rain·mak·er: a person (as a partner in a law firm) who brings in new business,Merriam Webster Dictionary
The ambiance of this office – of which Charlie McGimsey is the managing partner – is quiet and professional, yet friendly. Windham Brannon, a CPA firm of 50 professionals, is one of the largest local firms in Atlanta, and a recent winner of the Bowman’s Accounting Report Best of The Best – naming it one of the Top 25 Accounting Firms in America. Charlie’s manner is professional yet not intimidating; one imagines that his would be a calming influence in the stress of an IRS audit.
On becoming a rainmaker
Charlie’s view is that there are no business development secrets, just common sense. “It would take only five to ten minutes to tell fellow CPAs about rainmaking,” he says,”but they still wouldn’t do it.” I asked,”Why not?” “Because they are afraid, and it’s not their long suit.” He goes on to explain that CPAs generally were good in school, spending time on their homework while other students were off building social relationships. A few CPAs break through and see how easy relationship-building is, but many do not make this transition. Some large firms try to force the transition, imposing sales goals for non-sales people, their CPAs. However, Windham Brannon takes a different approach. Individual strengths are identified for everyone; and if business development is not an area of recognized strength, the Firm does not push those people to produce new business. There are those who may have good business development connections but are apprehensive about meeting with people. In those cases, we have them take others along who are very comfortable in that atmosphere. I asked Charlie how he evolved from heads-down CPA to rainmaker CPA. His reply reminded me of John Kennedy’s famous response to the question, how did you become a war hero? “It was involuntary,” Kennedy replied. “They sank my boat.” Charlie’s boat didn’t get sunk, but he launched his own ship. He and an associate left a firm in 1986 to strike out on their own, with a client list that was a blank sheet of paper. Therefore, there was no choice – they had to make rain. “Most CPAs have a fear of failure in this arena, so they just avoid it,” Charlie says.
If you can’t be one, find one
Fair enough, I thought, but not everyone has the people skills and savvy necessary to make rain. If this is the case, the best approach might be to go out and hire that kind of talent. But how do you identify it? “How do you find people that will have the ability to break through and become talented rainmakers?” I asked. Charlie approaches this task by having associates write down their activities over the course of a week. If they’re meeting people outside of work, this is a good indication of rainmaker potential. Charlie’s firm encourages younger staff members to perform rainmaking on their own time, to demonstrate their potential. Once they prove their interest and capability, the firm works individually with them to develop production goals. “We modify billable hour expectations downward for people with rainmaker skills, with the realization that those non-billable hours will be spent in business development, which is of prime importance to the firm,” Charlie explains. “In a recent year, I had the opportunity to win a $3 million deal. But to do this I had to pull way back on personal billable hours. I decided to invest, and we won the opportunity. This approach is part of the culture of Windham Brannon.” It’s difficult, he points out, to determine rainmaking potential in interviews, because interviews are contrived situations. Other characteristics, however, are easier to identify. Windham Brannon looks first and foremost for people with solid principles, believing that such hires yield greater value, which translates to more business. “Prospects who are successful business people can figure out in a moment with a handshake whether someone is solid or ‘flaky’,” he warns.
Integrity and wisdom
The recent Enron-Andersen debacle makes discussion about principles and integrity unavoidable. “Is a principles focus relevant to all CPA firms?” I asked. “Yes,” Charlie replied, “it’s a moral and practical issue. Proverbs tells us that a wise person tells the truth and a fool is dishonest. It’s not only right, but also practical to be principled. McKinsey (the consulting firm) didn’t get where they are by taking all comers. Not only are they selective about whom they hire, but also which clients they choose to work with.”
“Windham Brannon makes decisions about the clients they want to service,” Charlie says, “because the firm’s intimate involvement with the client dictates this approach. So the firm’s members are constantly asking each other, ‘Do you really want to work with this difficult client?’ Partners keep each other on track this way. After all, it’s better to have twelve delighted clients than sixteen clients that include four grumblers.”
“Deep in the soul, audit is a statement of integrity. It is part of the auditor’s being, except for those whose conscience has been seared,” Charlie states. “Gray areas create exposures and are where things can derail. Tax laws are written to be handled in a gray environment, so it’s important to be diligent about integrity. Often a CPA is working hard on the trees and can’t see the forest.” Charlie believes the profession hasn’t necessarily become more pliable, rather simply responded as servants to an aggressive appetite in corporate America.
Practice growth and more
In our profession, “slick” is suspect. Charlie’s firm tried professional sales people, but it didn’t work, because the relationship is with the CPA, not the sales person. Lead generation done by a sales person could work, he believes, but only in the right environment.
“What was your greatest win?” I asked. The most satisfying financially was the initiative with RTC, the Resolution Trust Corporation. When Congress passed a law to shut down thrift institutions, Windham Brannon immediately called Washington to find out who was running it, and the firm was off and running with RTC. The most personally satisfying wins, Charlie says, come from helping current clients grow their own success, not winning a new client. For example, he says, if Windham Brannon succeeds in finding a million-dollar saving for a client, they throw a big party. If they land a new client, that represents the opportunity to find savings in the future – and the future is, therefore, where the celebration belongs. Since Windham Brannon isn’t a process-oriented organization, finding savings for clients is the key to success.
Asked about his most surprising win, he said the firm’s wins and losses often surprise them. It’s a numbers game, and a very unpredictable one at that. “If we’re talking to fifty prospects versus three we know we’ll get more business. When it comes to proposals, often the decisions are not only unpredictable but also quite unusual.” The biggest issue facing the firm is which opportunities to pursue, he explains, because there isn’t enough time to chase them all. The key here is to establish an effective qualification process, which the firm will continue to hone and narrow, thus enhancing overall effectiveness.
“When in a networking type situation or simply out meeting people, how do you introduce the Firm and talk to that prospective client?” I asked. “It’s easy. I just ask two questions,” he replied. “‘What CPA firm do you use?’ and ‘Do you like them?’ If they are happy, I go on to talk about football or whatever else is appropriate. If they indicate that they are less than happy, I then ask them what they are not happy about. Things generally fall into place from there.”
Values and success
What advice would Charlie offer to others? Something very simple, he says: “Do the things you’re great at, and don’t do the things you are not comfortable with.” Windham Brannon has moved beyond many other firms in its appreciation of business development, but is sufficiently self-aware to know the process is ongoing. My discussion with its rainmaker CPA managing partner confirmed my faith in the fundamental values and integrity that mid-sized CPA firms find so important.