More and more, construction and real estate professionals are working the ‘Wipfli Way’, with CPAs and consultants whose mindset is adaptive, anticipatory, at the forefront of change, and based on integrity. If there’s a better way to success, it seems nobody’s found it.
After the New York Stock Exchange crashed in in 1929, one could say, (with a nod to Charles Dickens) that 1930 was the “worst of times” in U.S. economic history. But “it was the best of times” for Clarence Wipfli.
The son of Swiss immigrants, Wipfli – who was born in the U.S. in 1895 and studied accounting at St. Louis University – founded the Clarence J. Wipfli Company in 1930 in Wausau, WI. What was different was Wipfli’s belief that he could and should bring his foundational mindset and personal values of integrity into the business world. That belief has become known as ‘the Wipfli way,’ and appears to have made all the difference.
Now, ninety years of the Wipfli Way later, Wipfli CPAs and Consultants runs 49 offices throughout the US from its Milwaukee HQ, as well as two in India; employs 2,400 professionals; has 270 partners world-wide and is listed among the top 20 accounting firms in the country.
In addition, in August 2019, it was ranked by Construction Executive magazine overall as #5 on its list of The Top 50 Construction Accounting Firms™. Further to that, on examining the list more closely, Wipfli had beaten out much larger competitors and was actually listed as #3 among accounting firms when ranked by number of construction clients in 2018.
We knew we had to learn more about how this company, begun in ‘the worst of times’, had achieved such spectacular success, and so we spoke with Wipfli partner Brian Bohman, CPA, who’s spent the past 11 years as a partner in Wipfli’s Construction / Real Estate (“CRE”) Practice, led by firm-wide CRE industry leader John Schwab.
This CRE Practice, Bohman explained, makes up 25 to 30 percent of the overall business of Wipfli, “which helps its mid-market companies benefit from a range of accounting, tax, and consulting services. We are a broad-based professional services firm and we have the ability to provide many value-added services in addition to the normal attestation and tax compliance services.”
But why are clients choosing Wipfli? “Our industry knowledge and expertise are definitely crucial,” he says, “but I think it’s more our professionals and their outward mindset that enables us to build long-term relationship that differentiates us from others. It’s our focus and commitment to client services, our ability to listen and be proactive, to be adaptive to change, and to provide value-added services through our vast array of resources, including technology.
“Technology is changing the working environment and we have taken the approach that we want to be in the forefront of that.”
Wipfli Connect for Contractors: As Bohman indicated, Wipfli’s CRE practice is about a lot more than audits and preparing tax returns and hoping its clients will be ‘in the black’. Instead it is about proactively assisting them to maximize their profitability and efficiency, and one way of doing that is to leverage technology through the unique customer relationship management (CRM) program it has developed in partnership with Microsoft.
Wipfli Connect for Contractors, explains Bohman, uses Microsoft Dynamics®CRM as a platform while running inside Microsoft Outlook® to build on business applications contractors are already familiar with, providing organizations with a familiar platform so they can move ahead quickly.
“Microsoft is huge, it’s not going away, and it’s very versatile, with the ability to integrate with almost any other type of software program that a client has. Wipfli Connect for Contractors is a unique and powerful project management tool and solution tailored to the construction industry. It creates one simple-to-use interface across the entire enterprise and gets everyone on the same page for communication to ensure the efficiencies needed now and the ability to manage risks and prosper today and into the future,” explains Bohman.
“A lot of construction companies do have CRM programs included with their ERP systems, but they’re not as user-friendly or versatile to integration with other technologies, but with our advanced CRM Connect platform we can tailor it to individual needs and access information from numerous sources — create dashboards, provide data analytics and other things that bring real-time information to management and to clients about where they’re going and what’s happening.”
Matt Gelb, technology leader for Wipfli’s CRE Practice, was involved in the development of Wipfli’s Connect for Contractors and Bohman says his team is doing a fantastic job introducing it to clients. “What I really like about Matt’s team’s approach is that they focus on the client’s needs by listening and asking questions. This allows them to demonstrate how Wipfli Connect for Contractors can address the specific needs of the client. And if only certain parts can help a particular client, that is all they are going to focus on,” says Bohman.
“I think that is one of the things that differentiates us. We are always listening to clients and we have an outward looking mindset. It’s not about what we want to do, it’s about what we help our clients do, so they can get what they need and succeed.”
