its differentiation and is taking steps to ensure SS&G continues long into the future.

Get the talent

Some professions attract more men than women; in others, it is the opposite case. Accounting had been a traditionally male-dominated industry until the 1980s, when it reached parity. In recent years, however, women have been rapidly joining the ranks. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics for 2012 reports that 61 percent of all accountants and auditors were females.

So with an eye on whom and where the talent was coming from, SS&G years ago established a plan that fit lifestyle concerns and issues into the firm’s culture.

“Most of our offices are suburban,” Shamis says. “Many other large accounting firms are downtown. Suburban locations make it a lot easier for somebody who is female and raising a family to be more accessible to what she needs access to — school for conferences; and if she has a sick child she can get home sooner rather than if

[her office were] downtown — and it really became a focus on being able to try to hire these professionals who were women in their family-raising years.

“We have been able to get this incredible, top-notch talent, but we had to create an environment that was slightly different,” he says.

And this has opened the door to groom a lot of great female professionals

“We probably have one of the largest percentages of female partners in the accounting profession because of that,” Goldfarb says.

And, Goldfarb says, this has contributed to such a positive work environment at SS&G that it has become genetic.

“We are told all the time from people we hire that this is such a great, warm environment here compared to where they worked in a previous life,” he says. “It’s something that is really part of our DNA.”

With a powerful corporate DNA in place, you can then develop a culture that attracts talent by which you can grow a company.

“It’s important that everybody here understands the culture; it’s important that we follow it, we preach it,” says Littman, SS&G’s CEO. “Our organization is obviously about people. And to attract key people, you have to grow. If you don’t grow, you can’t find the talent and you can’t keep the talent. Growth has been important, and that is why we have been a Weatherhead 100 company more than 10 times.”

Be creative in your growth

Creativity comes in many forms. In business, you can as creative as you want to be when it comes to determining how to differentiate your company from the competition. SS&G looked at the kind of organic growth it had achieved over the years and took the entrepreneurial path.

First, the partners began to develop specialized divisions.

“We formed a wealth management business almost 20 years ago,” Goldfarb says. “Health care consulting, probably 15 years ago, payroll, 30 years ago [and] SS&G Parkland, which is our consulting division, was created last year.”

In an effort to strengthen this differentiation, SS&G opted to mold itself as a one-stop shop for clients and their financial service needs.

“Rather than referring to different service providers, where we had no ability to control the outcome, we created these businesses, which have been very successful and have grown dramatically over the years,” Goldfarb says. “But these businesses share the same culture of being employee-centric. All share the same client service culture and growth for the purpose of creating opportunities for employees.”

“Being entrepreneurial was really part of the vision of our firm for years,” Littman says. “We had an outlook that we could provide these other services that would fit for many of our clients. And it has been very, very successful.”

In addition to creating new divisions, SS&G also played a large part in creating an association of accounting firms. Shamis led the formation of the Leading Edge Alliance, of which SS&G has been a member for 10 years.

Leading Edge firms share best practices. Goldfarb says it has been an invaluable asset – not just to SS&G but to all the organizations and their respective clients.

“We like to think that that gives us a lot of credibility when we sit down across the table from a prospective client,” he says. “We can certainly be a better adviser, given all the things that we have done on our own.”

Develop a succession plan

While your company may have established a name for itself through differentiation, all the years of building that reputation can be lost in a flash if, for example, a new leadership team comes in with different ideas.

Enter the succession plan.

SS&G recently completed a reorganization of the firm’s leadership, and then spent more than a year preparing the company for the transition.

“It was announced some 16 months ago,” Littman says. “We have been planning for this over that time frame, and we will continue to plan and transition even after the target date.”

The plan signaled to SS&G employees that Littman, Shamis and Goldfarb were focused on the long-term future of the firm and intended to protect it from the confusion and disorder that often happens whenever there is a shakeup of any size.

