It's a Small-Firm World After All

Traditional accounting work—halfway around the globe.
BY RICHARD J. KORETO

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY
  • SMALL FIRMS CAN DO BUSINESS INTERNATIONALLY by combining traditional and idiosyncratic personal skills with, for example, an entre into an underserved niche and aggressive marketing techniques.

  • DAN LAUFER FOUND THE KEY to U.S.– Israeli practice was partnering with the Big Five, drawing on his background in two different countries and cultures and using the power of technology.

  • LAUFER BELIEVES OTHER CPAS CAN FOLLOW his model using their own particular skills and backgrounds. “Once you become a known specialist in a narrow area, the word spreads about your abilities.”

  • JIM WESBERRY TOOK GOVERNMENT ACCOUNTING— a niche once labeled “unglamorous”—and turned it into a lifelong career as an international consultant.

  • WESBERRY FOUND THE PROBLEMS FACING government accountants were ubiquitous and so was able to apply his CPA skills successfully in a number of South American countries. Other firms, he noted, had failed to capitalize on this opportunity.

T hink big. Just because you're in a small firm, you don't have to limit your business to a narrow geographic area. These two CPAs—Dan Laufer and Jim Wesberry—have used a panoply of skills to create international niches that are professionally healthy and personally satisfying.

MODERN OPTIONS FOR AN ANCIENT COUNTRY

A1X1219 Laufer has a one-person firm in Texas, but most of his work gets done in Israel, where he is equally at home. Although Laufer was born in the United States, he lived in Israel from 1978 to 1988 and even served a stint as an officer in the Israeli army. After Laufer returned to the States, he earned his CPA license and worked at several firms, including KPMG, which relocated him yet again to its Israeli office.

Dan Laufer: From the Midwest
to the Middle East.

(PHOTO BY: B. PANDYA—UT GSB)

About three years ago, having returned to the States, Laufer went out on his own and formed a consulting practice specializing in helping Israeli and U.S. companies set up and manage operations in each other's country. Of his serendipitous career choice, he says: "I realized that there was an opportunity for someone comfortable working with both Americans and Israelis. With the Internet growing, I figured a small player could easily communicate around the world, and the Web made market research much easier than it had been."

There are democratic possibilities in this way of working, and Laufer recently helped a U.S. company perform an internal audit of its Israeli operations. "It made no difference that I wasn't in a big firm—what mattered were my skills and experience." He also works in the other direction—through networking he was spotted by an Israeli technology company, which hired him to establish the accounting infrastructure at its recently established Silicon Valley office.

lauflogo

Laufer's logo clearly
shows the melding of
two business cultures.

Share nicely

Laufer recognized big firms dominate much of the international market, so he has had to be both shrewd and aggressive in growing his firm. He realized early that David and Goliath are better off as friends, and this gave him a marketing edge. "I don't view the Big Five as competition, but as partners." This give-and-take policy resulted in a contact at one Big Five firm recommending Laufer for a litigation-support engagement at a major U.S. law firm. "And it works both ways," he says. "When a client asked me to handle a large, specialized tax engagement that was not really in my area, I referred him to someone I knew at a Big Five firm."

Academia is also a growth avenue, as Laufer found out when he created a course three years ago for the University of Texas at Austin. The topic: doing business in Israel. Although he enjoys teaching as an end in itself, he also appreciates its marketing power. A local news station thought his subject matter was so innovative it profiled him as a business person of the week, bringing him wider attention. Universities as far away as England, Sweden and Israel have contacted him about organizing similar courses, and he will in fact be teaching MBAs overseas this summer. For two successive years, Laufer has had Israel's economic minister to North America, David Rubin, speak as a guest lecturer to his class. Laufer also writes CPE and other educational materials, which frequently lead to a variety of lecturing engagements.

Laufer has made a success of his narrow U.S.Israeli consulting niche and says it's a model CPAs can adapt to other markets. CPAs should look at their interests and skills and the needs of their clients. In a time of international change, what areas are underserved? "I focused on Israel because it's my background, but this could work for many countries. Marketing is the big challenge, but once you've started to specialize in your field—and the word spreads—you will become identified as the expert."

Laufer has a Web site at http://menic.utexas.edu/menic/cmes/laufer/bio.html .

AN EYE ON NATIONAL TREASURIES

Government accounting always came in two styles: state or local and federal. But Jim Wesberry—who spent his entire adult life and his teen years involved with governments—has found a career working with governments beyond U.S. borders in a niche long-ignored by big firms.

Wesberry began his government service as a page in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1949, when he was 14. "Over my father's protests I stayed for three years, going to school in D.C. From that time on, government has been the only thing in my professional life I've been interested in." After college he became a CPA at a local firm in Atlanta. "This was about 40 years ago, and no one wanted to do government work. When a government audit engagement came up, I'd raise my hand while everyone else would hide under their desks," Wesberry says wryly.

Jim Wesberry: North or South America—
it's all government accounting.
wesburr

Wesberry's interest in government work led him to start his own specialty firm. Perhaps his greatest marketing technique was to specialize in an area he had interest in—but no one else seemed to. He received referrals for government engagements from the then Big Eight. These were "jobs they wouldn't touch with a 10-foot pole," he says. "Well, today all the big firms do lots of U.S. government work, but they still don't do much international government work."

Wesberry's first wife was Cuban, and his visits there, before Castro came to power, engendered a liking for Latin America. So in the 1960s when a New Yorkbased nonprofit agency offered him a job with travel throughout South America he jumped at the chance. This introduced him to a whole network of international finance professionals, which led to consulting opportunities with various Latin American governments, such as the Peruvian comptroller general's office. "In 1972 we issued the world's first government internal control standards in Peru—a decade before the GAO did in the United States." Another achievement he's proud of was helping develop the Latin American and Caribbean Organization of Supreme Audit Institutions, an umbrella group of audit organizations.

Today he uses his considerable government experience on behalf of the consulting firm he works for, Casals & Associates, with offices in Virginia, Nicaragua and Argentina. Casals has contracts with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), which provides economic development overseas to advance U.S. economic and political interests. Wesberry helps run the Americas' Accountability/Anti-Corruption Project, funded by USAID, which began as an attempt to improve financial management in Latin American and Caribbean governments. "Government financial management is my specialty," he said, applying his CPA skills—and lessons learned from municipalities in Georgia—to the Southern Hemisphere. "We quickly saw we'd be wasting our time trying to improve financial management if we couldn't root out government corruption, so we held what became the first of a series of Inter-American teleconferences on government fraud."

The road taken

Wesberry's years of government work yielded governmental and professional honors from Peru, Venezuela and Ecuador. Several countries made him an honorary member of their accountancy organizations. He says he has only one regret: "Years ago, I ran for the state senate and something terrible happened—I won." The hurly-burly of such a visible position and the unpleasantness of fundraising sent him quickly back to his true love—government accounting—in the middle of his third term. His career clearly gives lie to the idea that international work is only about large firms operating in national capitals. Wesberry took his small-firm background and small town experience in an unpopular practice niche all the way to another hemisphere.

Casals & Associates is online at www.casals.com . More information about USAID and its projects is available at www.usaid.gov and www.respondanet.com .

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