Robert J. Ciaruffoli, CPA

Office of the CEO at Baker Tilly Virchow Krause LLP

Editor’s note: Ciaruffoli was CEO of ParenteBeard LLC before its merger with Baker Tilly Virchow Krause on Oct. 1, 2014. He will retire Dec. 31, 2015.

I became [ParenteBeard] CEO in 2000. My immediate goal was to change the internal infrastructure of the organization and, for lack of better words, professionalize the administrative structure. We had grown, and we had an administrative structure in marketing and HR that was still being handled on a part-time basis by partners. We knew if we were going to grow, we needed to get professionals in those positions and treat it accordingly, including HR. We did. We built a very good infrastructure that allowed us to grow the firm administratively as well as qualitywise. It served us well over the years. As each year went by, through our strategic planning process we continued to plan growth. Building the infrastructure allowed us to do it. That’s one of the things that we consistently brought to the table with respect to acquisitions.

Every time we did a major revamp of a strategic plan, we always presented it in a nonthreatening way that this is the direction that the firm has decided to go with the support of the strategic planning committee, the board of directors, and the partners. It may not be for everybody. That’s OK. If this is an organization that you don’t want to be part of in the future, let’s sit down, talk, and work something out for you. If people don’t buy into the plan, they’re not going to be happy. There’s no reason for them to stay. You work with those individuals and help them find something that they’re happy with so you can maintain the culture that you want, a happy environment, and a good place to work.

Consistent action that takes care of one’s team members builds trust. That doesn’t mean everybody gets everything that they want. The organization cares for an individual, realizes that an individual has needs. Everybody wants to grow within an organization, [so you] provide that opportunity to them—the coaching, the mentoring, the education that goes along with it, certainly the compensation and work environment.

The merger with Baker Tilly makes us a lot stronger on a combined basis and much more competitive. The culture of the two firms is very, very similar. If the cultures weren’t similar, I doubt if either firm would have done the merger. It leads with caring for the people in the organization. If we don’t take care of the people that work for us, we’re not going to be in a position to serve clients the way they need to be serviced or the way they expect to be serviced.

The last reason in the world you would want to do a merger is to get bigger. It’s not about bigger; it’s about being better. You can’t put two organizations together that are oil and vinegar: It’s just not going to work. It’s a matter of successful integration and recognizing that it’s not my way or your way. It’s going to be our way and supported by the partner group. One of the ways that’s done is with a lot of meetings between the two firms, going to market meetings for the different industry groups, service groups, and getting the leadership of those industries or services together, developing joint strategies, getting to know each other very well so that you can hit the ground running on the effective day of merger.

How do we help [clients] achieve their goals and objectives? Listening is a big part of it. It’s amazing what you learn when you listen to a client. We all have to show a little bit of humility and listen to what other people are saying. We can learn a lot. That’s one of the ways that we can provide exceptional service to our clients, just listening to what they’re doing, what their needs are.

But listening takes practice. That’s where coaching and mentoring come in. Let’s say you go into a meeting with a group of people. Somebody on your team dominates and continues to talk and tell how great they are, how great the firm is. You need to take them aside after the meeting and have a conversation with them. “You wasted valuable time in that meeting talking about yourself, talking about the firm as opposed to listening to what their needs are. Understand what they need first before we speak.”

—As told to Sheon Ladson Wilson, a freelance writer based in Durham, N.C.

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