Monday, June 11, 2007

Why Not Grow?

When David Deeter set out with his business partner, Jim Frazier, to launch Frazier and Deeter in Atlanta it was 1981 and he was just four years out of college. Why not start a CPA firm that he could help to lead immediately instead of slogging it out in the bowels of one of the accounting giants for who-knew-how-long? Why wait? Those were big ambitions for a twenty-something and, now more than twenty-something years later, Deeter’s ambitions have not subsided. “Why not?” is still his guiding question.

When it comes to marketing success in professional services, partner-level leadership vision is the key accelerator. Without a tangible commitment from the managing partner, a marketing director is doomed. With it…”why not?” aspirations are achievable. Deeter’s forward looking nature is evident in how early in the firm’s life it invested in an on-staff marketing executive. “We’ve had marketing director when most firms couldn’t afford one,” Deeter says. “We were probably a $2.5 million firm with a full time marketing person. We’ve always had that bias towards investing in growth.”

By the start of 2002, Frazier and Deeter had grown to $7 million in revenue and a staff of forty five. That year, David Deeter and his colleagues held a strategy session in which they confronted the growth question. Over the prior twenty years, the firm had clearly been successful. The partners were doing well and could easily have focused on merely shoring up and sustaining their positions. Why grow further? Once again the reply came, “Why not?” Deeter says, “We had to decide whether we were going to be a niche firm or a large firm. And after some intense discussions we decided we want to be a large firm.”

As if to symbolically affirm Frazier and Deeter’s commitment to grow bigger and better, the firm relocated that same year into a skyscraper in Midtown Atlanta, The Bank of America Plaza, which is renowned as the tallest building in the southeast – in fact, the tallest building in the U.S. outside of Chicago and New York City – topped by a 90-foot, 23-karat-gold-leaf obelisk. By 2005 the firm was listed by Public Accounting Report as the 15th fastest growing accounting firm in the nation and the 2nd largest independent firm in Atlanta. The firm now brings in $22 million annually with a staff of one hundred and forty people. “Our strategic plan is to hit $30 million in annual revenue by the end of 2009 and we now need to start thinking in terms of regional and national recognition,” Deeter notes. “It sounds kind of bold, but Atlanta is one of the great cities in the world and we happen to be one of the largest firms in Atlanta and there is no reason we can’t think big now. If we could go from nothing to the 105th largest firm in the country, going from the 105th largest firm in the country to the 50th is reasonable. It is not even that crazy of a dream,” he adds.

David Deeter realizes that his firm can not live on vision alone. So, his “Why?” and “Why not?” questions are backed up by a healthy dose of “How?” and “How else?” execution that is primarily talent focused. “Marketing is really recruiting the right people,” Deeter believes. “You recruit the right people and they are going to have a following (of clients). If you have a profitable firm in a fabulous city you can recruit the best people and they will have their own sphere of influence.”

As a result, Frazier and Deeter’s marketing team is as focused on employer branding as they are on getting name recognition among prospective clients. With advertising, website, collateral and events running smoothly, “marketing is morphing, evolving as the more simple needs are met,” says Erinn Keserica, Director of Marketing with Frazier & Deeter. “Now,” Keserica adds, “We are helping more with recruiting.” For instance, working in conjunction with the firm’s director of human resources, Keserica has helped to score several honors for the firm that have raised its profile as a world-class accounting employer. In 2005, Frazier and Deeter won Practical Accountant's prestigious Practice Innovation Award where the firm was honored for its recruiting and retention campaign. More recently, the firm was named by the Atlanta Business Chronicle as one of the city’s “Best Places to Work.”

Deeter recognizes that talent is not only what the firm has to sell, talent is the salesforce. As a result, the firm’s recruiting efforts include deep screening for marketing as well as technical competence. “With high-end hires we’ll typically take them out to dinner with their spouse and watch them in a social setting. We send them to business psychologist to get a professional, PhD-level opinion about the candidate’s sales skill and follow-through,” says Deeter. And, once employed, marketing is part of the new hire’s on-boarding curriculum. “When we hire someone they meet with Erinn to develop an individual marketing plan and to train them on our messaging,” Deeter notes.

“It’s up to the partners and managers to sell the firm,” Deeter continues with increasing enthusiasm. “One of my jobs is to keep our sales team – our partners - slightly uncomfortable. We can’t be happy with 10-15% growth. We’d like to see 20% to 30%. It’s like; life is so short so why not build a growing and vibrant firm! I think people want to be part of something great. We have a chance so why not? Now is our chance.”

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