Reprinted with permission from CPA Practice Management Forum
These days, Rick Bennett describes his role at the CPA firm he co-founded as “Director of Fun.” While he’s not entirely kidding (at the firm’s elegant new quarters, a huge ping pong table dominates the break room), his self-assigned title understates the meticulous planning and execution that have contributed to rock-solid growth at Atlanta’s Bennett-Thrasher LLC.
I first started working with co-founding partners Bennett and Ken Thrasher in 2002. At the time, BT employed about 50 people with annual revenues of $6.4 million. Today, nearly 100 employees, including 14 shareholders, are responsible for about $10 million in revenue. The firm’s 15-20 percent annual growth, while not dramatic, has been steady. More important, it’s been deliberate.
The Vision Comes into View
“In August 2001 we had a strategic planning session with Doug Ehrhardt, a Denver-based consultant with CPA firm Ehrhardt Keefe Steiner & Hottman,” the partners recall. That marked a turning point in identifying and pursuing a corporate vision. They had just read Jim Collins’Good to Great and were fired up. “Ken and I realized that, for one thing, we lacked a succession plan. We began to understand the need for developing leaders, but realized we knew little about how to do this. We started to educate ourselves on the topic, which led us to embrace strategic planning and hold our first firm-wide retreat.”
The co-founders also kept hearing job candidates praise the company’s reputation, especially in the area of lifestyle and people policies. Led by Bennett and Thrasher, the partner team began to coalesce, combining what they were reading, what they heard in the marketplace and their own strong value system to develop a roadmap.
Today, that vision is the engine that drives the firm. Its primary tenets are these: We do what we say. We care deeply about our people. And we value direct, open, honest communication both inside and outside the firm.
Going for It
Getting from there to here required more than an articulated vision. It took bold action steps, among them:
- Investing in executive searches to attract the best and brightest talent, including a half-dozen new partners from large firms and one widely recognized rainmaker.
- Establishing impeccable technical credentials.
- Bringing consulting resources in to help the firm execute the vision.
- Creating an infrastructure of resources and training that prepared the firm for the Sarbanes-Oxley onslaught.
- Hiring a director of human resources in anticipation of the growth.
- Working tirelessly on shareholder cohesion including regular dinner and teambuilding outings.
Bennett-Thrasher also embraced a proven system for attracting large business. Each week, shareholders gather in person or on the phone for a half-hour pipeline review. The session provides a means to assess opportunities and strategize the pursuit of major opportunities.
Firmly about Family
Without question, Rick Bennett and Ken Thrasher are proud of the growth the firm has realized and its current spot among Atlanta’s top 10. But more important is the delight they take in the recognition that BT has evolved as a people-first employer of choice.
“Our goal is to become the best place for people to work, not necessarily the biggest firm in town. And for us, that means being a place where families come first,” they explain. Rick Bennett recalls sitting with a candidate in an interview explaining the firm’s position. “The guy’s eyes literally filled with tears and I asked him what was wrong. The day before was his birthday and his three young daughters had planned a party for him. But he couldn’t make it home from work before they went to bed, a common occurrence at his then firm. That’s exactly what we mean by family first.”
Make no mistake. The BT crew is as hard-working as any you’ll find. But they always make time for fun and fellowship, whether it’s a family play day at a nearby lake, an after-work field trip to a Mexican restaurant or an outing to a Braves game.
Here to Stay
Market fluctuations and revenue rankings will come and go. But Bennett-Thrasher is in it for the long haul. A focus on leadership, execution (we do what we say), reputation, integrity and family have helped this firm grow deliberately and impressively.