The Modern CPA Success Show: Episode 1
For over 17 years, Summit CPA Group has worked with companies all over the U.S. to help them improve their businesses. Here is where it all began and how we're assisting other firms to do the same.
In this episode, Jamie Nau sits down with CEO Jody Grunden and COO, Adam Hale, for a chat about the humble beginnings of Summit CPA and how it became one of the first distributed virtual CFO firms in North America.
Jamie Nau: Welcome to Episode 1 of the Modern CPA Success Show. I'm your host Jamie Nau. I'm the Director of Accounting here at Summit CPA. Today I'm joined by Adam Hale and Jody Grunden, the two partners at Summit CPA and in this episode, we're going to talk about the beginning of Summit. We're going to start with the beginning of Jody and Adam and where their careers took them.
Jamie Nau: So, Jody tell us about your first couple of jobs in the accounting world.
Jody Grunden: My first couple of jobs I actually ran out of college my first job was actually mowing yards. I did that from probably May through October where I started working for an accounting firm out of South Bend called Crow and decided to do the lawn thing because I knew I'd never actually be out again for the summer because I’d be working hard behind a desk. I thought these are one of those things that all this gives me an opportunity to do something that I won't be able to do. And that's kind of right for the most part you know from there. Crows, I worked with them for about a year, year and a half and then because that is the way it worked out with having kids and everything moved back to Fort Wayne Indiana where I'm from and I worked for a company called Olive or is now called BKV. So, I worked for a couple of regional accounting firms and decided pretty quickly that the accounting world wasn't for me and it was kind of funny because I went to school to be an accountant. You think you're dreaming of all the stuff to be a partner one day and realize I don’t want to work a bazillion hours a week it just wasn't something that you know it made it no fun for me. So I had to make a decision and decided to leave the public accounting world, went to work in the corporate world. I worked for a company called Rey Magnet Wire a manufacturing company, a 250-million-dollar company at that time. Now they're a lot larger and I dealt with their taxes and their treasury management, so I did a lot in-house. They're great company I love the people I worked with but it was a routine over and over, it was like a Groundhog Day you know one month end and next month the end was the same thing over and over again. To me at first it was really exciting. You're learning something new, but they got boring pretty quickly and I'm like do I really want to do this for the rest of my life. And so, I had to make a decision. It was one of those things I got approached by a regional firm to run an office for them. I thought well let's try it. I broke the news to Rey and they say hey the only way you're going to leave our company is if we actually had your tax returns for us. I said sure that's fine I can do that. And so I went to work for a small regional firm to open up an office for them in Fort Wayne. And from there I worked there for about a year met Adam through an interview and interviewed him right out of college and Adam can take it from there.
Adam Hale: So yeah, I don't have quite as much turnover as he did there. So yeah right out of college I interviewed at a couple of different places and one of them was the regional firm that Jody was speaking about. What I really liked about that firm was him and the other guy that interviewed me there were probably the most laid back of any of the firms that I'd interviewed with and I just thought hey this would be for me because I was a little you know, like most people post-graduation, kind of thinking is this what I really want to do? Then when I started doing the work, I really started questioning that. I minded the hours you know I'm a grinder, but it was just this wasn't a whole lot of client contact at that time. I mean hell I think we only had dial-up internet and it was only like the investment guy. So, you had to like sneak into his office to get online so you know everything was like people were mailing stuff in and I don't know it just wasn't that great. But I was only there for a couple of months and then Jody had ditched me and decided to go do his own thing and right about that exact same time before he actually launched, I decided to go with him. So, there's a lot more to that story but I don't know if you want me to dig into that. Jamie I'm sure you've heard it a million times but you know at the end of the day, I said we call it our Jerry Maguire story because you know I'm Rene and Jody is Tom Cruise, he always loves that part, and so he left and there was no goldfish or anything like that or nothing exciting and we didn't get married, he didn't complete me or anything but it's been a great partnership though. You know we got married business wise for sure and that took a little while, so whenever I use the term co-founder, I say that just kind of loosely because while I was employee number one I didn't become a partner until about three or four years later. You know of course at that time I was twenty-two, I didn't know anything, and you know I was just kind of going off Jody. Jody always harasses me because whenever I went to him you know he's by himself he's living off and I go to him with this big employment contract that my mom helped me outline this amount of time and give me this and this, you know, knowing what I know now it's like hell he just went bankrupt or shut the doors or whatever, but I was pretty proud of myself. So anyway, that's how we kicked things off and that's how we got introduced to one another, but the business vision and modeling and everything you know Jody that was kind of, that was kind of all you dude. So, I mean you know whenever you started I think that one of the reasons why I wanted to leave that other firm was because of that vision of working with clients on a more regular basis and doing those kind of things.
