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Almost like marriage.

How to have good relationships -- with accountants

When accounting firms and their clients form a business relationship, the longevity of that relationship hinges on myriad factors, not the least of which is quality communication. Both business and accounting firms agree that good communication skills combined with the right technical expertise to fit the client's needs are primary concerns.

ENSIS Corporation, for example, is an international holding company for five manufacturing firms producing niche products like transformers, chrome plating products and ultra-sound equipment. ENSIS has specific requirements when it comes to accounting.

According to ENSIS president William E. Watchorn, an accounting firm needs to be strong in the area of global tax and business issues to be of help to him because of his firm's international exposure. Watchorn adds, "Our auditing firm needs to serve as a independent auditor to management, but also to alert our board of directors to changes in the global market."

Carol Johnson, founder and president of Pace Setter Sportswear Inc., a manufacturer of high-end athletic wear, values the 15-year relationship with her accounting firm.

"We have mutual respect for each other," says Johnson. "Our accounting fees fluctuate depending on the type of financial year the company experiences." Johnson knows when profits are up, Pace Setter will pay larger accounting fees.

Expectations of accounting firms were addressed for Manitoba Business Magazine by four business executives and four accounting professionals. In analyzing the client-advisor relationship, the focus is on communications issues, quality of service, and the role of ethics.

John Sanger, a partner in the newly-formed firm of Hartley and Sanger, says, "I must take responsibility to discuss the scope of work and fee structure up front. The client should have no surprises when the bill arrives." Sanger believes that accountants summarize data and fit it into a recognizable format.

"The professional's interpretation of business information is what the accountant provides," expresses Sanger. "We also need to understand the client's business goals and personal aspirations."

"This goes beyond the figures on the page," adds Sanger's partner, Ronald J. Hartley.

The needs of Phaze Studios Inc., a firm that designs visual information and provides training in technology and communications, is different again. Leo F. Sawicki is president and senior creative designer. Says Sawicki, "Being a design studio, our accountant needs to know how to communicate in non-technical terms. This was an important criterion in selecting our advisor," she says.

Janice Strassel, an independent accountant developing a home-based private practice, shares her philosophy about the client-accountant relationship. Strassel recently relocated to Winnipeg after working with international clients in Bermuda and for a large non-profit organization in Toronto.

"The client-accountant relationship has not been an equal relationship in the past," says Strassel. "Many business owners, in particular entrepreneurs, are intimidated by their accountants' technical expertise.

"A parent/child relationship is created rather than a partnership."

Carol Johnson, of Pace Setter Sportswear Inc. and recipient of the 1992 Women Business Owners of Manitoba Entrepreneur Award, identifies with Strassel's comment on intimidation. Says Johnson, "A colleague once gave me some valuable advice. You own the business and they -- accountants -- work for you."

Strassel believes that accountants are open-minded, but in her opinion their education does not prepare them to be good communicators.

Two years ago, the Canadian Institute of Chartered Accountants -- (CICA) -- started ongoing professional development courses for members.

On the other hand, certified general accountants have made professional development courses mandatory for their members for the past 12 years. Jim Penner, of Jim Penner and Company, is the president of the Certified General Accountants of Manitoba. He says among the courses for members are discussions on how to select clients -- a vital skill in developing good business relationships.

Says Penner, "It's critical for us have good client relationships because we become an integral part of the company management. At the end of the day we want our clients to have money in the bank and go home happy. In order to do that we have to learn how to run our own business."

At the firm of Doane Raymond, a fifty-year-old national firm with 50 offices across Canada and international affiliations around the world, such courses are a part of professional development. Says Al MacLean, a partner in the firm, "Every partner and staff member spends four to five days a year on professional development courses." The members of the firm are committed to continuing education. "Education is the tool that will help Canadian business be competitive," MacLean stresses.

The importance of people skills for accountants is increasingly being recognized in professional publications. CA Magazine, an accounting industry publication, highlights professionals who donate time to service organizations or to their community. This publication now profiles human relations abilities rather than technical skills. The firm of Sill, Streuber, Fiske Inc. might be an appropriate candidate for recognition. Thomas Sill, founding partner, left a foundation for the partners to distribute funds to specific causes. Since his passing in 1986, the foundation has already distributed $4.5 million in grants to non-profit organizations such as Concordia Hospital, Winnipeg Harvest, The Canadian National Institute for the Blind and the University of Manitoba.

Business owners are also making a commitment to continuing education for themselves and their staff. Phaze Studio owner Leo Sawicki attends continuing education courses offered by her accounting firm. In addition, Sawicki maintains an in-house library of cassettes, videos and subscriptions to keep informed about global business issues. "Twenty-five per cent of the company budget is set aside for employee training," explains Sawicki.

The four businesses interviewed expect their accounting professionals to provide consulting service on tax implications, estate planning, business valuation, management issues and global business.

Matt Jones, managing partner with the accounting firm Sill, Streuber, Fiske Inc., headquartered in Winnipeg, talks about the firm's approach to challenging clients to examine business issues. "We might suggest that a client doing business in the Pacific Rim re-examine supplier prices and terms. The result could save the client dollars and increase profits. Being connected with Moore Stephens which has 200 offices internationally, the firm can assist the client internationally," says Jones. "We want our accountants to utilize the latest management tools in running their operations."

Strassel is committed to helping her clients achieve their financial goals. She visits her clients' places of business monthly to discuss their financial statements. "I am interested in focusing on the day-to-day operational issues of a company. I want to challenge the owner to ask me why they should obtain certain information," says Strassel. In serving clients, she will forward information on new tax legislation or an article that might provide the owner with new insight about their company. "My goal is to help my clients be successful."

The four business executives chose accountants that they could trust. The selection process included reviewing past client lists, and interviewing clients and other professionals who knew the individual under consideration. In many instances, executives knew the professional on a personal basis. This gave the executive an opportunity to be aware of the professional's inter-personal skills -- a crucial issue to all executives.

Carol Johnson of Pace Setter Sportswear Inc., says the accountant can only do a good job if the business owner is honest. "This means that the president must be intimately familiar with all aspects of the company," she says.

Al MacLean of the accounting firm Doane Raymond discusses the importance of mutual respect between the two parties. The professional needs to respect the abilities of the business owner and the client needs to respect the information provided by the accountant.

Says MacLean, "Our firm believes that partners cannot provide objective advice if they serve on a corporate board, invest in companies, or participate in politics."

Both accountants and clients feel that such relationships require commitment to lifetime continuing education by both parties.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Manitoba Business Ltd.
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Title Annotation:establishing good relations with accounting firms
Author:Rockburne, Gail
Publication:Manitoba Business
Date:Mar 1, 1993
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