Relationships forged on the golf course are the foundation of Mark Goldfarb’s career

 

Golf has always had a place in Mark Goldfarb’s life. The game has been both a personal joy and a tool that has helped him with what seems to be, for Goldfarb at least, the single-most important aspect of business: building relationships.

Today, Goldfarb is Ohio managing partner for BDO USA LLP. It’s a seat he’s earned through his more than 40 years of late nights, pounding the pavement and making connections — not just for himself, but also for the clients who would help make SS&G, the company he founded in 1987 and would later be acquired by BDO, a 15-time Weatherhead 100 award winner for its extraordinary pace of growth.

His success, confidence and abilities have created other opportunities. He helped lead a nonprofit in the name of a dear friend, growing it significantly in the process, and earned a seat on the board of Charles Schwab.

And while it’s a bit of an oversimplification, it could be said that Goldfarb owes much of his success to golf.

The future, from the beginning

Golf and business have always had a complementary relationship in Goldfarb’s life. His first job was as a caddie at Fairlawn Country Club, and it may have been his spot on the University of Akron’s golf team that got him his first accounting job with Heinick, Slavin and Co. back in 1974.

“The two senior partners in my first job were the typical 55-year-old golfaholics,” he says. “They’re interviewing me for a job. They find out I’m on the University of Akron golf team and they didn’t want to talk about accounting. They wanted to talk golf. At the end of the interview it was, ‘When can you start?’ I really believe that was the differentiator.”

Goldfarb cut his teeth at Heinick, Slavin and learned a lot. But he had a vision of a different future for public accounting that was more than just preparing financial statements and tax returns. It was an approach centered on business development.

“We wanted to get in and be a trusted adviser to your business,” Goldfarb says. “We wanted to help you grow. We wanted to help you at all financial aspects of your business — buying companies, selling companies, estate planning, tax planning, mergers and acquisitions, banking — everything that you could imagine, which is what accounting firms do today. I really believe that we saw it before any accounting firm.”

He got connected to Gary Shamis through Shamis’ wife, Mary Ann, and the two hit it off. After months of discussion, they bought out Shamis’ dad and his dad’s partner, taking over Saltz, Shamis in 1987 and replacing it with SS&G, an aggressive, fast-growing company with a novel approach.

Rudy Bentlage, Northeast Ohio market executive for Middle Market Banking at JPMorgan Chase, was a beneficiary of and party to Goldfarb’s entrepreneurial model.

“He would have clients that would need a new banking relationship and he would give us a buzz. Then I would have clients that needed accounting services and I would give him a call. So, it was really trying to find a way to help each other, and that turned into a friendship,” Bentlage says. “Mark became a friend really quickly for me, so I’ve always admired what he did with the business and the way he was able to grow it and the relationships that he has.”

 

Hitting the links

One place that was easy for Goldfarb to make those connections and form relationships was on the golf course. It’s important enough that he encouraged his employees to make time for it, even if it meant setting aside other responsibilities.

“As we often told employees, leave here on a summer day when you’ve got stacks of paper on your desk to go out and play golf with three clients and have lunch and talk to them all day long, stay and have a beer afterwards,” Goldfarb says. “(You) get home at 7 o’clock and have 25 messages, and you’re backed up to the nth degree here and you’ve got to get in at six in the morning. It’s hard work. To a lot of people, the joke is that they think it’s not work, but business golf is work.”

Goldfarb and Bob Littman, an early partner at SS&G and now Northeast Ohio office managing partner at BDO, spent a lot of time with clients on the golf course.

“Mark was fantastic at building relationships,” Littman says. “When you build relationships you build trust, clients get comfortable with you, they invest in our business, they feel comfortable with the other things we have to offer, they refer us to their friends. Mark was great at building relationships and the golf course was just one way that he did it.”

If golf was one of Goldfarb’s relationship building tools, meals were another. Tom Ferkovic acquired a company with SS&G and turned it into SS&G Health Care, which is now Medic Management Group, a standalone company managed by Ferkovic. He remembers some advice Goldfarb gave him about relationship building.

“Mark would say you have 10 lunches and breakfast opportunities to be out meeting with people and talking to them. He’s always been out and about with people and entertaining or being entertained, and developing trust that way with his clients,” Ferkovic says.

