When GBQ Partners, the largest independent accounting firm based in Columbus, looks at Cincinnati it’s like looking in a mirror.
“The fundamentals of what’s happening in the Cincinnati market are very, very similar to Columbus,” says Darci Congrove, managing director of GBQ, a top 200 accounting firm with offices in Philadelphia, New York City, Chicago and Indianapolis.
“Both cities have been recognized nationally for low costs to raise a family, as a place where jobs are plentiful for young college grads, where crime and traffic are reasonable, where [you] can afford to buy home,” she says.
They also are both big college towns, a plus for finding talent, and they have a lot of growing businesses and redevelopment in their downtown cores.
At the same time a number of mergers and acquisitions among smaller accounting firms in Cincinnati have left a gap between big national firms and smaller ones here.
“We kind of own that space in Columbus and we think we can grow and do that in Cincinnati as well,’’ she says.
In the year since GBQ acquired Ernst & Rabe, a smaller three-partner firm with offices in Linwood, GBQ has expanded its presence here.
It has increased staffing by more than 50 percent to 32 as it added service offerings in audit and tax areas, it has plans to add 20 jobs over the next three years after receiving a state job creation tax credit and it is looking for larger offices.
“We’ve filled every desk and chair in the existing office and we’ve got people left over,” says Congrove, who has been GBQ’s managing director since 2010.
She says the firm expects to relocate to larger Cincinnati offices by this summer.
GBQ’s current revenues approach $30 million annually and the firm’s three-year plan calls for revenues of $50 million.
To achieve that goal it continues to look for acquisitions here and elsewhere.
“If we found a firm that had a solid audit practice in Cincinnati, we’d be interested in an acquisition because that would jump start our efforts to expand that service. We’re also looking at other cities. And we’re looking at expansion within some of our current cities with smaller offices.”
Founded in 1953 by Morris Groner, the firm, which later became Groner Boyle & Quillin and then GBQ Partners in 1999, is focused on serving middle-market companies generally between $20 million and $100 million in revenue.
“We have a lot of family-owned, multi-generational businesses,” Congrove says, but it also has some entrepreneurial start-ups and some of the biggest companies in Cincinnati and Columbus for its specialty services such as forensic accounting, state and local taxes and business valuations.
Bill Ernst, a founder of Ernst & Rabe who remains managing director of GBQ’s Cincinnati office, says when he and partners Steve Rabe and Paul Gaffney looked at GBQ they saw a lot of similarities to their firm.
“It started as basically three guys who grew their firm and I think the fact their roots were kind of the same as ours [made it a good fit],” he says.
“When we met with their partners there was nobody I wouldn’t feel comfortable being a partner with. It was a good connection from the get-go.”
While expanding its accounting footprint, GBQ is also looking at complimentary services it can offer its clients.
For example, it has a strategic partnership with ViaVero LLC, a Columbus-based staffing company specializing in placing CFO and controller-level executives in short-term assignments.
“There aren’t enough accountants in the world right now literally to meet the demand,” says Congrove. “So businesses are having a really hard time finding accounting managers, controllers and CFOs. Our ability to provide that on a temporary basis to cover gaps has been really significant,” she says. “And because we’re focused entirely in that space we’re getting a little better results for our clients than going to a generic recruiter and trying to find somebody.”
GBQ has established a similar partnership with an IT security firm and will be expanding both services to its Cincinnati office this year.
GBQ, which has about 175 associates, has been frequently recognized for its workplace culture, something Congrove says is important for several reasons.
“We are big enough to have different services and different career opportunities and small enough to know everybody’s name,” she says.
“We are very focused on making sure our team understands our business and our clients needs and we share almost everything that happens.”
That transparency, she says, “creates an environment where everybody is willing to speak up so we can hear the best ideas from everybody. You don’t have to be at the top of the food chain here to make a difference.”
The firm has also taken a light-hearted approach to its branding and marketing, something not always seen at accounting firms.
“We think we’re not stogy and we think that accounting doesn’t have to be that way,” Congrove says. “Really, we’re trying to help people solve business problems and ultimately people want to do business with people that they like. There’s no reason accountants have to be uptight. We can be likeable and still be smart and help the clients with what they need.”
That approach also helps GBQ’s recruiting strategy, she says.
“It’s a tight talent market in the accounting business and if we can make GBQ an interesting, dynamic, fun place to work we win on the talent side, too.”