Public accounting firms, ranging in size from solo practitioners to multimillion-dollar operations, continue to bring in more revenue, often at a faster-growing pace, while dealing with increased competition for clients and talent.
Those are among the findings of the 2016 Management of an Accounting Practice (MAP) benchmarking survey. Results of the biennial review were released Monday by the AICPA’s Private Companies Practice Section and CPA.com, the Institute’s marketing and technology subsidiary.
More than 1,500 firms participated in the survey, which thoroughly examines financial and other information for the firms’ fiscal 2015. Firms also were asked to provide fiscal 2014 data for revenue, referred to in the survey as “net client fees.” The fiscal 2014 data allow for year-over-year revenue comparisons. Comparisons in all other categories are between the 2016 survey and the 2014 survey, which recorded results for the 2013 fiscal year.
Firms in all seven revenue ranges tracked by the 2016 survey posted higher revenue in fiscal year 2015 than in the previous year. The gains peaked at a median of 10.5% for firms with annual revenue less than $200,000, the level at which one or two new client engagements can produce double-digit percentage increases on the top line.
Among the other firms polled, revenue growth ranged from a low of about 5% for firms with revenue between $500,000 and $750,000 to a high of around 7% for firms with more than $10 million in revenue.
Year-over-year revenue growth accelerated in all revenue categories except those with revenue between $5 million and $10 million.
While the smallest firms generated the largest median revenue jump, the percentage of firms posting higher revenue actually grew with firm size. Among firms with less than $200,000 in revenue, two-thirds grew the top line while one-third posted decreases. The percentage of firms with positive revenue growth rose with each revenue range, topping out at nearly 90% among the largest firms.
“The main takeaway of this year’s MAP survey is that the business of public accounting is strong,” said Mark Koziel, CPA, CGMA, the AICPA’s executive vice president–Firm Services. “Many trends, however, are highly specific to firm size and specialty, which is why the survey serves as an important benchmarking tool for firm leaders.”
The bottom line on the bottom line
While all size firms grew revenue, the profit picture was mixed. Firms with revenue between $500,000 and $1.5 million recorded double-digit percentage gains in profit, defined by the MAP survey as “net remaining per owner,” which measures revenue minus expenses before partner-related compensation. The smallest and largest firms generated more modest profit gains compared with their respective 2014 MAP survey results, while firms with revenue ranging from $1.5 million to $10 million saw slight declines in per owner profitability.
Profit margins, meanwhile, remain steady despite firms devoting more capital to strategic investments while also contending with increased competition in large markets and higher spending on staffing. Intense demand for talent continues to inflate the cost of employees as a percentage of firm profits. Adding to the cost pressure is increased competition for job candidates with more education, with firms showing a strong preference for accounting graduates who have at least 150 credit hours.
Billing types: Traditional hourly billing still accounts for the vast majority of all fees collected by accounting firms, but most practices are also using other pricing approaches. Firms with less than $500,000 in revenue are doing the most implementation of various pricing and billing techniques; among them are fixed fee, value pricing, and client-retainer fees.
Billing rates: The survey found that the smallest and largest firms had the largest increases in median billing rates for equity partners. The middle revenue bands ($500,000 to $5 million in annual revenue) posted gains in the lower single digits.
For more on the MAP survey, go to the survey’s homepage at aicpa.org/mapsurvey.
The MAP survey, the largest benchmarking study of accounting firm practice management topics, is conducted every two years. Representatives from 1,537 CPA firms participated in this year’s survey, which asked for details about their latest fiscal-year financial results. Responses were gathered from May through July this year. The poll’s main sponsor is Aon.
—Jeff Drew (email@example.com) is a JofA senior editor.