On the golf course, in the boardroom

Relationships helped Goldfarb land a spot on Charles Schwab’s board of trustees. Walt Bettinger II was the founder and owner of Hampton Pension Services Inc., which provided pension consulting and record-keeping services to some of Goldfarb’s corporate clients before Bettinger sold the business to Charles Schwab and then moved up the financial firm’s ranks to president and CEO.

Bettinger, seeking members for an outside board, thought of Goldfarb.

“Mark was asked to initially join our board of trustees for the Schwab ETF family of funds for three reasons: first, his experience with startup businesses; second, his deep experience in financial matters; and third, his thoughtful and collaborative approach to problem-solving,” Bettinger says. “He was an exceptionally effective trustee. When a position opened up on the Charles Schwab Corp. board of directors, his name quickly rose to the top of the list of the board’s governance committee.”

He says Goldfarb brings the same unique talents to his role as chairperson of the audit committee of the Charles Schwab corporate board of directors as he does to all business situations — thoughtfulness, deep financial acumen and a collaborative nature.

“Mark is the same on the golf course as he is in the boardroom — humble, thoughtful and a pleasure to be around. Oh, and he is also competitive,” Bettinger says.

Relationships have led him to other unique opportunities. He served as the chairman of a nonprofit, an opportunity that came when a client and close friend of his, Aaron Kranitz, died of the degenerative brain disorder, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.

Kranitz’s wife, Florence, became involved with a little-known Florida-based nonprofit called CJD Foundation, became the president, moved its headquarters to Akron and asked Goldfarb to be the chairman.

Goldfarb, Florence and other board members organized fundraisers and national conventions, and raised hundreds of thousands of dollars that funded research and helped families coping with the devastating disease.

“When we left, we extended to 10 different countries — we had sister organizations that we had nurtured in 10 different countries. The organization was doing good work and growing, and Mark was an integral part of that,” Florence says. “No matter how busy he was, and he was pretty busy, he was never more than a phone call away.”

 

Letting go

Goldfarb’s approach to building through relationships translated into success for SS&G. In 1987, SS&G’s revenues were $600,000. By 2015, it was among the top 50 largest firms in the country with revenue over $70 million. It employed some 700 people, and had the financial and organizational muscle to buy its way into Columbus, Cincinnati and Chicago.

And then, BDO came knocking. The firm had inquired about the company in 2001, but SS&G wasn’t interested.

“But it’s 2013. They approach us, and you know, things are different,” Goldfarb says. “I’m 61 years old. Gary’s 60, we have a lot of other partners that are in their middle to high 50s and the industry is changing,” he says.

He figured his firm better move with the times or risk getting left behind. So, after a lot of due diligence and a lot of internal discussion, SS&G voted to move forward.

“It’s hard,” Goldfarb says. “I mean it’s your baby. It’s hard for a lot of partners here and employees. But at the end of the day you’ve got to make tough decisions.”

Staying together

Though the business he built no longer bears his name, the legacy of friendships Goldfarb built through thoughtful consultation — and round after round of golf — persist.

“It goes outside of business,” Littman says. “Our families are friendly. Mark and I run a lot. We play a lot of golf together. We’ve traveled a lot. Our whole lives are intertwined, not just professionally but personally.”

“His best friends are his clients,” Bentlage says. “The one thing about being in the professional services business is you need to immerse yourself into your trade, and your clients generally become your friends. The people that are the best at it, that’s what happens. And that’s the reason why Mark is as good as he is, because many of his clients are also very close friends of his.”

Alan Woll, a childhood friend of Goldfarb’s, recalls the early neighborhood days of Sundays filled with games of football and corned beef sandwiches. Later in life, after Woll co-founded and led Network Polymers as CEO, he would bring Goldfarb on as an accountant, trading football for golf in a business relationship that lasted 23 years, and a friendship that continues today.

“I trust him, and I can’t always say that for accountants or attorneys,” Woll says. “He’s just a hell of a guy.”

Goldfarb has made bold decisions throughout his career that carried risk not just for himself, but for others. Part of that was so he never lived life with regret, because you only go around once.

“If you have a passion for something and you’ve got a fire in your belly, go for it and never look back. Will you be able to look ahead and know all of the obstacles in your path? No. But you have to be ready every day because you never know what’s going to happen. You’ve got to be ready to deal with what comes your way.

“You can’t lose focus of who you are as a person — of who you are as a husband or father or wife, an employer,” he says. “The world is a crazy place. You have to maintain your honesty, integrity, reputation, but go for it.”