So, what other services does Wipfli offer clients? Service, says Bohman is something Wipfli focuses on all year, not just at audit and tax time. Wipfli is committed to meeting with clients throughout the year to discuss the client’s business needs and challenges as well as to provide updates on recent accounting and tax developments. “Through these ‘meet-to-learns,’ we are able to identify needs and provide solutions through our vast capabilities and value-added services we provide.” Wipfli provides its contractors with a number of value-added services that may surprise some.
Research & Development: “We have a very strong R&D practice,” says Bohman, paying tribute to Valerie Fedie, an R&D Partner, who is credited with the significant growth of the research and development team. “R&D is often overlooked by contractors. We’ve had great success in taking advantage of this tax opportunity and is a no-brainer for contractors to pursue. Contractors do many activities that qualify for credits under the law but are just not aware of it. We are able to help them best identify and track these activities.”
Human Capital Management: “Another issue that comes up is to do with the labor force and how to attract and retain employees, so we are helping our clients develop plans to incentivize key employees, because once you get good employees you want to keep them.” In addition, Wipfli’s human capital team provides key employee compensation studies and personnel searches, among many other services.
High Tech Consulting: Outside of Wipfli’s Connect for Contractors, Wipfli provides technical management for companies to ensure everything in their IT networks is properly updated and running and systems are backed up. Bohman says, “We also provide IT assessments and provide high-quality innovative technology solutions and related advice. It’s really hard for small companies to have a dedicated IT person, so it’s cheaper and more efficient for them to have us do it, because we have people with multiple resources and skill sets that are really hard to achieve with a single individual,” he explains.
“The other thing we’ve done is helped construction companies build applications — for example when a crew is out in the field, working, we have developed a template or an app to capture labor, material, and equipment usage which then is submitted and automatically integrated into the accounting system. This creates efficiencies and improves accuracy.”
Cyber Security: This is another area Wipfli is concerned about and has technical staff dedicated to reviewing systems and helping devise and implement solutions to systems at risk. Services include training, continuous monitoring of clients’ systems and penetration testing of clients’ current cyber security systems and controls.
Fraud, Forensic and Litigation Support: On December 1, 2016, the firm of Benes & Krueger merged with Wipfli, bringing with the merger the expertise of Mike Benes, CPA, CFF, partner, who Bohman calls “an astute contract dispute litigation guy. His team has worked for the U.S. Department of Justice and has done work on behalf of many multi-billion-dollar construction companies across the United States as well as internationally. He’s the first one they call when they have a contract dispute or a claim, and now he’s been successful within Wipfli.”
Personal Financial Management: As Bohman explains, Wipfli doesn’t sell insurance and they don’t buy stocks for individuals, leaving that up to brokers. “But we do advise and meet with clients and help them shape their strategies, their financial planning, and talk to them about the ‘what if’ scenarios.”
Business Succession Planning: Succession planning is critical to any business, Bohman says. Companies are continuously evolving and transitioning ownership whether it is passing ownership down family lines or bringing in existing associates as new owners. How these transactions are valued, reported, and executed plays a significant role in the success of ownership transition.
“We have been doing a lot of succession planning where we work with two or three generations as well as key management and experienced employees, and we’ve been successful in helping them with developing plans and implementing smooth transitions,” says Bohman.
“We have a business transition group that has developed a proprietary program that helps identify key points, provide options, and develop strategies. Among the strategies that Wipfli can assist with are: organizational restructuring by bringing in key employees as owners, and valuation services to assist with mergers and acquisitions,” he says.
Ultimately, “We’re really an all-comprehensive service — we provide the same services as the big four — but I think the thing that differentiates us is our people and the high level of involvement we give our clients. We do hardly any publicly traded work in the construction world — it’s all private and so when it’s private, the value on tax savings becomes more of a focus versus shareholder value.”
Another thing that’s made Wipfli so successful is the positive work environment that rules in its offices. “Personally, I love my job,” says Bohman. “I always wanted to go into accounting, and I like the construction and real estate industry, which is constantly changing. I like meeting people and I think Wipfli is a great place to work. We don’t have silos here, we have an open-door policy, and our partners don’t stay in their offices — we interact with all the associates and it’s a very positive culture,” he says.
“It’s all about the ‘Wipfli Way’ — the mindset and culture we want to embrace, show and live. We will provide service that is proactive with entrepreneurial passion, valuable insight, practical experience and commitment. And it all starts with us listening to our clients, identifying their needs, and providing on-point solutions. That’s how we do business and why I think we’re successful.”