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September 2010
Walking the Walk
By Ellison Clary

     The broken-in boots are among several different pairs of footwear featured on the newly unveiled website of Wishart Norris Henninger & Pittman, P.A. Click on one of the pairs and business partners James Potts and Randy Burris pop up.

     They own Charlotte’s Overhead Door Company. Their testimonial: “A hunter is a bit like an entrepreneur. You’ve got to stay alert.”

     They wanted to add value for customers, their message continues, and needed a law firm to help them grow. They chose Wishart Norris because of their extensive experience with and wealth of knowledge of the legal needs of small and medium-sized privately owned businesses and their owners, just like them.

     The rebranding of the Wishart Norris identity focuses on the needs of its clients, with each pair of shoes representing a loyal client who provides specifics about the quality, responsiveness and value-added nature of the services they’ve received.

     Maria Stidham, Wishart Norris client relations director, gives Charlotte’s Burke Communications kudos for helping them develop their persona on the Web.

     “We really feel like we walk in our client’s shoes and empathize with them during their journey from startup of their business through their business lifecycle and until their exit.” Stidham says. “That’s what we want to convey with our new Web presence.”

As is most often the case, the revamp of their message was long overdue and very labor-intensive.

     “We hadn’t upgraded our website in about eight years,” explains Robert Norris, a co-founder and the leader of the Charlotte office, “so it was a perfect opportunity to reconsider the message we were sending to clients and potential clients.

     “When we looked at websites for other firms we respected, we saw a common thread: they were mostly about the law firm, the lawyers and their awards and accomplishments.

     “We wanted our website to be about our clients,” Norris continues, “as well as the times when they have needed our assistance to get to the next level of their journey.”

     To Burris of Overhead Door, that theme rings true. “They’re very personable, and they’re a strategic partner,” he says of Wishart Norris. “The firm provides all the services a small business needs. Whatever it is, Robert and his team are prepared to offer straight advice.”

     Burris remembers his company’s Internal Revenue Service audit. Steve Horowitz, a tax controversy partner with Wishart Norris, smoothly guided Overhead through what could have been a crisis.

     “Once the audit was closed, the IRS left and they were happy. Overhead Door didn’t owe a penny,” Burris beams.

 

Growth Strategy

     Since Norris and Bob Wishart started Wishart Norris in Burlington almost 34 years ago, its unswerving focus has been on privately owned and family businesses and their owners. From its Burlington and Charlotte offices, it serves primarily emerging/growth companies in the Carolinas and the Southeast.

     Areas of expertise are business law, mergers and acquisitions, business litigation, tax planning, tax controversy, estate planning and administration, succession planning, exit planning for business owners, employment law, commercial and residential real estate and family law. They recently added corporate counsel services as well.

     Summing up, Norris says, “We have focused our practice on the areas of law that are critical to our clients, who are owners of privately owned and family businesses. They want to maximize the value of their business and preserve that value in order to reach their business and personal objectives. Many of the solutions to their problems tend to be a bit more complicated than clients who are not business owners.”

     “We’re business owners just like they are,” Wishart says. “We’ve gone through the same business cycles they have. We have empathy for the issues they face. And, yes, we have a passion for helping them.”

     Wishart Norris counts 21 attorneys in its SouthPark office and 13 more in Burlington, with 75 total employees.

     Their newest practice area, corporate counsel services for businesses which have in-house counsel, is led by Daryl Hollnagel, who for two decades was chief in-house counsel for Continental Tire. Wishart Norris is a law firm sponsor of the Charlotte chapter of the Association of Corporate Counsel.

     “We have a solid reason for starting the corporate counsel effort,” Norris explains.

     “In the in-house counsel world,” he says, “they currently are not able to hire as many in-house lawyers. They’re looking to get things done efficiently and reasonably by outside firms. We have a number of clients where, really, our client is the in-house counsel. We offer a value proposition for in-house counsel who are responsible for the legal budget of a large company and are looking for an outside law firm to do quality work at a reasonable cost.”

 

Staying Nimble

     It’s an example of Wishart Norris remaining nimble.

     “We’re not bureaucratic and we’re small enough that we can change on a dime,” Norris smiles. “We can give clients what they want and need. Things like alternative fee arrangements. We’ll quote a fixed price for a project rather than an hourly rate. More and more, we’re trying to align our interests with those of our clients.”

     Further, Wishart Norris makes every effort to assign hourly work to attorneys and staff in a manner that is most economical to the client.

     Through the tough economy of the last two years, Wishart Norris has seen more than a few clients run into financial trouble.

     “We’ve been as proactive as we can be,” Norris says. “We’re helping them get to the right people who can help them: the right financial institutions and the right turnaround professionals.”

     That emphasis on connecting clients with the “right” professionals is something clients value, Norris says.

