He Wrote ‘The Bible’ on Building a Niche

by & filed under All Articles, Growing Segments.

Reprinted with permission by Accounting Today

Pathways to Growth #7

CPA Dave Roberts finds it baffling why some accountants express reluctance – or even fear – about pursuing a niche practice.  Roberts, currently managing partner of RBZ inLos Angeles, has ridden the specialization express train to considerable success.  Over the past 25 years, he’s built and grown one of the most successful and well known practices serving law firms on the West Coast.

I met Dave while participating in a conference on practice growth.  During a break I started talking with him, and thought to myself, “This guy knows his stuff – we need to talk further.”

Paying the ‘Price’

Dave was employed by PricewaterhouseCoopers (then Price Waterhouse) in the 1980’s when the large CPA firms were starting to move into vertical markets.  PW had targeted the legal industry and Dave, who also had previous experience working inside law firms, dove enthusiastically into that pool of specialization.  Years later, priorities changed at PWC, and by 1990 they were less interested in evolving their national law firm practice.  Dave, on the other hand, was just warming up to the potential of this unique specialty.

Undeterred by a non-compete agreement that prevented him from taking clients with him, Dave opened his own firm, working mostly with mid-market law firms in theSouthern Californiaarea.  That way he stayed below the PWC radar of the very large law firms and found a comfortable space.  With virtually no competitors that could offer these types of specialized consulting services, Dave could easily differentiate himself as an “expert” and grow his practice.  I often espouse, “Find your market hole,” and Dave certainly found his!

For several years he continued to deliver these specialized services exclusively to law firms, such as partner compensation consulting, strategic planning, partner retreats, organizational restructuring and profit enhancement.  But by 1998, Dave had identified the need for greater depth in support of his rapidly growing client base and joined theLos Angelesaccounting firm of RBZ. At this point in time, RBZ had approximately $6 million in gross revenue, six partners and was just realizing the enormous potential of growing the firm with highly specialized niche practices.  Twelve years later, RBZ is approaching $28 million in gross revenue, has 14 partners, and a staff of over 100 people with many highly trained specialists.

Earning Trust

For the past dozen years, Dave has championed RBZ’s impressive leadership in the law firm services sector and earned the firm, and himself, a highly regarded reputation.  He’s done it by embracing his specialized niche – getting to know lawyers, law firms and the legal industry – and letting them get to know him by providing, along with the traditional compliance work, non-traditional highly specialized services that bring significant value to the client’s bottom line.  Dave’s motto – “Specialize, specialize, specialize – do one thing very well and become known as the expert in that field.”

Dave’s borrowed a page from the lawyers’ own playbook by becoming not only a service provider, but a trusted advisor and referral channel.  Simply put, he “knows every lawyer in town” and has leveraged those relationships to win considerable business for RBZ.  Dave has little need for the usual networking breakfasts and lunches that other CPAs rely on.  Instead, he matches up lawyers he knows with other RBZ partners according to their interests and specialties.  His relationships have developed into a solid channel of business development and referrals for his partners and his clients.

But Dave’s most effective strategy for business building, and perhaps his legacy, is the high-value content delivered between the covers of a very detailed 400-page annual law firm benchmarking survey that he has compiled for almost 20 years.

The RBZ Law Firm Report is an annual survey of some 200 plusSouthern California law firms.  It provides detailed compensation data by size of firm, location, practice area, and position – from a first year associate to a senior partner and from CFO to receptionist.

He Wrote the Book 

“The Bible,” as the survey is referred to by participating firms, also provides detailed information on billing rates, billable hours, employee benefits, costs per lawyer and other industry metrics.  Proudly logoed, trademarked and copyrighted, the report is a unique publication that graces the credenzas of law firm managers and lawyers all acrossSouthern Californiaand beyond.  It has helped position Dave and RBZ as the region’s premier financial experts in the legal marketplace.

Value Proposition

The highly specific niche has permitted RBZ to win against many of the area’s most respected CPA firms that offer the usual accounting and tax services.  Certainly, RBZ can provide these, and does, at the highest level.  But Dave and his colleagues offer up a package that is hard to resist – a top-notch CPA firm that can provide the usual suite of accounting and tax services and, in addition, knows the industry backward and forward, providing the experience and expertise to help the client become more successful.

At the end of the day, specializing for RBZ boils down to offering a value proposition rather than a reduced-price commodity.  Under Dave’s stewardship, RBZ has added a sizable layer of value to traditional accounting and tax services by tailoring offerings to keenly understood market segments.

Beyond reputation, Dave Roberts has developed a brand.  It may be less well known than, say, Coca-Cola or NASCAR, but it’s characterized by the consistent quality and customer loyalty that have made these into household names.  Within theSouthern Californialegal community, Dave and RBZ have become household names.

Gale Crosley

About Gale Crosley

Gale Crosley, CPA, has been awarded The Advisory Board Hall of Fame. She was selected one of the Most Recommended Consultants in the Inside Public Accounting BEST OF THE BEST Annual Survey of Firms for fifteen years, and one of the Top 100 Most Influential People in Accounting by AccountingToday for fourteen years. She is an honors accounting graduate from the University of Akron, Ohio, winner of the Simonetti Distinguished Business Alumni Award, and an Editorial Advisor for the Journal of Accountancy. Gale is founder and principal of Crosley+Company, providing revenue growth consulting and coaching to CPA firms. She brings more than 30 years of experience, featuring a unique combination as a practicing CPA in two national accounting firms, along with significant experience in business development in the cutting edge technology environment with such firms as IBM and MCI.

View all posts by Gale Crosley →

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