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September 2007
Accountants First, Advisors Foremost
By Janet Kropinak

     When measuring the growth and success of a business, there are many variables that need to be taken into account. For example, an outsider might measure a company’s growth by its increase in sales and revenues or the number of clients on its roster. Alternatively, an insider might measure growth by the acquisition of quality team members or broadening the range of services provided.

     From either perspective Blair, Bohlé & Whitsitt, PLLC (BBW) would be sized a success. In just seven years, the firm has experienced remarkable growth in terms of revenue, clients, staff and services provided. With a new office building, new clients, a new partner and an alliance with BDO Seidman, these guys are working hard to change the view and expectations of local accounting firms.

 

Shared Vision

     In 2000, George Bohlé and Bryant Whitsitt made the decision to leave their recognized firms and join John Blair, who had been performing accounting services in the Charlotte area on his own. Combining their technical skills, expertise and passionate spirits into a new firm, they set out on a mission to provide exemplary accounting, assurance, tax and business advisory services.

      Bohlé and Whitsitt both brought with them advanced degrees and extensive income tax compliance and planning experience with “Big Five” firms. In comparison, Blair was familiar with what it took to operate an accounting practice as well as experience with providing assurance services.

      Their different backgrounds were complementary; their common ground was their shared vision. “Bryant and George both came highly trained and were crucial to helping us get to where we wanted to be,” says Blair of his co-founders.

      Striving to be seen as more than merely a “tax shop,” the partners worked hard to raise awareness of their firm and increase the range of services they could provide beyond tax compliance and planning services.

      They set out to provide business value that could help clients identify ways to unlock their potential without draining the bottom line. By taking the time to cultivate relationships with their clients, the role of BBW quickly developed from accountant to advisor.

     BBW focused on customer service, and in turn, were rewarded by their satisfied clients and the positive feedback which they were sharing with others about the firm.

“Above all, we were aiming to provide a high level of service and leadership to our clients. We were working hard to build relationships that would become long-term and mutually beneficial,” says Blair.

     BBW was founded during a time when many of the established large local firms were getting acquired by or merging with regional and national firms, causing a void in the Charlotte market of large local firms.

     The partners set out to fill this void by providing consultative business and personal tax advice to their clients so they could help them better plan for the future, manage costs, improve efficiency, and achieve greater profitability. By focusing on the big picture, the firm has solidified long-term relationships with many of its clients.

     “Each partner brings a different set of skills, talents, and personal desires to the table. Each is open to the ideas, suggestions and visions of the other partners and as a collective team we have been extremely fortunate in the decisions we’ve made and the support of one another in our efforts to grow our practice and, most importantly, the reputation of our firm,” comments Whitsitt.

     With each partner focused and trained in a different area, there was immediate balance within the firm. Blair works with accounting and assurance services, Bohlé has experience with large multi-jurisdiction filings and larger C-corporation income tax compliance, and Whitsitt is proficient in the preparation and review of tax returns including corporate tax returns and also works with large real estate developers.

     “As far as technical competence, everyone that works at BBW has areas they are proficient in, some of these talents overlap with one another and that is the strength of our team,” says Bohlé.

     As awareness of BBW grew, their client base began to rapidly expand and it became apparent that they would need to increase their staff if they were going to continue providing a high level of customer service to their growing client base.

 

Chemistry is Key

     BBW has seen growth in just about every facet over the past seven years; one of the most notable is the increase in the size of its staff. The firm has grown from three partners and an administrative assistant to a staff of 12 professionals, three administrators, and four partners.

     Whitsitt, Bohlé and Blair all agree that they were fortunate when Steve Johnston joined BBW in July 2006 and became its fourth equity partner effective January 1, 2007.

     “When I was looking at joining BBW, I considered its reputation, which was excellent, its client base, which was solid, and its resources, which through its membership in the BDO Seidman Alliance was national in scope,” comments Johnston. “It’s exciting being part of a dynamic, growing firm.”

     The newest partner, Steve Johnston, had joined a large regional firm after school and remained with them for 24 years prior to joining BBW.

     “Steve brings with him a wealth of experience and knowledge in an area that is so specialized that we never would have been able to offer those services,” says Blair. “We are really happy with how he has enhanced our practice.”At BBW, Johnston focuses on assurance services. Additionally, he is trained to perform audits on governmental services, a highly specialized field, which has brought new dimension and capabilities to the firm and has given them access to a revenue stream that prior to his arrival they could not have touched.

