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Working the room Featured

8:32am EDT March 28, 2003
Before S&A Consulting Group LLP President Rita Singh opened her management consulting firm out of her Mentor home, she had a lot to learn, she admits.

"I didn't know even how to switch on a computer," says Singh. "It was very hard in the beginning, but I would always push myself to learn, and find the people to help me learn and grow my business."

For the last 14 years, that learning has come through attending countless seminars, trade shows and conferences, and by joining civic and trade organizations. Through hours of networking and volunteer work, Singh helped make a name for herself and her firm in the region.

It laid a foundation that would save Singh's business through the lean early years, and later help it grow to the next level.

A native of New Delhi, India, Singh's learning curve is impressive. She arrived in Cleveland in 1979, shortly after earning a master's degree in English literature in India.

She had no business experience when she arrived in America, but she was determined to launch a consulting business with her husband, Nipendra, who, at the time, was a general manager at TRW.

In just two years, she earned her accounting degree from Cleveland State University, and passed the CPA exam on the second try, all while raising two daughters.

"I don't think they stayed with a babysitter more than a couple of times," Singh says. "One of us would be with them. But again, most of the studying I did was when they would be asleep. All the exams I used to do when they would go to bed. Those years, having no business experience, I had to make up for that. I took some courses at Lakeland.

"For the CPA, I took a review course, and then sat for the exam in Cleveland."

Starting S&A Consulting out of her basement, Singh worked 18 to 20 hours a day, eventually raising enough capital to share a 1,400-square-foot office in Lyndhurst with another company. Months later, the other company folded, leaving the Singhs with a seven-year lease, $2,000 a month rent and 100 percent of the office expenses.

"One day he just told us, 'I can't afford to be in this office anymore,'" Singh recalls. "It was just two of us. We were still trying to get our company moving."

The Singhs had to drain their daughters' college savings accounts and their own savings to keep the business running. But thanks to Singh's persistence, clients started to arrive.

She owes much of the success to her education through business events and to meeting the right people at the right times, both in business and local politics. The awards and citations that line the walls of her Chagrin Boulevard office are evidence of her networking.

"I think we are a member of almost every chamber here in Northeast Ohio," Singh says. "I'm a very active member of COSE. I have been a member of the board of trustees almost 11 years now. I'm the first Asian-American woman to be on the board of trustees.

"We also belong to different professional organizations: Ohio Society of CPAs, Women's City Club. You can't be active in every one of them, but you can be selective about which ones you join."

The hours of volunteer work and business networking take away from time spent solving the day-to-day problems in the office. Singh says she has to trust her 20 full-time employees, as well as the 100-plus consultants she has on contract, to make more of the decisions.

"Obviously, I chose to do this instead of being in my office," Singh says. "But it helps you, because where else would you get 100 businesses in one room, sharing information and getting information. One thing that really helps us when we are outside in an environment, we learn what are the needs of our clients. You learn about what is really important.

"It takes a lot of time but it's worth it."

S&A's client list boasts international names like 3M, Mitsubishi Materials, Fuji and Pratt & Whitney Aircraft. Nipendra Singh, who travels at least three weeks out of the month, manages these international clients.

Locally, Rita Singh advises civic clients, including the city of Cleveland's water and parking departments, as well as the Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority.

"Our client base is small, but that's the way we would like it," Singh says. "I would rather have 100 stable companies as our clients than 500 bankrupt companies, and that's where I'm focusing. I would rather be small and strong."

In February 2002, the Singhs moved to larger offices in Signature Square in Beachwood.

"I reimbursed my daughters' entire college fund," she says. "My daughters, they have been part of this business, they have done so much. I don't think I could still manage to do the volunteer work, run the business, social life and still be a super housewife without their help."

After this year's tax season is over, the Singhs will have more time to plan the expansion of their company.

"We're not going to be opening too many offices because these days, with technology, you can have one corporate office and you can do business all over the world," Singh says. "We are planning to open an office in Columbus. When you're in Ohio, we need that presence in Columbus. We plan to acquire smaller to medium-sized accounting and consulting practices." How to reach: S&A Consulting Group LLP, (216) 593-0050 or www.sa-consultinggroup.com