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Practice Management / Staff Retention

Outrageous Employee Benefits

A strategy to keep your people happy is sound business.

By Michael Hayes
May 2005
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY
THE PARTNERS AT VITALE CATURANO & CO. (VCC) have listened carefully to what employees and potential hires say matters to them in the workplace—growth, intellectually stimulating and diverse projects, and a sense of being appreciated.

VCC ATTRACTS STAFF AND ENCOURAGES LOYALTY by offering a generous work/life incentives program it calls “outrageous employee benefits.” The firm credits the program with low staff turnover and steady growth. For example, VCC’s education program, which costs the firm about $400,000 a year, helps generate approximately $625,000 in additional revenue.

BENEFITS INCLUDE ON-SITE CPE AND OTHER COURSES, free on-site gourmet meals, child care, concierge services, health classes, flowers in the office, busy-season chair massages and other amenities. VCC sees those perks as an intelligent way to keep the training and time invested in employees from leaving the firm.

A BIG MOTIVATOR FOR HIRES JUST OUT OF SCHOOL is cutting-edge technology that frees them to focus on their work while making them feel they work for a progressive firm. E-pace audit software, paperless office technology, CRM software and document management are big hits, the partners say.

VCC OFFERS CONCIERGE SERVICES AND ENCOURAGES professional staff to delegate nontechnical tasks to less-skilled employees, freeing technical people to focus on the billable work that is most profitable for the firm. Staff perks ultimately are about offering clients the best-possible service.

MICHAEL HAYES is a senior editor on the JofA . Ms. Hayes is an employee of the AICPA and her views, as expressed in this article, do not necessarily reflect the views of the Institute. Official positions are determined through certain specific committee procedures, due process and deliberation.

he right employees are your firm’s best asset” is easy to say, but it takes wisdom and imagination to put your firm’s money and future where your mouth is. That was the commitment Boston firm Vitale Caturano & Co. (VCC) made when it developed its program of “outrageous employee benefits.” The full-service firm, founded in 1978, offers tax, auditing, business valuation, personal financial planning, management consulting, human resources and technology consulting. It formalized its policy of generous work/life incentives in 1996 as a way to lure qualified staff.

Since then it has grown from a 55-person, 10-partner enterprise to a top-100 firm with 280 people and 29 partners. “Intellectual capital and client service are the two mainstays of our business,” says President Richard Caturano, CPA, “and we pride ourselves on attracting and keeping talented people.” The program has more than paid for itself, he says, and “we can produce the numbers to prove it.” This case study will show small and midsize firms ideas they can borrow from VCC’s program to attract—and keep—the experienced professionals they need.

WHY GIVE TO GET
Over the years VCC’s partners have noted that employees and potential hires say that what matter most to them in the workplace are growth, intellectually stimulating and diverse projects and a sense of being appreciated. The firm shows its appreciation tangibly with an extensive education program, gourmet meals from an on-site kitchen, child care, concierge services, health classes, flowers in the office, flexible work hours, chair massages in busy season and other large and small amenities. The work/life perks may seem extreme to some employers, but retention-minded VCC sees them as an intelligent adaptation to motivating employees to do their best. The benefits also help keep the training and time invested in an employee from reentering a tight labor market just exacerbated by Sarbanes-Oxley. They not only boost morale, loyalty and productivity but also disarm issues a competitor might use to woo away top talent.

Let’s Work

By 2012 professional and business services will grow by 30.4%.

Source: U.S. Department of Labor, www.dol.gov .

EFFICIENT, CONVENIENT CPE
Dave Clarkson, CPA, vice-president of human resources, spends a lot of time on campuses talking to students and often hears them express concerns about continuing education and training opportunities. Accordingly, the partners met with a professional trainer to develop guidelines for an in-house educational system. The result is VCC University, a year-round operation serving all staff members.