     Taking initiative is paramount for privately owned businesses, he says. “One of the things in this economic crisis that we have really encouraged clients to do is be proactive with their banks,” he admonishes. “Go ahead and show the banker a plan that can work so he’s okay with it.”

     Another recommendation for firm clients is to take advantage of down time to reexamine their strategic plan, as Wishart Norris has done in the retooling of its website and message.

     “With less going on externally, this is a good time to examine the internal organization and the company’s long-term strategies to make the necessary changes in order to adjust to the economy,” he points out. “These changes should maximize the firm’s ability to grow when better times arrive.”

     Business plans don’t last nearly as long as they once did, he adds, and prudent businesses start planning anew soon after they finish their current plan.

     Norris relates one example of why planning is so important. In January 2008, The Wall Street Journal published a story that said 7 of 10 privately owned businesses would change ownership by 2018 as baby boomers retire. It also said that 90 percent of those companies are “ill-prepared” to maximize value upon sale.

     “Our focus recently has been to facilitate the strategic planning, exit planning, and succession planning processes necessary to help our clients prepare to maximize value upon sale of the company so they are not one of the ‘90 percent’,” Norris says.

 

Civic-minded

     To spread the word about the needs of emerging/growth companies, Norris and his teammates are getting involved like never before as partners in civic opportunities.

     As a member of the Charlotte Chamber Advisory Board, Norris is helping that body be a champion for growing privately owned businesses. He has organized an all-day executive roundtable for business owners.

     “Robert and his team understand how the small-to-mid-sized company works and what it takes to help that company be successful,” says Keva Walton, the Chamber’s senior vice president of member engagement.

     “I think it’s about job growth and job creation,” Walton adds. “Certainly it’s good for the company, but it’s also good for Charlotte business and employment and economic growth.”

     Wishart Norris recently participated in the Access to Capital Summit sponsored by the Charlotte Chamber and the City of Charlotte. Norris served on a panel discussion about exit planning for business owners. Nearly 300 people attended the Summit.

     Wishart Norris has also become the law firm sponsor of the Wake Forest University Family Business Center, Charlotte Metro Region. “What they do for owners of family businesses is right down our alley,” Norris says.

     Meanwhile, at the Love School of Business at Elon University, Wishart Norris is putting on a series of seminars for business owners in the Triad Region of North Carolina. Wade Harrison, manager of the Burlington office, says, “We are excited about our relationship with the Love School of Business and our contribution to their educational programs for alumni who are business owners.”

     “We want our firm to show up everywhere issues regarding privately owned businesses and their owners are being addressed,” Harrison says. “We believe that we really understand the needs of business owners and want them to know more about our firm’s different approach to their particular issues.”

 

Good Performance

     Recently, the trust and estate law team in Charlotte and the family law team in Burlington were honored among a national listing of Best Lawyers “Best Law Firms” Metropolitan First-Tier ranking in U.S. News.

     Also, two attorneys, Joseph Henninger Jr. and Pamela Duffy, were recently selected by their peers for inclusion in The Best Lawyers in America (2011).

     Part of the firm’s success can be traced to Wishart Norris’s four core values: Forging relationships that last; encouraging a bond of open communication and easy access; offering wisdom to reveal “optimum” solutions; and transforming the business of law to meet the needs of business.

     Norris is grateful for the continued success of the firm despite the troubled economy. “Our client base has grown significantly since 2008,” he says, even as he acknowledges that many clients are currently trying hard to avoid spending money.

     His faith in the privately owned business clients is stronger than ever, he says. “If anything is going to change this economy, it’s going to be the privately owned and family businesses,” he maintains. “They’ve always done it and I believe they’re going to do it again.”

     Norris relates the story of a New York-based business that a consultant referred to the firm.

     Two business partners wanted to sell their company to their hand-picked successors. They told their lawyer and their accountant what they wanted in the transfer plan, and the professionals followed their directions perfectly.

     However, the plan was not structured for the sellers and employee successors to realize

 

the maximum benefit, and they were reluctant to activate it.

     At their request, Norris and partner Gary Smith scrutinized the proposed structure for the sale of the company. Soon they devised a new plan for transferring ownership and accomplishing the parties’ objectives that saved the sellers $1.6 million in taxes over the

 

prior plan. Also, the current owners were able to keep control of the business until they had been paid all monies due them.

     For that company, the transition structure made all the difference and Norris says that’s a huge point about the way Wishart Norris operates.

     “You can’t just be reactive and always do exactly what the client wants you to do,” he says. “You’ve got to ask questions, make sure you understand their objectives and then recommend an ‘optimum’ solution. We knew what the solution was in this case because we had done a similar transaction. That’s the benefit of having served this market for the last 34 years.

     “In order for our firm to continue its success, we’ve got to be ‘different’ and ‘better’ than our competition. We’ve got to be efficient, we’ve got to add value, and this ‘value-added’ has to be absolutely clear to the business owner.”

     

Ellison Clary is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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