Writer: Max Crampton-Thomas
2 min read May 2021 — For Russell Reece, managing partner of Askew & Co. LLP in Atlanta, 40 is the magic number of employees in his consulting business to ensure exponential growth. His firm is already at that number in several Florida offices, and he is bullish about having a strong year ahead.
What differentiates your firm from some of the other players in the Atlanta market?
We are very intentional about our culture. We call it a “you first” culture. Our mission statement is about passionately engaging in what’s best for you, with “you” defined as our communities, our clients and our people. That’s the very core of what we want to be. It’s not something that we do perfectly but we work very hard at developing that culture. I think that’s what is different. In the accounting space, there aren’t many opportunities to differentiate yourself on the services you offer — an audit report is an audit report, or a tax return is a tax return. Culture is the differentiating factor. You either have a culture by default or you have a culture that you’re intentionally trying to create.
How has demand for your services changed over the last year?
We started a bookkeeping group in 2017-2018 and that group has blossomed in all our offices. That’s a very fast-growing segment of our practice. We call it the Business Services Group (BSG). We’re offering a much more comprehensive service. We also have a sister company, Clarity Capital, that is focused on mergers and acquisitions and interim CFO solutions. Our BSG is supporting that by getting the financials ready for the companies to match or to get them ready for sale. And along with that, we’re ramping up our valuation practice.
What is driving your M&A activity?
Our experience has shown us that once you hit 40 employees in a market, you create a synergy. You have more people out in the market working together to bring business in. As a 15-person firm it was difficult to grow very rapidly. You start experiencing exponential growth once you get to around the 40-employee mark. That’s what’s driving the merger and acquisition activity both within our firm and in the industry. We’re close to that 40 mark in Tampa, close to it in Miami. There are also the baby boomer firms that haven’t done a lot of thinking about succession so there are firms out there led by people who are ready to sell and retire. There’s a lot of that out there.
Do you think that in-person meetings have been coming back to normal?
We came back to the office in June 2020. It wasn’t that we shut down as much as clients didn’t want in-person meetings. But it’s starting to come back. You just can’t replace face-to-face interactions. The technology that allows us to have a call among several cities is amazing but it’s not the same as sitting across the table from one another. People do like to work remotely but we’re struggling with how you build culture over Zoom. We’re going to have to figure out a compromise on how we allow remote work but also have a presence in the office to keep our culture moving forward.
What specific government legislation or proposals are you watching that could have a big effect on your clients?
What the president says he wants to do and what he will do are different things. We don’t know where that’s going, but one of the areas that seem of particular interest is estate planning. The estate tax exemption is expected to fall dramatically from the current ~$11.5 million. We’re working with several clients to plan for a decrease in the exemption. We’re doing a lot of valuations of companies that we know are going to be changing hands in the next few years. They may want to consider doing a transaction this year before any possible changes in the tax exemption.
The other area is the capital gains rate, which is also on the table, so we’re just looking at large potential transactions and advising our clients to consider taking gains at the current low rate.
What’s your near-term outlook for the firm and the accounting industry in the Atlanta region?
I’m very bullish on the firm. I think we’ve got very strong months ahead of us. People have been in a cage for over a year now. They’re breaking out and there’s new energy. That’s just kind of the general sense. We’re not there yet but with the vaccinations moving in the right direction, there is a more optimistic sentiment in general.
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