The training is a major attraction for new hires. “The teach-me generation wants to see what we’re going to do for them,” Caturano says. A learning and development director serves as “dean” and manager of the program. Working with the partner responsible, she develops the curriculum, selects instructors and ensures courses are the right type and quality. The organization uses the program to provide career counseling and map the courses people will take to develop skills to meet personal and CPE goals.

Besides CPE, the program also offers tuition reimbursement for accredited degree programs and elective courses tailored to staff preferences at several area colleges. About half of training occurs during office hours; the rest is on employees’ time. If you’re going to have staff in on a Saturday, at night or for an early morning session, “it has to produce good results,” Caturano says.

Artists move in and value goes up: Common areas, conference rooms and many offices are adorned with at least one piece of contemporary art chosen by staff members. VCC’s art gallery also presents quarterly exhibits.
VCC partners literally cater to employees too busy to go to lunch. A complete restaurant-grade kitchen—used for daily lunches, busy season dinners, meetings and special events—has become an important part of the firm culture.
The staff that plays together: VCC has an all-day informational and educational meeting for all staff three times a year in places of interest. Here employees exult at Gillette Stadium, where the 2004 Super Bowl champions, the New England Patriots, play.

Staff members love the idea. “Getting educated at work is the ultimate convenience,” says Greg Natalucci, CPA and staff accountant. “I usually can apply what I learn right away and retain more. And I’ve become better friends with co-workers.”

Operating costs include the director of development, outside instructors and courses and meeting space. While the program costs about $400,000 a year, the firm would spend at least $100,000 a year on CPE courses, Caturano says. “So we’re looking at an incremental cost of about $300,000. If we sell about 140,000 hours of time at $5 an hour more, charging a premium rate because our people are more efficient, that’s about $625,000 in additional revenue. We don’t look at VCC University as a $400,000 cost—we look at it as a $325,000 benefit.”

Smaller firms can’t really afford to do this, but they could develop scaled-down programs as well as connect with other CPA firms to offer more, Caturano says (see “What Small Firms Can Do,” page 36). Small firms with documented training programs may be able to get workforce training grants in many states.

Another big motivator for hires just out of school is the training that’s a byproduct of working with cutting-edge technology. E-pace audit software, paperless office technology, CRM software and document management are big hits, the partners say. New technology lets hires better focus on their tasks while making them feel they work for a progressive firm.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT
Because a nutritious meal can increase stamina, brain power and well-being, the partners offer a complete restaurant-grade kitchen for employees too busy to go to lunch. Staffed by a full-time chef, it’s used for daily lunches, dinners during busy season, meetings and occasional special events.

The kitchen has become an important part of the firm culture. Year-round, employees can obtain made-to-order lunchtime sandwiches, burgers and salads. The chef circulates an electronic menu through e-mail and posts a daily menu to the intranet. Staffers order electronically, and their meals are waiting by the time they’re ready to eat. Like many employees, Jenna Alten, staff software developer and a key member of the technology consulting team, says socializing with colleagues this way “makes me feel taken care of.”

When the stress goes up during busy season so do the perks: dinners and Saturday lunches are free. “Three or four gourmet chefs from the Boston area come in to cook for our people,” says Caturano. Dinners are served family-style Monday through Thursday at 6:30 p.m. On a tax-season Saturday, Caturano estimates almost a hundred people will be at work, in part because of this perk.

After employee contributions the annual unreimbursed costs of the kitchen—including chef(s), cleaning services, equipment and food—come to $100,000 a year, which VCC says is completely recovered through improved staff productivity. Perhaps half or a third of the staff uses the lunch service year-round, saving one hour a week because they’re back to work so quickly, Caturano estimates. “If the firm picks up an hour a week for a third of its people at $100 an hour, that’s $520,000 a year in savings,” he says.

Between meals, the firm offers up bagels, biscotti, gourmet coffee, soda, juice and seasonal fruits every day. That costs $45,000 a year, “but if we pick up four billable hours a year for 200 people, that’s $80,000,” Caturano says. The partners ask staff members to make a contribution to the firm’s charitable foundation for the value of what they eat and drink.

