Acquisition Rules for CPA Firms to Live By
This article first appeared in The Journal of Accountancy’s CPA Insider™ By Brannon Poe, CPA
With more and more of the Baby Boomer generation approaching retirement, many CPA firms will soon go up for sale—giving other firms the opportunity to grow through acquisition. There is a lot of information in the accounting profession about succession planning for those on the sell-side of the transaction. Buy-side planning doesn’t get as much attention, but it is just as critical to making these acquisitions successful.
This article examines the most common internal obstacles that firms face when acquiring other CPA firms and offers possible solutions. For firms that want to expand, finding strategic solutions to these potential roadblocks can greatly impact post-close results.
Mistake 1: Not being clear about why you want to grow
To make smart acquisitions, it’s imperative to know why you want to grow. Creating clear goals will significantly increase the likelihood that you will seek out proper acquisition targets. For example, your reasons may include:
- To acquire specific talent that can help you add or expand your current offerings in a practice area such as estate planning or investment banking.
- To provide firm staff or partners with opportunities to advance to the next levels of leadership.
- To establish a presence in a particular target market.
- To scale past certain natural difficult growth points in a firm’s growth trajectory. (This is very common for firms in the $1 million to $3 million revenue range.)Your goals need to be clearly articulated before the search begins. Otherwise, you risk wasting time in your search or even buying the “wrong” practice, which is far worse than buying no practice at all. Picking the wrong target can create more work for very little additional short-term profit.
Mistake 2: Not preparing your firm before an acquisition takes place.
Once you have clear acquisition goals, perform a (slightly modified) SWOTT analysis to document your firm’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats, and timing. (I added the “timing” consideration to the traditional SWOT analysis, because timing is everything. You’ll need adequate time to position your current firm for an acquisition before an actual purchase.) This analysis should help you identify the implementation steps that you need to take. These can include changes in billing/pricing, pruning (as discussed below), and creating capacity where needed (also discussed below).
Mistake 3: Thinking an acquisition will solve all your firm’s problems.
An acquisition won’t solve existing problems created by poor management. In fact, it will probably amplify those problems. On the other hand, if your current firm is quite successful, seeing your way to the next level will be far easier.
Mistake 4: Not having adequate capacity for the acquisition.
This is the biggest obstacle that we see firms encounter. CPA firm owners often sell because they want to stop practicing. This raises the obvious question: Who is going to do the owners’ work after the sale? If you are acquiring a firm, you need to have significant capacity or your client-service will suffer. You will experience a dip in results, which can lead not only to client losses but also to critical staff losses. Head count is absolutely key!
If you don’t have the capacity you need, here are a few ways to create it:
- Prune your current practice. Get rid of all of your under performers, including unprofitable clients, entire lines of service, underperforming staff, underperforming offices, even partners. (Editor’s note: Click here for the AICPA’s Client Evaluation Tool and Client Disengagement Letter.) Pruning can significantly free people up to do more, higher-value work (or, when it comes to staff, allow you to hire a replacement who is more productive—thus creating additional capacity).
- Improve your management systems. This type of efficiency probably won’t get you much more capacity, but it can offer incremental improvement and may help you attract better talent.
- Hire the talent you need, whether they’re experienced people or entry-level professional staff to support your experienced staff.
- Acquire a firm with the talent you need. This is challenging, and rare, but sometimes making a small, targeted acquisition for specific talent can give you additional capacity for a bigger acquisition later on. (Sellers, take note: having excellent talent in your practice will increasingly be one of the main drivers of firm value.)Being strategic about growth and having the right team in place are keys to successful acquisitions. Given the demographic trends in the profession, creative leaders who adhere to these acquisition rules will be able to grow their firms significantly in the coming years.