Jody Grunden: So that is kind of funny because I told Adam when he got hired you get to read this book is called E Myth and it's going to be kind of how we're going to base our company around. And he read it. He's like well does this mean you're not going to ever work again. I'm not doing this all by myself. I knew that before I read the book. It was like No we're going to leverage people create processes you know we're going to do a lot of cool stuff. And it took us a while to get the ball rolling but once we did get it rolling it worked out really well for us for sure.
Adam Hale: No, that’s definitely a foundational book for us because as Jody mentioned it just set in a mindset that we were going to leverage. I mean not just the small stuff for you know it started that way, but you know just really trying to empower people which I think is a little bit different because in between that story we had a couple of people on the team that weren't really big into that. I mean this is kind of like a eat what you kill kind of industry sometimes whenever it comes to the partner level stuff and that definitely was not our goal from the get-go.
Jamie Nau: So yeah, it's funny whenever people find out what I do they always start asking for advice and before I start talking through anything with a small business owner I'm like, let's talk again in three weeks after you read E Myths then we can talk again. Number one advice I give people is that book and then come back to me and we can talk about the way you're doing things and how you should be doing it differently. So, it's definitely key for both Summit and for how we consult with our clients as well.
Jamie Nau: So, with that I know when you start your own firm Jody, I'm sure you had a lot of things in mind that you wanted to do differently? Can you kind of go into some of those things and then give us some of the details of which ones worked which ones didn't and which ones we're still doing today?
Jody Grunden: Sure. Yeah. First thing I wanted a paycheck and it took about two years for that to happen and that was a long one. It is kind of funny because we've pretty much bootstrapped it and I bootstrapped it on and off credit cards for the most part. Cashed my 401(k) in and used credit cards and kind of lived on that for about a year, year and a half two years. And it was one of those things that it was kind of a silly thing because at the same time I started Summit my wife started her career too and left her firm that she was working for and said I'm going to go out on my own too. We both went on our own. To kind of add to that one, we just bought a brand new home so it was kind of one of those things were we had a brand new home, hadn’t even made one payment on it yet and we both started our careers so it was one of those things we dove right in. I wouldn't recommend that to any of our clients now. I would say, hey, have a nest egg before you actually do that because it is tough for sure and the way that we want to do things made it even tougher because you know the one thing we want to do is we really don't want a bill by the hour but we really didn't know how else to do it. So, for the first couple of years we did bill by the hour and then we realized quickly why billing by the hour really sucks, because every time we do the bills with the clients it would be like oh hey this client’s going to love this bill and then all a sudden, they get it. We're talking to them for half an hour and you're picking apart every single line item and they're upset with it or we'll send another bill to a different client and we’ll say oh they're never going to pay this bill and they pay it right away. They thought it was a lot cheaper than it was going to be. It was like you couldn’t win. It was a no-win situation. It was like a tax return, right? Like somebody gets the refund and you're like Oh man that's a huge refund. And then they call you all pissed because they thought it was supposed to be bigger and you show somebody that they owe a bunch of money and they're like Oh that's great. You're just like what? When it came to the billing you couldn’t manage expectations at all. And it was kind of funny because one day my son I play in the backyard, I don't think I've ever told you this Adam, but we were playing the backyard and he threw the ball missed the ball and it went right through a window smashed the window base of the window broken. So we're like OK so now we go to look for somebody to fix our window right. So, we find this company, the first company is like hey, we'll give you a quote you know once we get out their blah, blah, blah, and then the second one I call, it was like, well what kind of window did you have? How big is that? OK it's going to be 800 hundred dollars. OK. That works for me. That's kind of what I was expecting. They come out and they're in there maybe 15 minutes, takes the window out puts the window in, 800 hundred dollars. I'm happy as can be. Eight hundred dollars he's in and out real quick. And then when you start thinking about it it's like well shit, you just made about two thousand dollars per hour. You know if he had come to me and said that before I would have said no way. I would have paid two thousand dollars an hour