AICPA RESOURCES
For more information about AICPA resources or to make a purchase, go to www.cpa2biz.com or call the AICPA at 888-777-7077.

Conferences
AICPA National Conference on Employee Benefit Plans
May 16–18, 2005
Bellagio Hotel and Casino
Las Vegas

Practitioners Symposium
June 5–8, 2005
Omni Orlando Resort at Champions Gate
Orlando, Florida

Publications
Management of an Accounting Practice Handbook, loose-leaf version (# 090407JA); e-MAP, online version (# MAP-XXJA).

Promoting Your Talent, a guidebook for women in accounting (# 872566JA).

Work/Life: Striking a Balance, a free DVD from the Work/Life and Women’s Initiative Executive Committee, educat@aicpa.org .

Web sites
For more information on how to help aspiring CPAs learn more about the accounting profession and the career opportunities available, go to the AICPA Web site www.startheregoplaces.com .

For more information about careers and work/life opportunities, go to the AICPA Web site www.aicpa.org/worklife .

AICPA Competency Self-Assessment Tool (CAT) provides guidance for staffing, training-needs analysis and job redesign. The tool is free to individuals who are AICPA members at www.cpa2biz.com/CAT .

RELIEF FROM DAY-CARE WORRIES
The end-of-busy-season annual employee survey about 10 years ago showed that one major employee concern was finding good day care for their children on the Saturdays they worked. The partners’ solution was to provide free Saturday day care during the busy season.

Licensed, insured day-care providers take care of from 20 to 30 children in a 1,200-square-foot area. The day-care workers entertain the children with structured amusements such as fort building, Halloween or beach day, for example. “It’s simple for staff: You drop your child off in the morning, work for the day, and when you’re ready to leave, you pick your child up,” says Caturano, whose daughter was the firm’s first day-care provider. As the program grew, the firm hired more professionals.

Staff response has been very positive. Lisa Catapano, vice-president of operations, feels child care is “the firm’s way of saying, ‘We’ll go the extra mile for you.’” The firm’s cost is about $30,000, including space, help and supplies; the firm estimates that 25 staff members work an average of 20 extra hours a year because of it.

DELEGATE FOR EFFICIENCY
A fundamental philosophy of VCC’s founding partners is that the firm is more productive, clients are better served and staff is more proficient if each employee performs the work most related to his or her expertise. “We encourage professional staff to delegate nontechnical tasks so they can do what we hired them to do, which is billable accounting, auditing and tax work,” Caturano says.

To support this policy, the firm’s facilities department provides extensive concierge and office services. Two corporate vehicles are available for running errands and transporting employees to and from appointments—or even taking professional employees’ cars to be repaired while they keep their focus on client service. Through an intranet help desk, the facilities staff performs file retrieval, mail routing, office necessities and conference room preparation, among other things. “We let them make us more efficient,” Caturano says.

As the firm got bigger the facilities staff evolved from one concierge who fulfilled the needs of a 50-person firm to six full-time employees. The annual billings generated in the saved time of professional staff, along with savings on cab fares and other transportation services, make the department an economic benefit to the firm. In addition, the partners estimate that for every hour the firm gains, the employees’ families and personal lives gain two.

ENVIRONMENTAL “WOW” FACTOR
When they started out, the founding partners decided to invest in art to give their office an upscale contemporary look and distinguish it from old-style CPA offices awash in work papers, adding machine tapes and boardroom portraits. The resulting “outrageous art program” has been an important part of building ambience and culture. Common areas, hallways, conference rooms and many individual offices are adorned with at least one piece of contemporary art chosen by staff members and a gallery features quarterly exhibits. The art collection has a positive effect on the general attitude in the office, and clients “are a little bit wowed by it,” Caturano says.

It has been cost-effective, too. Over the years the firm purchased about 400 pieces of contemporary art costing about $300,000 and sold nine pieces that had appreciated in value for $176,000. The collection is appraised at about $900,000 and has cost a net of about $124,000, Caturano says.

