In the late summer of 1983, Ed Wilkin, CPA and Ed Guttenplan, CPA established Wilkin & Guttenplan, P.C., an accounting firm that today employs 80+ people including 45 CPAs. “Two Eds are better than one. That’s what we said when we were starting out,” says Guttenplan, Managing Shareholder of the firm from the beginning.
Ed Wilkin, who at the time was a partner with a mid-sized firm, had developed a strong niche in the condominium/ homeowner association field. Ed Guttenplan was a senior manager at the same firm. “It was a little bit of a leap of faith. We had done all the calculations. Based on the clients we had and we thought we could pay our mortgages and have a modest lifestyle. But still, leaving a regular paycheck for the unknown was a little scary.” “We were working at bridge tables and eating fast food,” Guttenplan says. “Fortunately, we had a strong administrative assistant from the beginning because we grew very quickly.” W&G grew from the two of us to close to 20 staff in a little over 3 years.
In 1985 we took advantage of another opportunity and decided to purchase the property where our office in New Jersey is located today along with a couple of clients. With a strong bank and the expertise of our partners we got final Township approval, constructed the building and took occupancy in mid-1986.
“We were in the right place at the right time with a niche nobody else knew existed – the condominium association industry. We had a solid group of clients when we started. The condo construction industry was booming in the area and we were getting 3 or more clients a week. We started getting other work, meeting other professionals and expanding our network and diversifying our client base. It was a great foundation.”
A Better Way
Guttenplan describes his relationship with Wilkin as “something like the ‘Odd Couple.’” Wilkin plays the Oscar role – the gregarious, fun-loving guy always trying to crack a joke at someone’s expense – a counterpoint to Guttenplan’s Felix – tending to the operational details of the firm’s business. “My role – I’m mostly involved in the structuring and administration of the organization,” Guttenplan says. “Ed Wilkin goes out, meets people, develops relationships and brings in clients. But we share the same philosophy. It’s very important to us – how people are treated. We knew there was a better way to do things. We continually focused on that.”
The firm has received recognition is numerous surveys that rate “best places to work” in New Jersey and nationally, consistently appearing near or at the top in its industry segment.
“We have people who come to visit us and ask, “How come? Why are you always on the ‘best places to work’? What’s different? It goes back to when we started the firm. We knew we wanted to create a different environment, where open communication was valued, creativity and innovation was encouraged and an unwavering commitment was made to the people who are part of the firm.”
Growing the Company
Wilkin & Guttenplan has indeed grown “the old fashioned” way – by remaining very stable with very limited turnover and steadily growing the business every year from within the organization. The firm has not made any major acquisitions but Guttenplan notes that the ones that we have done have been key to the growth and diversification of the firm’s client base and expertise over the years.
The firm today has 15 partners which includes 9 shareholders. It is highly diversified, offering services in estates and trusts, business valuation, taxation, real estate, health care, litigation support, and a full range of commercial services. It also has a special niche in the sports and entertainment area. “We provide services for close to 100 major league baseball players,” Guttenplan says. “Being on the road as much as they are is a challenge. We pay bills for them and offer tax and business advisory services.”
The key to the future for the firm lies in its strong firm continuity program, according to Guttenplan. “It’s part of our culture. We work to identify future leaders and encourage them to develop themselves and expand their capabilities,” he says. “There is a cost involved – all our time to train and teach them and theirs to learn and develop varied technical and entrepreneurial skills – but it gives them the foundation they need to be future leaders and partners. It’s part of a plan to continuously re-generate the practice.”
Marketing skills are key, and the firm has a plan which includes a “point system.” The system requires our accountants to engage in various marketing activities for points – writing a paper, participating in a panel, making a speech, developing relationships and other activities. “The plan is designed to play to their strengths and interests,” says Guttenplan. “They have annual goals assigned, and their success in reaching those goals is considered as part of their annual review process.”
Monitoring the Pulse of the Firm
Guttenplan, while acting as managing shareholder, also contributes his time to the firm’s billings – more than 500 hours. While that is a challenge, he says “it’s easier if you have great people who are achievers.” He gives particular credit to Janine Zirrith, the firm administrator. “We’re on exactly the same page conceptually,” he says. “But we also challenge each other and ensure that major initiatives are well thought out with ultimate sensitivity and responsiveness to our team. Our decision making is synergistic, whether it’s scheduling, the design of the upward and downward evaluation processes or our HR policy.”
The work schedule at the firm is very flexible. “We let people work when they want to work and that way it works best for them and for the firm.” Guttenplan says. And he, Zirrith and other senior people in the firm are vigilant about looking after staff people. “We don’t want them to get overextended and stressed; we help them navigate the challenges of workload balancing.”
We try to be proactive,” he says. “In a typical tax season scenario, when people have five things that must be done all at once – we try to step in to help them and teach them how to prioritize and manage the workload. It’s all just part of that ‘better way’ that Ed and I were thinking about when we founded the firm.”
The Future – Independent?
As accounting firms merge and get bigger around him, Guttenplan does not see it as a threat. “We hope they all get real big and go after bigger clients – and leave the rest for us,” he says. The comment is made in jest, but there is an underlying rationale. “We do believe as some of the bigger firms keep getting bigger, it will open up opportunities in the middle market for nimble, equally capable but fee-sensitive firms. That’s where we position ourselves.”
Can Guttenplan imagine a scenario where his firm will make a major acquisition or be acquired? “I can’t see it, but you can never completely rule anything out,” he says. “If something came along that allowed us to continue to be who we are, we would have to consider it. But it would have to be something that is better for everyone. We are always looking to acquire smaller firms, provided they are culturally similar and strategically add value.”
In early 2012 Wilkin & Guttenplan found such an opportunity. They became an independent member of the BDO Alliance USA. “The alliance offers us the ability to stay independent and keep our culture in place while gaining access to the services, solutions and expertise of the other BDO Alliance firms.” says Guttenplan. The BDO Alliance boasts over 200 member firms nationwide.“In addition, we have access to CPE, research and other benefits for our staff. We can better serve our clients and help our staff to excel. It’s a win, win.”
“We are most comfortable being exactly who we are today. We’ve worked hard to get here and create the special relationship we have with everyone at W&G.
This story has been updated and was originally published in NJSCPA Sept. 29, 2010