How do you hand off a business that you’ve spent most of your life building?
Terry Harris has been preparing to answer that question ever since he took on the role of managing partner and Cumberland County-based McKonly & Asbury LLP 14 years ago.
Harris, 60, handed off the reins of the CPA firm to Kurt Trimarchi, 45, on Jan. 1.
This transition has been in the works for years, with Trimarchi taking on the role of co-managing partner about two years ago in anticipation of Harris’s semi-retirement.
Here’s what they had to say about how to make successions successful.
(And keep an eye out for a full Q&A about their time at the firm in the coming weeks).
Harris on planning for succession:
We’ve been in the planning process for at least five years. And I think when I took over as managing partner, one of the most important things in my role was to make sure that not only we were successful during my tenure, but also after my tenure.
I think really in my process of becoming managing partner here, I began to think about and plan for what my succession would look like. So even though I was in my late 40s when I became managing partner, at the same time I was looking to a time when I would ultimately retire or pass the baton. So I think it’s more just about making sure you have a good plan for succession.
And several years ago we decided the end of 2016 would be the date we would make that transition, and we just set up a plan around that and stayed on track and worked toward it. So there’s been a lot of planting down seeds over the years around this because it’s a pretty big deal. I mean I’ve been with the firm, not consecutively, almost 40 years, so there’s a lot of my sort of DNA that’s part of this organization.
Because when I started, we were a pretty small firm; I think we were eight. We grew in the mid 2000s. We were as high as 130 people at one point. And through some divestitures and changes in the business model, we went down to about 75 to 80 people now, which is a great size.
I think it’s been part of a plan that any business thinks about. What’s the succession look like? I mean, there’s some guys in this business that will never retire. And I don’t think I’ll ever not work, but there’s a time to move on to other things and other business opportunities and really hand off the baton to the next generation in leaders. And hopefully you leave the place in good enough shape that when they take over, they’re good to go. So that’s been the plan.
I think it’s sort of a natural process. We just put a little more time into planning it than some businesses do. I think it’s a good model because it gives you a lot of time. It’s not sudden. And some succession situations are sudden, like you have a death. Then you’re scrambling to figure out what your succession is.
And there’s many accounting firms that haven’t planned well for succession. They have older generation partners, and they have no successors. So now they limit their options. They basically have to sell to somebody or merge with somebody. And that’s not been our plan from the beginning. Our plan was to continue the organization. And that will be a challenge for Kurt too as he moves forward in his career. What’s the next generation look like? What’s his succession plan? It seems like a far way off, but the time passes so quickly.
Trimarchi on filling the shoes of a longtime leader:
Obviously you want to maintain the foundation of what 40-plus years of successful operations has produced. So one of the things, while you’re constantly evolving and changing, you don’t want to change just for the sake of change’s sake. We want to make sure we maintain the things we do well and why we’ve been successful.
I think the challenge for us is a couple areas. One, as we move from baby boomer to Gen X to eventually millennial … there are definitely distinct differences in what recent college grads are looking for in an accounting career. And while they want to provide excellent service and do good work for the clients, I think their way of doing business is significantly different from the way CPA firms have traditionally operated, both in technology and in collaborative work relationships, [as well as] in the number of hours and the locations of those hours.
I would say this is an opportunity for us to reprogram ourselves as an accounting firm and maintain all the great things we do but also ensure we’re [positioned to attract] the talent level we want in the millennials [and offer them opportunities to] keep them here 10, 15, 40 years so maybe they can be Terry someday sitting here telling their story. So I think that’s certainly a challenge.
And [we’ll also have to handle] the impact of an ever-shrinking global business community. Who you competed with, Terry, when you started in the ’70s versus 20 years ago, even 10 years ago compared to today, it’s just so much less restrictive to enter into various marketplaces. So we have to compete with people on the West Coast, South, and certainly in the Northeast and in the local market and even internationally because they can do business here in a way that you couldn’t two decades ago.
So how do we align with the talent of tomorrow, and how do we ensure we’re competitive when we have increasing competitive pressures?