Reprinted with permission from Accounting Today
Seiler LLP is a 53-year-old firm headquartered in Redwood City, California. Like many baby boomers, the firm has worked hard to resist the perils of aging and to remain relevant. The effort has paid off handsomely.
With 15 partners and about $33 million in annual fee revenue, Seiler LLP has become a seasoned rock star with no signs of losing its luster.
I first met Jim DeMartini when presenting to a managing partner group. Every time I asked the audience if they had implemented a growth best practice his hand went up. I said to myself, “I need to meet this guy!”
What are Seiler’s secrets to achieving significant growth in challenging – and changing – times? A wide-ranging conversation with DeMartini revealed strategies including:
- An unchanging vision of the firm as a high-value resource that is worth the investment.
- A conviction that business development is a skill that can be learned.
- A compensation system that encourages and rewards teamwork over individual accomplishment.
- A focus on internal growth rather than acquisition.
Seiler had always served high net worth individuals and privately held companies, especially those in real estate-oriented, multi-generational family enterprises. But when the California real estate bubble started to burst in the late 1980’s, Seiler refused to sit on the sidelines and let the market take its course.
Instead, the firm got proactive, using its favorable geographic location to go after Silicon Valley high-tech clients. Although its niche industry expanded beyond real estate into technology, Seiler continued to target high-value clients and to position its services accordingly. That consistency was key to succeeding in a new marketplace. And succeed it did, growing nearly two and a half times its size between 1999 until 2010.
From the outset, founder, Don Seiler, structured his company as an up-market firm with distinctive offerings and a price structure not intended for the masses. The firm has been as selective about its clients as it has about those who service them, according to DeMartini.
That positioning is also evident in the firm’s thoughtful approach to expansion. Business development is seen as a growth strategy that relies on carefully cultivated and solution-oriented relationships. DeMartini explains: “When you build business development skills, you can support, defend, and maintain a high value strategy.” Seiler CPAs become expert trusted advisers, keenly aware of their clients’ businesses and challenges, and intimate with the families and relationships in which they take place.
In the world according to Seiler, attracting and keeping business are two sides of the same coin. It’s a view not shared by some firms that are focused on compliance to the detriment of relationship building.
Business development and client service skills are systematically collected and passed on to younger members of the firm. Managers and young partners learn by watching and doing in a way that encourages mentoring and skill transfer. Several years ago, DeMartini and his team jump-started this process by focusing on a select group of partners, managers, and principals; many of whom are now in years three and four of an intensive business development leadership training initiative. In addition, Seiler established six niche marketing groups, which actively involve more than forty team members in business development activities.
It’s All about the Team
At Seiler LLP, clients are served by carefully structured teams whose members offer technical expertise in areas including tax and estate planning, as well as service-oriented skills like problem solving and communications. Interaction extends beyond the president or founder of a client company to include all members of the family business.
Clients may be a bit surprised by our approach at first,” says DeMartini. “But they soon come to prefer having a dedicated team at their service rather than an individual.” There are multiple benefits of this strategy, chiefly summed up by the term more brains on board – a dedicated corps of experienced, accountable individuals problem-solving in a collaborative manner.
“Team members build upon one another’s strengths,” DeMartini notes. “Also, the team structure means there is always someone on-call and available to the client; all emails and calls are returned the day they are received.”
Seiler’s compensation system encourages and rewards team performance. Members of the firm are assessed on their long-term value to the organization, not on their most recent acquisition of a promising client. Equity ownership is based on career performance as well.
While some might see this as an unusual approach, Seiler leadership views it as an authentic reflection of firm values and structure.
Today, Seiler LLP employs about 140 individuals working in two locations – Redwood Shores and San Francisco. The firm is on a solid trajectory of growth which, as it has in the past, is expected to develop internally rather than through acquisitions.
DeMartini explains: “We’ve created a homogenous culture with high levels of client satisfaction and very low rates of client and employee turnover.” This distinctive firm personality and client group means that mergers with more traditional firms are less likely to succeed than organic growth. Building from within also helps ensure that the firm’s younger members will have a place to thrive and to apply the Seiler strategies.
As the firm leaders position it for the future, the policies and practices that have fostered robust growth and client loyalty will continue. But in keeping with an approach that’s made this firm a market leader for more than five decades, Seiler will keep a sharp eye on the market, the industry, and the families and businesses it serves.
If changing conditions warrant, look to this long-established, yet youthful firm for an effective, proactive response. The sidelines are not a place you’ll ever find Seiler!