for you to do my window. But the expectation was that upfront he told me how much it was going to be, and he delivered on exactly what he said he was going to deliver on, and the third I'm happy with it, and I thought well heck, why can’t we do that with our pricing model. Wouldn't that make it a lot easier if we just told them upfront how much it is and let them decide then before we got into the work and then give the [in audible] and it was was just kind of an, aha moment type of thing when we started doing it. Problem is that we could never quote very successfully upfront. We almost went out of business really quick, changing to that model. But we're like well, I'm not giving up on this thing, this is how we're going to do it. So, we kept playing with it, playing with it, tweaking it. Eventually we got to where it's more of a value base versus a flat fee-based model. And from there it's worked out well. And so, I'd say that's one of the biggest things. The clients when they come to us they know exactly how much they're going to pay. They agreed to it upfront. It doesn't change from week to week, hour to hour, month to month, if they call us 100 times versus 10 times makes no difference. Everything is wrapped up into that service level agreed upon prior to starting. And then of course they always have the opportunity to change. If they want to say, hey you know our bookkeepers leaving our account can you guys handle that for six months until I find somebody else? Or are you guys permanent? Yeah. Lets click the lever, here is how much it costs. They go to that fee and six months later they find somebody, boom we click the lever again and here's how much the fee drops back down. So, we built that into the models so that they could actually add services, and the same thing goes with as they get bigger in scale, like Adam was saying, a 2 million dollar company and a 10 million dollar company need different services. So, we built it based on revenue so the bigger that they get, boom, we can actually adjust their fee. They're cool with it that we tell them that's what we do up front and you know it's never an issue. So that took us a long time, it really did. And took us probably I'd say from 2004 to probably 2011. We really struggled and then even then we figured it out we struggled more. We had to keep tweaking it up, thinking it up, until we got it to where it was successful because once things really started pouring through, we're actually picking up client's left and right. You know this is going to sound weird, we're picking up so many clients that we had to slow it down, we couldn't service the clients fast enough, so we had to keep increasing our prices until the demand dropped a little bit because we were closing probably 50 or 60 percent of every client that came in and it was just too much. So we brought it down to where we're closing about 35% which to me is right.
Adam Hale: We were pricing too low and we were working out process at that time too. So, there was a lot into that, but I think one of the other things important about value based billing and I know it doesn't sound super revolutionary today. I mean it's like a lot of people do it but back then in 2002 everybody thought we were crazy, and I said based on our pricing we probably were, but the other thing is it gives you the ability to take control of payment as well. So, we don't chase AR so we're a five million dollar plus firm and we've got next to nothing on, actually we typically have a negative AR because we get paid in advance on some of our 401K audit we do, but for the most part like it gives you the ability just to kind of take that back. So all of our clients pay us on a Monday. So we just ACH their account automatically and again that doesn't sound super crazy these days anyway but back in 2002 2003 before everybody was just running on the Internet and used to cranking out all their information that way. That was kind of a thing you know we're like hey and most of our clients they all pay us this way. And that was huge. I mean we did it out of necessity, probably wasn't out of like a massive amount of wisdom. It was we needed to get paid so we could make payroll. But it worked and it's been working for us ever since.
Jody Grunden: We started that out having them pay us monthly and then we thought you know, why not just pay us weekly because we're meeting with them every week now so what's the difference? And we're like well, will they actually do it? Well that’s just part of what we do from now on. It's kind of funny because we introduce that again. It's an upfront conversation that you have with the client. You know here's how we do business. We deduct from your account every Monday. We've had absolutely no pushback on it since we started it a long time ago. Just because it's upfront. I mentioned before the window analogy, if they told me upfront they were going to zap my account then not a big deal. Then, if they told me after the fact oh, can I have a check today? Like hell, I don't have a check. I'll get that to you tomorrow. I can't leave and get you a check. Well that's a different story altogether. You know that’s why it's so important to be upfront with the entire thing, so it's positioning.