Doing so also allowed the trio to help boost morale, motivation and satisfaction among employees since more than likely there will be other changes, such as promotions and movement across positions.

“This can be a real pivotal place (in time),” Shamis says. “(People wonder), How is this going to work? Is it going to be the same place?”

Also, by establishing a clear succession plan, it helps clients reduce any fears that the team they’re used to working with will still be there for them. Shamis says it preserves their trust and confidence that you will continue to provide the solutions you have promised — without interruption — and that you have your ear to the ground.

“The three of us, although we have executive roles, all have client relationships and all touch clients in one way or another,” Littman says. “So it’s not like we are that disconnected to the practice. We know what is going on.”

Under SS&G’s succession plan, Littman assumes the managing director role. Shamis and Goldfarb take on lesser roles, but remain very involved with the firm.

“I have been the managing partner for close to 30 years, and I’ve had a great run,” Shamis says. “It is a lot to give up, but I am starting to realize that there is a lot to look forward to in terms of Bob running this organization.”

And that optimism extends to how SS&G will continue to differentiate itself from the competition.

“I am really excited to see what this place is going to look like down the road,” Shamis says. “I think it is even going to exceed where it is today.”

How to reach: SS&G Inc., (440) 248-8787 or www.ssandg.com

Takeaways

Getting the talent is a priority.

Be creative in finding growth options.

Draw up a succession plan and live by it.

The file

Mark Goldfarb, senior managing director

Bob Littman, managing director

Gary Shamis, senior managing director

SS&G Inc.

Born: All in Greater Cleveland/Akron

What was your very first job and what did you learn from it?

Gary: My first job was in a place called Mr. Junior’s on Cedar Road in University Heights. I sold boys clothes. I think I learned if you work hard, and make the commitment, then good things will happen.

Mark: A caddy at Fairlawn Country Club. Certainly you learned etiquette and you learned service.

Bob: I was a tennis instructor. What I really learned from that was dealing with people, trying to help people.

What is the best business advice you ever received?

Gary: Try to work on your business instead of in your business. That was a big change for me and for our firm years ago. The firm allowed me to begin working on the business. And in that time frame, I think our firm has grown probably 600 or 700 percent.

Mark: People do business with people they like. Relationships are very important in the business world. That was from my father, Bernard Goldfarb.

Bob: I don’t want to copy off Mark, but relationships are really important to me as is taking time to get to know people and build meaningful relationships.

What is your definition of business success?

Mark: If you do a great job for your clients, and you treat your employees well, success will follow.

Bob: I certainly think similar to what Mark has said and that’s building relationships, creating an opportunity for other people in this organization so they can do the same and also being able to go to work, personally anyways, and have fun and enjoy it. It’s not a job; it’s a career.

Gary: I have a really narrow view of this and people know that. For more than 32 years, I have always felt that if you can be a little bit better next year than you were last year then that is going to drive success. I think constant improvement, the ability to continually try to get better, to not be satisfied with the status quo, has really been a huge driver for me.

Mark on the succession plan: It’s just been a tremendous ride for all of us the last 26 years. I will continue to be responsible for managing the firm’s Akron office, serve on the firm’s executive committee, chair the firm’s finance committee, act as the liaison to SS&G Healthcare and SS&G Parkland, develop larger business opportunities and continue as a client service partner

Bob on the succession plan: Mark and Gary are not retiring. This is part of the succession plan and they still have very, very important roles here with the firm to help execute certain growth strategies and still be involved in the management of the organization. We have viewed the succession as an evolution and not an event from the beginning. Gary will be actively involved in leading the firm’s growth strategy, including geographic and existing office. He will also focus on a restaurant initiative and other large opportunities.

Gary on the succession plan: I really think Bob has the abilities to drive this firm to even more successful and higher levels than we’ve operated at in the past. I just think that this firm happens to be incredibly lucky, blessed, or whatever you want to call it, to have Bob Littman take over the practice.