He encourages smaller CPA firms that are interested in an art program and feel it would help them distinguish their workplace to get help from an art adviser or to rent art from museums or companies that specialize in leasing art. Maintenance fees are generally low.

MONEY WELL SPENT
Despite the size of the firm’s investment in “outrageous employee benefits,” Caturano is satisfied the money is well-spent. In a tight market for accounting hires, VCC has about 8% unforced staff turnover and a great atmosphere in which to work. It has cutting-edge technology; staff have the latest tools they need; and corporate infrastructure growth has been thoughtful and thorough, encouraging new practice areas such as management, human resources and technology consulting. VCC also has doubled its size in the past 2 1 / 2 years through organic growth and a merger, putting premerger and new staff under one roof in its new office building. As this firm demonstrates, the right people will let you do a great job for your clients—and satisfied clients will do a great job helping a firm grow.

What Small Firms Can Do
A small firm doesn’t have to spend big money to improve staff morale. Cost-sensitive benefits such as flextime, telecommuting and meals during busy season all show appreciation without adding too much to the bottom line. The key is to talk with employees and figure out how to get them to say, “Wow, nobody else would do that for me!”

Let professionals control their own time. Many employees want help balancing work and family obligations. Provide a few hours of paid time off to all employees, so those with children attend parent-teacher conferences, performances, athletic events and back-to-school days. If you have an employee who would like to take a two-hour lunch break to exercise, let her. If you can’t offer concierge services, give workers more time to do errands themselves. Giving employees more control over when they start and stop work creates a positive culture and doesn’t cost much.

Generate solidarity. Plan a social event such as a firm picnic or brunch or an in-house wine-and-cheese party after the March 15 due date for corporate income tax returns. Do it again one month—or six months—later. Organize a peer group roundtable that meets to talk about how to make the firm better.

Get buying strength from numbers. For substantive items, band together with other firms to negotiate discounted health club memberships, free parking and transportation—or even tickets for ball games or concerts—for employees. Coordinate with other organizations, either by profession (firms and firms) or locale (firms and businesses in adjacent offices).

Use size to your advantage. Because small firms don’t need to conform to internal rules that require 20 sign-offs to approve something, make decisions about individual requests on a case-by-case basis.

Help staff by building a “career equity” culture. Employees need challenging and engaging work; opportunities to learn and shoulder responsibility; an appealing combination of salary, benefits, bonuses and perquisites; community involvement; and meaningful professional relationships. Think of these factors as “career equity.” Make sure the people you want to keep and groom to move up get enough equity in each area.

The best predictor of staff productivity and retention is an employee’s relationship with managers or supervisors, partners and/or clients. Assign mentors or firm leaders to help key employees assess and enhance their career equity.

People are most likely to leave their jobs in their first year of service and again when they have two to four years of experience (for more information see, “ How To Keep Them Once You’ve Got Them, JofA , Dec.04, page 57). Keep track of your people, listing each employee’s name, start date, experience with the firm, practice area and mentor on a spreadsheet; leave a column for an end date and total years with the firm. Keep the list up to date and review it monthly (or ask a human resources manager to) to identify turnover patterns.

Once you see the risk patterns, get feedback from your staff at those vulnerable points. Do your education programs add value to their career? Do they feel involved in the community? How often do mentors ask about their career goals? Do they have concerns when they’re out on an engagement? Help them identify what they value about their work, their team members and their clients. When engagement challenges emerge, such as when a client makes new requests, work with them to develop action plans to clarify roles, expectations and communication with clients, client staff and partners.

When employees leave, find out why. Send a survey or contact them by phone about 60 days after they stop working, when they can be more honest and have some emotional distance. Finding out why desirable staff members leave increases your ability to manage gaps in career equity for those still on board.

Make frequent honest communication about career goals a norm.

Source: Jan Torrisi-Mokwa, Congruence Inc., www.congruence-inc.com .

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