Adam Hale: It's positioning. So it’s not just being upfront and you know, that's key obviously, but it's also the way you position yourself whenever you sell it to the client like, this is how everybody does it. This is how we operate with all our clients. When we kind of took that attitude towards that part of it yes, we were being upfront, but we were also saying like, why wouldn't you be like everybody else? And like Jody said, we never really got any pushback. These days we definitely get no pushback. And like I said I think a lot of firms out there do.
Jamie Nau: When I first started at Summit, I thought this was the craziest idea. Like how in the world, they must have clients turn down half the time saying no way I’ll do that. And as long as I've been at Summit, I've never heard a client turn us down for that because they don't want to pay us weekly or ACH’ed weekly. I started off in the CFO role and it made my relationship with the clients much better than I've ever had in the past. So, when I was an auditor oftentimes I didn't really want to have this important conversation with a client. I'd go out to the client I'd be all ready and I'd say well first things first. You owe us 30 thousand dollars from the prior year audit. Let's talk through that. It's like my credibility is out the door. The relationship I'm trying to build with them is out the door because I have to project manage this and make sure I'm collecting money from them. At Summit I've never had one of those conversations and I feel like I have a lot stronger relationship with my clients because of that. And that's one of the most important things that I've realized being at Summit is you know it is something that they expect, and it is standard. It helps for sure.
Adam Hale: Yeah I was just going to say if you do get a client that has a problem paying weekly, you're probably not a good client.
Jody Grunden: Definitely not. Yeah for sure yeah, we even took that same approach to tax returns as well as performing key audits. You know we actually collect about 70 percent of all our tax money in November and December. Even before we even send them an organizer, we'll send out a note each time with our fee increase saying you know, to avoid the increase this year if you would like to pay by November there will be no increase from last year, or the increase will be X amount percent as opposed to the other. And I'd say 70 percent, 60 - 70 percent of our clients pay in advance. So, we have our tax return money even before we do that, and a lot of times November, December for accounting firms is the slower period of time. So, it's kind of nice to be able to get all of that up there just even the cash flow. Now it's not an issue for us because of our virtual CFO services being so dominant, but back then you know, that wasn't a big deal. And then we did the same thing with 401(k) audits. We do 401(k) audits throughout the whole United State so there’s no way to collect, you know, or drive out to Oregon or California or something like that to pick up a check for three thousand dollars for someone who forgot to pay you the second half. And so, we get all of our money upfront before we even start. Half the money upfront before we start and half the money before they actually get the report, or we give them the option of paying early for a discount. So even though the audit seasons from May through October, we get about 50 percent of our clients will pay in February for a 10 percent discount which is great. So, we'll get that collected it gives us a great idea how many people are going to be returning next year. So, we can actually start scheduling and it's a really huge benefit for us especially with the audit team. We have a small period of time that we are actually working full time on audits, and then the rest of the year they are cleaning stuff up and unfortunately we don't pay them that way. We pay them salary all the way throughout the year. And so, it's kind of nice to be able to build up, basically compensate, to cover their salary when it's not a busy time of the year for them. And so, it's really kind of cool on both ends just the way that we collect our cash. And like Adam. said we typically have about a 30 thousand-dollar AR roughly, but we have about. I'd say two hundred fifty thousand dollars of advanced fees or customer deposits. So, we truly do have a negative AR year-round pretty consistently which is pretty cool.
Jamie Nau: We briefly touched a little bit on it, but I'd like to get a little bit more details on the services that Summit provides. So, what exactly are all those services and give me a little bit of detail in each of them.
