How Lee Thomas is maintaining the Ernst & Young legacy in Northeast Ohio

Lee Thomas, Cleveland Office Managing Partner, Ernst & Young LLP

Lee Thomas looks out his 13th floor window of the Huntington Building on Euclid Ave. and East Ninth St. and imagines the view he will have when Ernst & Young’s Cleveland office relocates to its new building along the Cleveland Memorial Shoreway.

Thomas, who is a native Clevelander and a 36-year Ernst & Young veteran, became the Cleveland office managing partner this past January. Ernst & Young, a global, 152,000-employee accounting firm, is the only company he has ever worked for and the legacy the firm has built here in Northeast Ohio is something significant.

As the new managing partner, Thomas plans to keep that legacy going, and the firm’s new office location, which will bear the Ernst & Young name, is a symbol of continuing that legacy here in Cleveland.

“We have a very strong legacy here in Northeast Ohio because back when there was the Big 8, Ernst was the only Big 8 firm headquartered in Cleveland,” Thomas says. “Protecting that legacy and making sure that we continue to provide the right kind of services to the franchise that we have and keeping the brand are the important things that we need to do.”

While Thomas and the firm are excited for a new building in downtown, it’s the firm’s 1,100 employees in Cleveland who will drive that legacy forward among its clients.

Attract and retain talent

In the services industry in which Ernst & Young operates, it’s all about people. The firm’s employees develop many sought-after skills, so Thomas remains focused on recruiting and keeping great talent.

“Attracting and retaining people and helping them get through a changing environment to develop a nice, strong career that they want to be at is the challenge,” he says. “We look for people who have very good social skills, can problem solve and work with teams. It’s a demanding profession so you have to understand how to balance your time, too.”

Thomas is always on the lookout for those talented individuals who could possibly have his job one day.

“No matter who the employer is, we are all looking for certain talents who are going to be part of the succession plan of that business,” he says. “Not everyone needs to be that, but they’re looking for that kind of talent because you don’t find it every day.

“When you do get it, it makes a huge impact on your organization. You grow those people and give them the opportunities and watch them develop because they have the attitude and the skill set to take it to the next level.”

Finding the most talented people for your business is a tough task, but once you have them and they keep getting better at what they do, retaining them in your company is even more difficult.

“Those skills translate very well outside the public accounting arena, and that’s part of the problem we have with retention,” Thomas says. “We lose people because they’re really good, and it’s a great training ground. We want this to be more than just a great training ground though. We want to keep them here, too.”

Ernst & Young prides itself on a good educational program, flexible work schedules and a positive work environment.

“We’re in a rapidly changing environment and making sure we have our people at the top of their game where their specialty is … [and] help continue to build that skill set is important,” he says. “The educational element is very positive in retention.

“We also offer things like flexible work arrangements. We have a lot of people who want to have families, and one of the biggest struggles that the profession has is that it’s very demanding and you never know when the next call is going to be from a client where you have to go do something that’s not in your schedule.”

The firm allows people to have flexible work arrangements where they can work a 70 percent schedule for a couple of years. With today’s technology, it has become much easier for people to also work remotely.

“Flexibility is pretty big today,” he says. “We’re everywhere, and we have to be mobile because our business is conducted where our clients are. So giving your people the flexibility to do what they can do effectively and serve their customer, whether it be internal or external, is really important.”

Another aspect Thomas focuses on to retain his employees is making sure they are challenged and receive new opportunities.

“When we lose people, sometimes it’s because they didn’t get the challenges they wanted,” he says. “That’s the big thing is giving people great challenges and letting them have their chance to succeed. That builds a lot of loyalty within the organization if it’s a challenge that they liked and they achieved and they were successful at.”

Be client-centric

As important as your employees are to your business, without clients a company wouldn’t be able to support a workforce. Thomas makes sure the Cleveland office is always client-focused.

“The real key is having a good listening ear to what our clients’ needs are and what do we have that could help them achieve those needs,” he says. “You have to corral it around the things you can do.

“We can’t do everything, and we have to be one of the first ones to say, ‘We can’t help you there,’ but it would be nice if we could know somebody that can help them there. You have to satisfy your client and they have to know you care what their issues are and want to help them solve them.”

The way Ernst & Young does that is with good people. The firm works with its employees on listening, hearing and understanding what the clients’ issues are.

“If you don’t have those listening ears and don’t understand what you do as a business, that becomes another challenge,” Thomas says. “We do so many things; do our people totally understand all the different things we can do? That’s why we continue to educate our people on that and have our different service lines work with each other and meet with each other and understand them better.”

A critical part of understanding your clients is developing a close relationship so you each have knowledge of one another’s business.

“If you go to a client, you can’t just pop ideas onto them without first understanding what their issues or concerns are,” he says. “It doesn’t work. We have a bunch of products we can go and sell, but that’s not the way you develop a relationship and develop trust and confidence. You understand what their needs are and then you say, ‘How can we help them?’

“It’s making sure our people build relationships and build connections so that those people and our clients feel open with us to talk about what their problems and issues are.”

Thomas doesn’t expect his employees to have a solution for every problem or issue that arises, but he expects that they know how to go about finding the answer.

“They need to understand, ‘Ah, here’s the issue. Where can I go to in the firm with that issue and say how can we help?’” he says.

It has been this relationship mentality within the firm that has helped Ernst & Young grow in Northeast Ohio and become the dominant practice in the area.

“I know our people are proud of that,” Thomas says. “Every day, I get ready for the day at Ernst & Young and on my mind is making sure that our people are challenged and satisfied and that we have clients that are happy with what we do. It’s kind of a simple approach, but if we do that, we’re going to have a very successful firm.

“I always want to make sure that we’re maintaining the legacy that we have here. When I started in 1976 at the firm, I walked right into these offices, and it was Ernst & Ernst world headquarters, and I remember that and would hate to let that down.” <<

How to reach: Ernst & Young LLP, (216) 861-5000 or