     “Steve has been an extremely valuable addition to our firm. He brings with him 24 years of accounting and auditing experience and will be the cornerstone of developing further and taking our firm’s assurance services to the next level,” comments Whitsitt of his new partner. “His specific experience in the area of governmental audits will allow our firm to enter that marketplace. We feel we can offer a unique competitive edge, as many firms of our size do not offer such services.”

     It is apparent that Johnston blends well with the group and has made an already strong team even stronger. “We four complement each other well, we have an excellent balance. We have an open forum where we can debate and disagree, but we always know that no matter what happens, it will always be the four of us. That type of security allows each of us to explore our practice areas with confidence,” comments Bohlé.

     Outside of its partners, BBW sets the bar high for its other team members as well.    “Chemistry is a big word for us, whether it is between the partners, our entire firm or our clients,” says Bohlé.

      The firm looks for people who can contribute to the organization and who are able to carry out their tradition of quality customer service and attention to client detail.

To house its growing staff, BBW moved into their new 5,800-square-foot office building this past January, and although moving at the start of filing season brought with it some challenges, it has helped them position themselves for further growth, both internally and externally.

 

The Power of Many

     Another attributable factor in their growth came in 2004, after much thought and consideration, when BBW accepted an invitation to join the BDO Seidman Alliance, a nationwide association of independent local and regional accounting and consulting firms, making them the only Charlotte firm to hold this distinction.

     BDO Seidman, LLP is the anchor to the alliance, collectively holding more than 90 years of experience, and serves clients from more than 35 offices and over 250 alliance firms across the United States as well as 107 countries worldwide.

     As a member of the alliance, BBW is linked to the resources and technical knowledge of an international firm, but still maintains the personal feel of a local firm. They have been able to remain focused on helping small and independent businesses while at the same time appealing to larger clients due to their additional resources.

     “Our alliance with BDO Seidman means there is nothing that we can’t do,” comments Blair. “It really has been a very rewarding arrangement and has opened a lot of doors for us. For a local firm like us, it is pretty powerful to be part of this alliance. We are unlike other CPA groups that aren’t anchored by an international firm like BDO. That is the unique aspect of our alliance.”

     BBW’s affiliation with the alliance has enabled them to broaden their capabilities and gain greater technical knowledge in specialty areas. They are able to utilize professionals with experience in a wide range of industries and have access to the most up-to-date technical information and training programs. Additionally, they are able to provide their clients contacts throughout the United States.

     The BDO Seidman Alliance has really helped the firm stand out above other firms their size. “The alliance is the reason we are able to offer, with confidence, our services to companies that may feel they need a national accounting firm,” comments Whitsitt.

      Since joining the alliance, BBW has used BDO to supplement the services it was already offering, which in turn has brought greater flexibility, efficiency and cost effectiveness to both the firm and its clients.

 

Organic Growth

      By staying focused on helping their clients grow, BBW has experienced their fair share of growth. “If we can help our clients grow, we grow. It’s a win-win situation,” says Blair.

      Because of the long-term relationships that BBW tries to maintain with its clients, its revenue growth over the past seven years is due in large part to their existing client base and the additional services they need. They have helped their clients grow and in turn, they are helping BBW grow. “A significant portion of our growth is attributable to our clients’ growth,”comments Blair.

     Bohlé insists that the firm’s growth isn’t because of any magic formula, merely the old familiar saying: hard work, the right people, a little luck and good decision-making. Though he admits, “Fortunately, for the most part, we’ve had our share and more of all of these. Our firm has rapidly grown in clients and people and that is a great compliment.”

     And although the growth happened quicker than some might have expected, Blair says BBW “has grown organically.”

BBW still hopes to add to their team, aiming for a professional staff of 40 to 60. Another goal for the coming years is to increase their involvement within the community.

     The firm has already started giving back to the profession by setting up an intern program at UNCC and now they are looking forward to expanding to on-campus talks and office visits. Taking their responsibility seriously, the partners welcome the opportunity to give back.

     But with responsibility also comes the chance for them to revel in their success. Now that the firm has taken on momentum all its own, “It’s time to enjoy the ride and watch with pride at its growth,” comments Bohlé.

Janet Kropinak is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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