Jody Grunden: I mentioned 401(k) audits. We specialize only in 401(k) audits. So, with that we do about a million dollars. It's about one 1.2 million dollars in revenue this year on 401(k) audits. We pick up about 40 audits a year. I think we've been about 150. Overall, we'll probably complete about 160 in this calendar year, so that kind of gives you an idea there. And then we lose about I'd say, 15 audits a year because a lot of times they come to us, they're bringing three years’ worth of audits, or two years [in audiable] We typically don't lose customers or the quantity of audits that we do. And so that's at about twenty-five new audits a year we pick up. We do standalone tax returns but not a lot. That's about maybe a 180,000 dollars roughly of our business sustained on tax returns. So it's not a big part. We don't go out and solicit for it. If somebody comes to us, they've got to be the right type of fit, they've got to be a creative agency, somebody that we think could eventually become a virtual CFO client that type of thing. Those are the type of folks that we focus on we're going to do the tax return or there is about five thousand dollars for the business individually less sort of thing tax planning tax projections, so we've got a limited number of those. Like you said about one hundred eighty thousand dollars of what I call standalone clients and then the rest of our business which is we're going to do about five point two million whatever the difference is there is a virtual CFO service. And so, it could be bundled into, well actually let me back that up. 10 percent of what's remaining is a traditional right up service where we're just simply giving them a financial statement not meeting with them just the traditional things that we had when we first started Summit CPA group. Now we have lines for the most part. Yeah. A hundred percent. Yeah. Very few times I'm just saying hey, we want you to do our right up service. You know we don't get that because we're too expensive now. Yeah for sure. And then and then we bundle. So, like I said 30 percent of what we did is back office accounting. So out of the 90 percent of clients that we meet with on a regular basis 30 percent we actually do their back-office accounting. In addition to the virtual CFO service, the forecasting, the KPIs, different things that we'll do, forward thinking. So, 30 percent have us come and do, that paying bills. So about 10 percent do the receivables, we do taxes for about 80 percent of those clients, so it really depends on the service level that they want. You know we'll go in and really help them manage their business. We open up from the back office all the way to the strategic side which is really important. Anything to add there Adam?
Adam Hale: Yeah. Well and then the last part is something that we've just started to kind of roll out which is coaching CPA firms on how to do what we're doing. You know our vision statement is changing the way people think about accounting so whether that's our team how they operate or our clients or our peers. We want our clients and our team and our peers to kind of expect this kind of commitment and this kind of support from their CPA firm. So again our core value added the VCFO service level is the forecasting helping clients clarify direction and so that can mean a lot of things to a lot of different people and we've talked about we messed it up a lot over the last 15 20 years trying to put this stuff together and we've learned a lot though along the way. And so, we've put together processes and deliverables to the client that we've seen a huge impact in their business that are a big value add. And then also around the cadence of the meetings because it's also intimidating to talk to a client on a weekly basis. You know there's no silver bullet, so you don't show up with a great idea every single meeting. You don't have to do that kind of stuff. So, we've built out some agendas for different topics and how to lead and talk and work with the client. So, we also talk through like how to build out a tech stack. So, we've got a lot of best practices related to that because we leverage technology is a key part in how that evolved was just over the years. Jody and I have always went to and actually we're still kind of a small network that's like a 20/20 in group which oddly enough is next year or so but it wasn't so close you know 15 years ago when we started our 10 whatever it was. But a lot of it was driven through like what's the firm of the future look like. Well we kind of always felt like when we'd go to these conferences, we were already doing a lot of the things that these people were saying we're coming down the road. And so, we've always felt like we're a couple a couple because we beta test everything. I mean you name it. Like if we can get into a beta for a technology, we're doing it. We're always reinventing our processes. So, we've always kind of felt like we've been fortunately because we were so small we could be nimble and do a lot of these things. So, we've worked out a lot of this stuff and whenever we'd go to these conferences we'd get into like a side conversation with a couple of firms and we'd say yeah. Don't do what they just said. We did that it failed horribly. Like you actually want to use this and this and do it this way. And so, we would end up in like these small collections a group and make some really good contacts and we just kind of let it go by the wayside. And we did that probably for the last five or 10 years pretty easily and then and then we started getting approached Jody specifically you know because he's going around all these conferences about like hey how do you all do that. So we're like hey, we need to just be super deliberate about this like we are working with our clients. If we really want to make an impact in the industry if we really want to change the way everybody's thinking we got to get our peers to do the same kind of thing. So, we open up the playbook. We show them everything we do how we do it the tools we use. It's a blue ocean. We're not worried about the competition. The more of us that are out there the better the whole industry will be the better serve the clients will be, we firmly believe that. So, we have no problem, like I said, opening up the playbook and showing folks how to do it. So that's our new service line.
