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September 2008
Platform for Growth
By Ellison Clary

     It may sound oversimplified, but the founders of Greer & Walker, L.L.P. swear by a success formula of compatibility, unselfishness and hard work, with an eye toward civic involvement.

     Charlie Greer and Kevin Walker already knew they got along well when they started their firm in 1984. Their specialties were complementary and they weren’t territorial. Since then, they’ve grown steadily to become the largest Charlotte-based accounting and consulting firm.

     “After the first busy season, January through April, I think we knew we’d survive,” says Walker. “We knew we had something that would work financially.”

     Initially, the partners focused on the middle market, which in 1984 was much smaller in the Charlotte region. They sought out clients with annual revenue of $2 million to $20 million, primarily closely held businesses. These days, they’re still in the middle market, but the annual revenue parameters have increased to a range of $20 million to $150 million.

     The formula for Greer & Walker remains the same, however; to concentrate on clients that the Big Four accounting firms—Deloitte, PricewaterhouseCoopers, Ernst & Young and KPMG—deem too small.

      “That was the opportunity we saw,” Walker says. “Give a little better service and provide a little more partner involvement. Plus, our rates are better.”

     Compared to three employees and $300,000 in billings their first year, Greer & Walker have grown steadily to 80 employees and annual revenue they expect in excess of $14 million this year.

Platform for Growth

     Greer and Walker first met in the Charlotte office of Deloitte in 1980. An Army brat, Greer had been with the firm since earning his master’s in business administration in a joint Clemson-Furman program. Walker, a New York native, majored in accounting at Hofstra University and had made manager in Deloitte’s New York office before moving to Charlotte in 1980.

     “Charlie’s a tax guy; I’m an audit guy,” Walker explains simply. “We’re both jocks, so we bonded on the basketball and tennis courts and in the CPA softball league. And we had mutual clients at Deloitte.”

     Greer got a chance to make partner, but only if he’d move to Hickory. He balked, and spoke with Walker about starting a new firm.

     “We looked at each other and said, ‘I’ll do it if you’ll do it,’” Walker remembers. “We had no money and no clients. We talked it over with our wives and they said ‘Go for it!’”

     They set up shop at 112 South Tryon Street with furniture from auction sales, heeding the advice of Joddy Peer, Charlotte architect and early client, who told them to locate in Center City. Almost immediately, they attracted four or five small accounts, and soon they were able to add their first professional staff member, Beth Morris (also from Deloitte) before the end of the first year. Beth subsequently reached the level of partner at Greer & Walker.

     Almost from almost the beginning, Greer & Walker has concentrated on niches within the middle market. Strengths today include an international practice with 140 clients, more than 60 percent German. Among them is Schaefer Systems International, Inc., which makes and installs material handling systems for all types of automated warehousing and distribution centers.

     Aiding in the global effort—and domestically, too—is Greer & Walker’s membership in the PKF Association. It’s a network of over 200 firms throughout the world, each independently owned, which cooperate to share technical information and serve each other’s clients. Greer & Walker is the exclusive Charlotte member.

     Another notable niche is money management, conducted through the firm’s affiliate, Greer & Walker Investment Advisors LLC, with client assets under management approaching $300 million.

     Greer explains those concentrations simply. “We had a partner who was interested in international practice and we had a partner who was interested in money management,” he says. “They just followed their passions.”

     Other notable areas include real estate, construction, financial services and manufacturing and distribution. Motorsports is also a significant niche, with the firm representing various NASCAR clients, drivers and teams alike. With names such as Bojangles, Just Fresh and Salsarita’s, restaurants could soon become another significant niche.

     The firm also flexes muscles in the annual audits of pension plans, 401(k) plans and trust funds. That type of project work is where it interacts with larger publicly traded companies such as Nucor, EnPro Industries, Coca-Cola Bottling, and Wachovia.

“Most of that is done outside our traditional busy season, in the summer and fall,” says Walker. “It’s a nice fit.”

     Since 1999, Greer & Walker has maintained offices in South Tryon Square and today occupies all of the 15th floor and parts of three others, taking 18,000 square feet total. The firm has nine partners and no other Charlotte-based operation comes close to matching its size.

     “We’re perfect complements to each other,” Greer smiles. “I don’t think we’ve ever had a disagreement. We’ve never been jealous of each other.” They credit their unselfishness as playing a big role in their success.

     “Inevitably, firms get to a point where they’ve got to make a fork-in-the-road decision,” Walker injects. “Do we want to continue to grow? Growth comes with some challenges. You might make more money, but things get more complicated.”

     At that point, many firms decide to stay small, Walker says, adding, “We set the platform for growth.”

 

Sharing Makes a Difference

     This platform meant more partners and sharing clients. Each client belongs to the firm, not an individual, Greer states. “That makes a big difference.”

