Engage the right firm Featured

8:00pm EDT April 25, 2008

Accountants can do so much more for a business than crunch numbers — if you select the right firm. Ideally, you’ll choose an accounting firm that complements your business, addresses your needs and rounds out your internal skill sets by offering value-added services.

“At the end of the day, you can look at your accounting, tax and consulting fees as overhead or as an investment,” says Stephen Christian, Managing Director, Kreischer Miller, Horsham, Pa. “We view it as an investment. It is important to engage a firm that will advance your cause and make you a better company, as opposed to just preparing financial statements and tax returns on a timely basis,” he says.

Smart Business discussed with Christian the significance of using the right accounting firm and how to select the best one for your business.

Is one kind of accounting firm better than another?

We can break accounting firms down into three general categories. There are large, international firms that are compliance-oriented, process-driven and tend to work with large Fortune 1000 corporations. At the other end of the spectrum are smaller, local accounting firms that generally are more tax-focused. Somewhere in the middle are regional firms, like ours, which provide the skill set of national firms and the entrepreneurial slant of smaller firms. All three types of firms serve their customers well. Your choice will depend on your needs and expectations. Do you want a firm that simply meets your compliance needs, or are you interested in more of a consulting relationship? There is no right or wrong answer. You must determine your needs, then figure out the best fit.

How does a business owner decide what type of accounting firm to use?

Almost all accounting firms prepare tax returns, and most can help with your financial statement needs. What else is important to you? Are you seeking a low-cost firm, or do you want to work with an accountant who provides more value-added services?

Are you comfortable with several different associates with specific skill sets handling your account, or do you prefer to work with one person? Will you rely on your accountant as a balanced, financial voice as you grow your business? Or, do you simply want someone to crunch the numbers and prepare financial reports? You need to be honest with yourself as you determine what you truly value in a relationship with an accountant. Make a list of your needs and expectations before you begin your search.

How does management identify a potential firm?

Start by talking to your lender at the bank. He or she can point you to reputable accounting firms that do the type of work your business will require. Ask your attorney and other business peers for referrals. What firms do they use, and are they satisfied with the service? As you collect names of potential firms, study their Web sites and get a feel for their company culture and areas of specialty. What services do they offer? From there, narrow down your list to several and invite them to your business for an interview.

When selecting a firm, how do you determine the right fit for your business?

Every company is different — every business owner has his or her own nuances and style. Accountant candidates should want to spend time getting to know your business, your industry, your company structure and you, personally. Take them on a tour of your facility and introduce them to other key employees. Help the accountants understand who you are. Chances are, you will connect with one of the candidates you interview. But be sure to ask them some of these questions: How do you envision the capabilities of your firm meeting my needs? How much contact will I have with senior management in the firm? What is your attitude toward professional development for your associates? (You want to know that they are constantly learning so they can bring more to the table for your business.)

Try to determine from your conversations whether the personalities of the representatives are compatible with your team’s. Is the culture at the firm similar to yours? Finally, be sure to ask for references. When you contact a reference, ask him or her: Why are you a better company today for using this firm?

What value can you expect by working with the right firm?

The ideal firm will care about your company’s success. It will serve as a solution provider and offer facts and benchmarking information that will help you better understand your business. Along with your financial statements, the firm will deliver statistics from the best-run companies in your area so you can compare your performance. As you run your business day to day, you often don’t have time to stop and ask the simple question, ‘How am I doing?’ Ultimately, your accountant can help you answer that question and direct you to solutions so you can grow and prosper.

STEPHEN CHRISTIAN is the Managing Director at Kreischer Miller in Horsham, Pa. Reach him at schristian@kmco.com or (215) 441-4600.