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CPA firms highlight thought leaders in fight to stand out among competitors

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Competition among accounting firms for new clients is unleashing a blizzard of marketing strategies, from traditional networking, advertising and word of mouth to new-age social media — where partners post tax tips on Twitter.

There is a common thread to all this self-promotion: Accountants must send a clear message that their firms are deep reservoirs of talent and expertise that potential clients really ought to tap into.

It's standard practice for accounting firms to showcase their experts by having them address conferences hosted by industry groups from real estate to health care. CohnReznick takes that a step further with Bloomberg radio commercials featuring brief industry commentaries by the firm's professionals.

The Bloomberg spots "feed into the strategy of getting our name out there as thought leaders," said Domenick Esposito, a partner and national practice and growth director for the firm, which has 25 offices in the United States, including Roseland. The company has 2,300 professionals and staff, 400 of them in New Jersey.

He said CohnReznick can't draw a straight line from its high visibility on Bloomberg to an influx of new clients, but the firm tracks "how well known our brand is in the marketplace, and we know that through things such as Bloomberg our brand awareness continues to increase."

William Hagaman, managing partner of Withum, Smith & Brown, in New Brunswick, said the firm's strategy is a blend of robust social media and old-fashioned immersion in the business community.

"We have Twitter accounts by industry segments," and about a half dozen CPAs blog regularly.

The firm used to network at chambers of commerce and community organizations, but about four years ago, Hagaman shifted the focus to specific industry organizations.

"So we've inspired our accountants to be out in the marketplace, going to technology, life sciences, not-for-profit conferences," Hagaman said. The goal: "To demonstrate that we have industry knowledge so that client companies, when they are looking to change accountants, are going to think about us."

In some cases, the firm will "make pricing concessions if we think a company has a future," Hagaman said. "If we think it's going to be a growing company, we will at times help them out and discount our rates."

He said with startup life sciences and technology companies, "we might think their new idea or new technology resonates with us as a good idea, but they may not have the funding yet to pay our regular full prices."

Robert Paz, managing director of Sax, Macy, Fromm, said his firm aims to create "a growth culture within the organization, and the way you do that is you have to talk about growth a lot, so that growth becomes a critical element of everybody's responsibility."

He said the firm has seen average revenue growth of 10 percent a year for the past three years, all organic growth from new business development. Last month, the firm announced a merger with Bollam, Sheedy, Torani, of Albany, N.Y., which Paz said will give his team new geographic outlets for their expertise.

He said SMF professionals are involved in industry organizations "so they develop a better understanding of the needs of the market and begin to develop their own contacts."

Adam Wolf, director of marketing for SMF, said Susan E. Reed, a CPA specializing in health care, speaks to a key association of "practice managers" — the professionals who run the business side of a health care practice. "The idea is to be out in front of the right people, and over time opportunities will develop from that."

Michael Karu, a member of the accounting firm Levine, Jacobs, in Livingston, said he and his colleagues are active in industry organizations and in the community.

"Clients can come from almost anywhere," he said. "You never know who's going to send someone to you, so the first rule is: never burn bridges."

The firm has a marketing consultant "and that gives us an advantage," Karu said. "Instead of accountants trying to figure out how to do marketing and public relations, we have someone who does marketing and P.R. You chose the right professional to do the right job."

Karu said his P.R. consultant encouraged the firm to get involved in the family law symposium of the state bar association, which helps expand the firm's valuation and litigation support business, "and when we do something noteworthy, she makes sure press releases are sent out. That puts us in a better position than some of our competitors."

Karu said accounting is very competitive, "but there is also honor among professionals. I do valuation work for other accounting firms — and they know I won't go after their clients."

Hagaman said competing for new business means "being out there in the communities in each industry where we are strong and making sure we are well known."

That can means long days for the members of his 450-person firm, which includes about 300 accountants.

"We tell our people that the accounting profession is not easy, and in order to continue to grow we need a constant influx of new business," Hagaman said. "What we all actually find exciting about public accounting is the opportunity to work with growing companies. That adds to the sizzle and the excitement of being a professional in public accounting."

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