Jamie Nau: I think you really hit on something that it makes Summit unique. I think we talked about this a little bit earlier about what makes us unique. I think you hit on something really big is how much we're willing to change. You know I think that's very unique in the accounting industry. It's very unique in any company. You know I worked for some large corporations where it took six months to decide if we're going to do toilet paper brands you know it was crazy stuff you had to do. And so my first client with Summit we're in the kickoff meeting with them, and I love telling this story because it is defines who Summit is to me, and we're in the kickoff meeting, we're talking to this new client for an hour, and they introduce this new software to us like, this is a great software for organizing thoughts and how you can do all these things, and the software is actually Trello. I'm sure our listeners are familiar with Trello, and they really sold us on it for about five minutes. And to me it was just like part of the conversation, I didn't think twice about it. And then the next day I see a message from Jody come out to the whole company saying starting today everybody we are going to start using Trello for our organization. So, like you know the amount of decision that went into that was just a five-minute conversation with a client. That's how quickly we change things and again we're not afraid to fail. And I think that's one of my favorite things about Summit is we'll try something and if it doesn't work, we'll stop using it in two months. And so, I think that's been a big game changer for me as an employee at Summit.
Adam Hale: Fail forward, right? That's what they always say. So yeah, we're always kind of moving things along for sure.
Jody Grunden: I can add to that real quick. You know it’s kind of funny, to the change topic, because that's been huge for us at the very beginning. You know, who moved the cheese? You know that that's something that you know you got to be able to build, accept the change, innovate, accept challenge and so forth. But what it does is it allows you to solve issues quicker too you know, it’s kind of nice that we can identify an issue we can then figure out the solution for having it implemented in three - four months. You know like a bot would be a great example. We identified an issue that it’s taking our team a lot longer to do financial statement prep than what we thought it should. We tracked it through our time system and found yeah, this is a common issue. It taking four to six hours to put this together. Should only take an hour. Come up with a solution. Well hey, let's try to use these bots, they can help us solve this problem. We then implement it two months later, and we're like, yeah it does solve the problem. Yeah it did solve it you know. Now you save three - four hours that we can actually use on additional clients. So, it's kind of cool to be able to have that throughout the entire team, not just the leadership, but the entire team. To look at things and look for ways to improve things. And, in the ability, to change is huge.
Adam Hale: The power to make those changes is huge. I would also say something that's a little bit different too that has made a big impact for us was a couple of years ago we kind of reassess our core values, and our vision statement, all those kind of things just to kind of bring alignment with the team, because as you grow you know, when Jody and I are in front of everybody all the time it's super easy. But as we grow, and people are kind of extensions of us it becomes difficult. So, you know curiosity being one of our core values, candidness, you know collaboration, all those kinds of things help us and realign ourselves as well. Whenever we're talking about technology, if it was a five-minute decision, we can gut check that against our core values pretty quick and decide you know, is this something that's going to make a financial impact, and cultural impact on our business? And that's why we move and that's how we vet stuff out too which I think is a really great way to center ourselves, which is probably pretty unique in the accounting vertical. [in audible]
Jamie Nau: I definitely want to echo what Adam said about core values. I think the core values are really the key of what we do. You know I think when we came up with that core value conversation it made everything a lot easier. It made hiring easier, it made finding clients easier, it made making decisions easier because you could always bounce off your core values. And I think the amount of times I've talked about core values at this company or any other job I've had is amazing because it really is the key to what we're doing. It's behind those core values. So, it's been very easy as an employee. And like I said it made a huge difference on hiring because when you're doing behavioral interviewing, you know what skills you're looking for and if they don't have them they're going to not succeed at Summit because like I said, especially with that Trello story, there's a lot of companies that would look at that like what the heck? Their employees might be like, there's no way I can change that quickly. And you have to be willing to accept change when you work at Summit.
Jody Grunden: So humor is another one. You know, we like to have fun.
Adam Hale: i.e… Jody’s shirts. He literally wears that core value every day!
All: Laughing [in audible]
Jamie Nau: So, I think we are out of time. I think this was a great conversation, and going forward, this podcast is really targeted to other CPA firms. We want to kind of pass along what we've been doing. I really appreciate Jody and Adam joining us today. In the next two weeks, we will try to have this podcast up every two weeks, we're going to discuss our journey to being a distributed company. That's a pretty good story. So, make sure to listen in and thank you for listening.
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