Sustainability is everywhere in the news: green teams, corporate social responsibility, what the latest local company is doing to better its neighborhood and community. What is sustainability really all about? What does it mean to build a sustainable tax practice?
Corporate sustainability is not just about being green; it is a 360-degree focus on an adviser’s practice, the programs that can add value to his or her clients, employees, and bottom line while at the same time recognizing responsibility for the community and the environment. The authors’ company, Frank, Rimerman + Co. LLP, formed a sustainability committee in 2008 to monitor the various initiatives taking place around five pillars identified as important to the firm: people, clients, community, profession, and environment.
Initiatives: To promote a work environment built on fairness, respect for one another, and pride in the firm; to respond to the changing needs of employees and, as a result, to attract and retain top talent in the industry.
Value: Increased employee satisfaction from training programs, recognition of achievements, and staff-developed initiatives, with achievement measured by the firm’s being voted one of the Bay Area’s best places to work in 2010 and 2011.
Initiatives: To provide unparalleled customer satisfaction by continually improving customer service, fostering open communication, and building rapport using skills and technology to understand and respond to clients’ needs.
Value: Continued growth in business despite the economic downturn, attributable to the firm’s comprehensive 5-Star Training, a 13-week customer service program required for all employees.
Initiatives: To be a philanthropic leader in the Bay Area business community by contributing firm resources to the communities being served; to align the valuable expertise, talent, and time of the firm’s professionals with the needs of the community to make substantial contributions to local programs and business enterprises.
Value: Recognition by community leaders of the firm’s not-for-profit board training initiative, which was designed to develop employees into well-qualified board members for local and regional organizations.
Initiatives: To enhance the presence and influence of the firm’s practitioners through active participation in professional associations, taking leadership roles inside and outside the firm, and engaging in activities to further professional development.
Value: Early exposure to and in-depth knowledge of upcoming legislative and regulatory changes through board positions and other direct involvement with the AICPA and the state CPA society.
Initiatives: To make a positive environmental impact by improving the firm’s carbon footprint, practicing responsible consumption and disposal of valuable resources, and promoting firm-wide environmental stewardship.
Value: Reduction in the cost of annual water bottle purchases, net of the cost to provide each employee with a reusable stainless steel Klean Kanteen; reduction in energy usage by encouraging employees to turn off computers at night; fostering environmental friendliness at the firm’s annual meeting by no longer providing bottled water or canned beverages, switching to cloth napkins, and promoting carpooling and the use of public transportation.
Where to Start
Sustainability programs do not have to be onerous, and the committee at Frank, Rimerman + Co. LLP has evolved from a more detailed, program-driven team into an oversight group that ensures it is not neglecting any of the above five pillars. Many sustainability concepts are already ingrained in what every firm does, but it is the overlooked areas that can cause unexpected downfalls.
Where should a firm begin in developing its own sustainability program?
Obtain Executive Sponsorship and Guidelines
Without executive sponsorship, a program may not gain needed momentum. A supportive message about the program from key leadership should generate interest and enthusiasm from the firm.
Form a Balanced Steering Committee
Include members of the firm who have a passion for the variety of areas chosen for attention. The steering committee should be tasked with establishing the firm’s sustainability objectives, overseeing the entire program, and reporting results to management and the firm.
Brainstorm and Identify Key Initiatives
Focus on what is most important to the firm as a whole. Keep in mind that the best-received initiatives will be those that resonate with employees and clients. Do not try to tackle too much in the first season.
Form Task Forces to Execute Initiatives
Choose people to drive each project based on their ability to juggle the additional responsibility as well as their interest in the particular portion of the program. This is a good opportunity to have people demonstrate new skills in a safe environment.
Monitor and Evaluate Progress
Measure progress on key initiatives throughout the year. Can the firm identify the benefits from each initiative as aligned with stated program objectives? Were there areas that appeared underserved during the year? Make plans to address any concerns in the next year.
Advance the firm’s tax practice by taking the time to review the existing sustainability programs and identifying those areas that need a little effort to produce a well-rounded, sustainable firm. Establishing a sustainability initiative creates a great opportunity to develop future leaders at the firm, improve client service, and enhance profitability while at the same time contributing to communities and the profession.
Practitioners who would like to do this for clients should view the Journal of Accountancy video on launching sustainability services for a perspective on offering sustainability services rather than internal sustainability concepts.
Steven Holub is a partner in Cherry Bekaert & Holland, LLP, in Tampa, FL, and is former chair of the AICPA Tax Division’s Tax Practice Management Committee. Mary Cathryn Green is with Marcum, LLP, in Bala Cynwyd, PA, and is chair of the Tax Practice Improvement Committee. Anne Yamamoto and Kristen Rampe are with Frank, Rimerman + Co. LLP in Palo Alto, CA. Ms. Yamamoto is a member of the Tax Practice Improvement Committee. For information about this column, contact Ms. Yamamoto at firstname.lastname@example.org.