Timing your exit

The best successions are neither too long nor too short.
By Brannon Poe, CPA

When owners of CPA firms first begin to think about succession planning, the most important decision they need to make is when to bow out.

Too soon, and the owner may find letting go of the practice difficult or even impossible. Exiting owners who are not ready to let go often end up micromanaging their successors, which damages the handoff.   When owners have no concrete plans pulling them out of the practice, they may unknowingly sabotage their own transactions. Deals can suffer from "death by a thousand cuts" as they go through multiple rounds of changes and become needlessly complex.

Too late, and owners can experience burnout. Their energy for the business can gradually fade to the point where the practice isn't growing or improving. Or, worse, the practice can go into decline as clients and staff begin to leave.

It can be difficult, though, to know when to leave. Sometimes an outside event brings clarity: health problems, a spouse's retirement, or the arrival of grandchildren.

But, in the absence of these major life events, owners need to decide when to exit without any outside influence. Here are some factors to consider that can help you achieve the "Goldilocks zone" of timing:

When will you have enough money to retire? This is often the biggest consideration. CPAs are usually financially savvy and know when they have enough money to retire.  That said, they should still take conservative projections of future earnings into account.

Do you have a plan for what you'll do after you leave the practice? Ideally, know what you want to do after your exit and have something in mind that you are drawn toward: volunteer work, CFO work, another business opportunity, or fulfilling a long-held retirement dream. Having plans tends to "pull" you out of the practice and provide incredible clarity around your timing. It's much easier to leave your career when there are other things that you really want to do.

If you're not sure what you'll do, consider part-time work. Surprisingly, in our experience, many CPAs underestimate their ability to find lucrative part-time opportunities outside of public accounting. A lengthy career in public practice can provide a variety of skills and wisdom that have significant value, which can lead to CFO roles and general business opportunities. These roles often let exiting owners work less without sacrificing all of their income. This option offers a nice step-down in responsibility and time commitment along with significant earning potential.

Once you have decided to leave, how long will the exit take? The length of the exit period will vary significantly from owner to owner and is influenced by many factors. Here are some of the most common ones to consider:

What kind of partnership or shareholder agreements do you have? Ideally, your agreements will specify a clear path for exiting. Unfortunately, we've seen cases where firms did not have partnership agreements or these agreements did not address exit or buyout concerns. (In fact, an AICPA firm succession management survey found that only 63% of firms have a partner agreement.) In some of these instances, the lack of a prior agreement delayed the exit timetable of the partner who wanted to leave. Legal conflicts can take years to resolve.

If your agreement includes an exit plan, then congratulations on the good planning! If not, initiate a partner discussion on this issue so you can draft an addendum to your agreement.

Regardless of your agreement, the sooner you begin a conversation with all partners about your exit, the better. Partners often have significantly different exit timetables, which can create conflicting interests. Identify any conflicts early and solutions will be much easier to create.

If you plan to sell, how marketable is your practice? The marketability of your firm will help you determine how long it is likely to take to sell. If you are considering a potential sale or merger of the practice, understand the key factors that drive the firm's value (such as size, location, and profitability) and how much demand there might be for it. In some markets, practices will sell in a matter of weeks. In others, it may take years.

How long will client transition take? The time necessary to facilitate a successful transition can vary quite a bit. Some transitions last a few weeks, while others occur over a couple of years.  Our general recommendation when a practice is sold is to transition very quickly. Though it may see counterintuitive, our experience has been that firms overwhelmingly do better when the handoff is swift.

(The topic of client transition is a complex one. To better understand how long your transition may take, please explore our post on high-level concepts behind successful transitions.)

If you have an internal successor prepared to take over, how long will it take before they're ready? Even if you've chosen a talented successor, be sure to be objective about all of the necessary capabilities that ownership requires. Make a realistic assessment of their skills and an estimate of how long it will take them to shore up any weaknesses before taking over. Also, be sure they have a strong desire to take over. We've seen owners spend years grooming successors only to learn that they don't want the responsibility or aren't willing to pay a reasonable price for the practice.

No matter which route you choose as your exit, our experiences have shown us that practice owners that have clear goals for what they want to do after the exit are the happiest.  I'll close with a quote from retired Nike chairman Phil Knight (who, by the way, was a CPA who started his career at Price Waterhouse). When asked by CNBC's Sara Eisen how he managed his company's succession plan, he said, "I just have a philosophy that it's a lot better to step down two years early than two years late."

Brannon Poe is the founder of Poe Group Advisors, a premier accounting practice brokerage firm. He is the author of Accountant's Flight Plan: Best Practices for Today's Firms and On Your Own! How to Start Your Own CPA Firm, and blogs at

To comment on this story, email Courtney Vien, associate editor for magazines and newsletters at the AICPA.

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