Staffing, succession emerge as top CPA firm concerns


Succession planning and staffing joined new client acquisition and dealing with the complexities of rapidly changing tax regulations as the top issues facing U.S. accounting firms, according to an AICPA survey released Tuesday.

The 2013 Private Companies Practice Section (PCPS) CPA Firm Top Issues survey found evidence that CPA firms are moving out of survival mode and into a mindset focused on growth. Firms are looking to sign new clients while also turning their attention back to finding and retaining qualified staff.

AICPA Chairman Richard Caturano, CPA, CGMA, and President and CEO Barry Melancon, CPA, CGMA, revealed the survey results in an address at the AICPA Practitioners Symposium and Tech+ Conference in Partnership With the Association for Accounting Marketing Summit in Las Vegas. The survey was conducted April 23 through May 17. The 1,012 respondents represent a mix of practice types, from sole practitioners to firms with 21 or more professionals. The results were broken into the following firm size categories:

  • Sole practitioners
  • Firms with 2–5 professionals
  • Firms with 6–10 professionals
  • Firms with 11–20 professionals
  • Firms with 21 or more professionals

From 1997 through 2007, staff recruitment and retention topped the list of issues for almost all firm sizes tracked by the biennial PCPS Top Issues survey. That changed with the 2009 poll, which found firms focused on trying to retain clients amid the Great Recession. The scene shifted a bit with the 2011 survey, as the search for new clients emerged as a major priority along with client retention. This year, however, client retention ranked among the top five issues in only two of the five size categories. 

“When the economy was in free fall, firm leaders largely focused on stabilizing their client base,” said Mark Koziel, CPA, CGMA, the AICPA’s vice president–Firm Services & Global Alliances. “Now we’re seeing firms being able to catch their breath and engage in more planning for future growth.”

Bringing in new clients was the only issue to rank among the top five in all five size categories. Finding qualified staff and succession planning ranked among the top five in four of the five categories.

The increased emphasis on attracting and keeping quality staff indicates that accounting firms are growing and that competition for talent is heating up. The growing focus on succession planning, which appeared among the top five issues in only the two largest size categories in 2011, indicates that more firms realize that the inevitable transfer of ownership from Baby Boomer partners will become a reality in the next several years.
Sole practitioner and small firm issues

As usual, the unique challenges faced by sole practitioners resulted in a top issues list somewhat different from those of their peers. The list reflects the impact of a difficult tax season marked by numerous last-minute changes from Congress. CPAs in solo practices can’t split the task of learning tax law changes with other professionals in the firm. So it’s no surprise that “Keeping up with changes and complexity of the tax laws” once again took the top spot among the group’s issues. What’s telling is that workload compression moved up two spots, to third, on the list, while the cost and complexity of new federal and state regulations claimed the fifth spot after not cracking the top five in 2011.

Firms with two to five professionals have a list of concerns featuring issues shared with sole practitioners as well as larger firms. The difficulty of the 2013 busy season is reflected in the fact that keeping up with tax laws was named the top issue after finishing third in 2011 and seasonality/workload compression claimed the fifth spot. Finding qualified staff took the No. 3 spot.
Large firm concerns

Partner unity and accountability again ranked as the top issue among the largest firms, those with 21 and more professionals, which also ranked retaining staff ahead of finding new staff. Click here for the full top five lists for 2013 and 2011 for all five size groups. 

Jeff Drew ( ) is a JofA senior editor.

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