     Because Greer and Walker enjoy what they do, they’ve always worked hard and emphasized that part of the company culture.

     A client who appreciates that is Ed Crutchfield, the retired former chairman and chief executive of First Union Corporation, which is now part of Wachovia.

“I’ve known Charlie Greer for maybe 30 years,” Crutchfield says. “I’ve done business with Greer & Walker a long time, maybe 20 years.”

     The firm’s competence and service stand out, he says. He trusts its advice and appreciates professionals such as Sandi Thorman, partner, being available for him after normal business hours.

     “They’re smart,” he sums up. “And Charlie Greer is probably as hard a worker as I’ve ever seen.”

     Word of mouth such as that brings additional clients, Greer says. Another factor is that the Big Four firms continue to go “up market” to concentrate on ever-larger companies. The fallout is that the Big Four refer out their smaller clients and often choose Greer & Walker because of its reputation.

     Another part of the Greer & Walker culture has always been community involvement. Greer and Walker tout the firm’s strong support of the United Way of Central Carolinas and the Arts & Science Council.

     New hires hear dual expectations: Pass the CPA exam and get involved in the community. Serving as examples, both Greer and Walker have compiled long lists of civic connections.

     “We’re a public accounting firm,” says Greer. “We’ve got to give back to the community.”

     He lists the benefits: “Accomplishments on a civic board can mitigate bad days in the office, and solving an organization’s problems can teach teamwork and leadership. It helps people grow into decision makers at work.”

     Is it good for business? Certainly it can be, Greer admits. He met Crutchfield at Myers Park Presbyterian a long time ago, but he was involved as a Sunday school teacher and deacon for 10 years before he ever got a client from the church, he says.

From civic connections, Walker says business development is indirect and intangible. “We don’t track that,” he adds. “If it happens, great.”

     Still, the firm makes an impression. Linda Gallehugh, executive director of Teen Health Connection, praises Walker for his leadership on her board, where he moved up the ranks from treasurer to president. “He’s also provided other staff members to be treasurer,” she says.

     Further, she’s seen Greer & Walker associates perform well for Community Health Services. “They do a good job on the boards,” she sums up.

     Greer & Walker used to hire public accounting firm veterans almost exclusively, and it still does occasionally. But these days the firm concentrates on college campuses. Favorites include Appalachian State, UNC Charlotte, UNC Wilmington, and Virginia Tech.

     Turnover is about 15 percent a year, which is pretty low for accounting firms. Most that leave do so for solid opportunities in the corporate world, and that often benefits Greer & Walker with referrals down the road.

 

The Right Fit

     The founders say they look for people who are a good fit for the no-nonsense culture   that’s evolved.

     “At the highest level, we don’t tolerate politics,” Walker says. “I think everybody understands that, in large degree, we are a meritocracy. If you work hard, good things are going to happen. There’s a high level of respect for everybody here.”

     Greer chimes in: “I think there’s a lot of trust in this firm. Partners work as hard as associates do.”

     With the work comes benefits. The firm spends about 3 percent of annual revenue on continuing education, including courses for professional development in the appropriate niche. Opportunities for leadership training also are available.

     Walker enjoys watching employees develop into people he feels comfortable delegating to. Greer likes the bonding that happens during the crazy work schedules predicated by the April 15 tax deadline.

     To promote more balanced lives, the firm allows employees to take off Friday afternoons during the summer, but still pays them for 40 hours. The result has been even better productivity—along with an unexpected development. The employees wanted to get together for Friday outings, for golf or boat trips. The firm decided it could fund those excursions, Greer says, chuckling as he delivers the punch line. “Then they said, ‘We want the partners to go with us.’”

     Greer & Walker hasn’t noticed much effect from the current economic downturn. But Greer adds a caveat. “It’s important to us that the Charlotte marketplace continues to grow and that Wachovia stays strong, and Bank of America, too. It’s a great marketplace. We couldn’t have picked a better place to start an accounting practice”.

     Greer & Walker is on track to continue an annual growth rate of 15 to 20 percent with a spike here and there, perhaps even this year. It could employ over 120 in five years, the founders feel.

     “Our clients are growing and they want to see us do it, too,” Greer says. “They don’t want to outgrow us.”

     Sustainability is a concept that Greer, 59, and Walker, 58, take seriously. Neither founder’s retirement is imminent, but each realizes that it likely will come in the next decade. They have fashioned a platform so that, when they retire, the remaining partners can continue and not be forced to sell out to a larger player.

     “They may choose to retain the firm name of Greer & Walker,” says Walker. “It’s got a lot of goodwill in the market. It’s not an ego thing; it’s just an economic reality.”

 

 

 

Ellison Clary is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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