Log Out

Transcript: George Forsythe, CPA

April 2, 2020

MAUREEN DINGUS: Welcome to Leading Forward the Virginia Society of CPA's podcast where we focus on innovation and leadership in the CPA profession. I'm your host, Maureen Degas, and I invite thought leaders for short, casual conversations on topics and trends important to the success of the CPA profession. This episode is part of our series on how VSCPA members are managing and even thriving during the COVID-19 pandemic. Thanks for listening, and I wish you all good health. Welcome, George. Thank you for coming on our podcast. I know this is a crazy busy time for you and your firm, but can we just kick it off with you telling everyone about your firm, about you and your firm?

GEORGE FORSYTHE, CPA: Sure. Hi, I'm George Forsyth. I'm the Managing Partner of wells Coleman. We're roughly a 40-person firm in, in the near West End of Richmond. One location, we do taxes, audits, outsourced accounting, consulting. And, yeah, we're, we're your run of the mill CPA firm here in Richmond.

MAUREEN DINGUS: Right. So I don't know about run of the mill, but George is been a great leader for the society and he has done many things to support CPAs throughout the state. So he was one of the first people I thought of when I wanted to reach out to members and talk about what are they doing in their firms to really address the disruption with the COVID-19 pandemic. And just a little bit that we've chatted, I see that hey're making the transition pretty well. So George, you as the Managing Partner had to do some kind of probably deep thinking about how you wanted to handle this and rally your partners. Could you tell us a little bit about how you thought about it and how you talk with them?

GEORGE FORSYTHE, CPA: So I think the the first thing is that our leadership group did their best to stay on top of what's happening, you know, nationally, also internationally, just to get a sense of what was happening elsewhere and what was likely to happen here in Richmond. So prior to the business deadline of March 16, we were having a dialogue already about, you know, what we may need to do. So, at that time, our biggest goal at that moment was we just want to get through the deadline in one piece. So that was a week ago, Monday. March 16. And you know, that deadline it came in went, like most deadlines, other than one key difference and that was the week prior was the local private schools, right. And so we had a lot of clients to come into the office and sign off on return on that Monday, that Monday came and, you know, people dissapointment to come in and sign their return based on, you know, social distancing suggestions. They also happen not to call us and let us know they weren't coming. So after a handful of appointments that got missed, we were in a little bit of a scramble mode to get people their return in a sign off or to get a last minute extension because as you know, the march 15 deadline, so So after we made it through that, that deadline day. That evening, our partner group got together for about an hour, and we were all on the same page. And we felt that what we needed to do was to require our team to work remotely. And we made that decision Monday evening. We came in Tuesday for what was going to be a normal day. We had a lunchtime kind of state of the firm meeting planned already just to kind of have a pep rally and who rah rah over, you know, a deadline down. And it became five minutes of a pep rally and 55 minutes of planning logistics for going remote. The very next morning, all of our staff, they they work on audits remotely. They can work from home, their laptop enabled, you know, we've had all the technology for cloud day. So all of our applications are up up on the Thomson Reuters cloud platform.

But going remote, what happened in a hurry because no one had planned that out longer and you know, the pace of this pandemic has just been really fast, just the information and the changes. So, what we did is we had our lunch, we had our meeting, and that afternoon, all of our staff got together and we scanned any client documents that had been dropped off that were returns on deck that hadn't been scanned or started yet. And so we scanned a couple hundred returns that afternoon and everyone went home with their To Do List of those returns. And that's what our staff had been working on the past week. And, you know, the first few days were a little bit chaotic because people were setting up workstations at home where they typically don't work from home. But we, you know, we've leveraged Zoom meetings, we leveraged Skype for Business, and there's been lots of interaction among the team. We still have staff meetings just virtual, but the two things that we tasked our partners with, we all quickly agreed it was the appropriate two things for the partners, was number one, to check in with the staff that they coach and mentor. And number two, to check in with their clients and see how they're doing. Because, you know, the timing of this isn't perfect, right? We're in the middle of busy season. But it's not it's even more not perfect for many of our clients who are struggling with, you know, where's not, I'm not taking in any revenue. I still have staff, do I pay them? Do I not pay them? Do I lay them off to furlough them? What about their benefits? You know, all these things are questions that are running through our clients minds. And because we have a lot of tax returns to get done in the next month. We're sort of a little bit jaded by the reality out there that we feel because we have plenty of work to do that we as a CPA firm, we're going to be fine. I hope we will be but I don't think that it's as simple as that. And so you know, our partners were tasked with checking in on on our clients and checking in with staff. And our staff were tasked with setting up their remote offices and getting rolling on some, some tax returns.

MAUREEN DINGUS: That sounds like you are able to really jump in and move fast. And it sounds like there needed to be a lot of I don't know what the right word is, but alignment among your leadership to even get to that point where you could have an hour long meeting and then come in the next day and everybody is ready to move. I mean, how how did you guys you know, work towards that. That's not an easy thing.

GEORGE FORSYTHE, CPA: No, so our leadership team meets, you know, outside of busy season we meet twice a month for an hour and a half and we have we try to keep it moving more strategic and less kind of operational. And during busy season, we change the frequency of that where we meet every Wednesday morning for 30 minutes. And we include in those meetings our senior managers. And so our group is already fairly well aligned. And so when we came together, we address, you know, what are the biggest issues? How is this gonna go sideways, we assign roles and responsibilities, and then it was like, ready break, and everyone kind of went in their different directions. Our two senior managers, they lead the staff through, they broke them up into teams, they oversaw the scanning of all the documents, and then they logged what returns were going where so that way we had a record. You get nervous if you know staff are running out of the office with any information and so we wanted to make sure that we had some controls in place and that part has gone extremely smoothly. And you know, I owe a lot of that to those two senior managers who just,  really stepped up in this and the staff too,they really respect those two individuals and our firm leadership. And they, they fell right in line and they are like, what can I do? And they did their part. And it honestly, it's, you know, when things are when the going gets tough. I mean, you can see how a team can really come together. A high performing team can come together.

MAUREEN DINGUS: Right, right, right. And I know that everywhere you look, emotions are running high. There's anxiety, how I mean, I guess part of how you all address that is just maybe the check ins with the partners, but how is that kind of that real life human element playing out with your team right now.

GEORGE FORSYTHE, CPA: So the check ins definitely are a big part of that. And that's more I have the the seriousness, but we're also a very light hearted group. And so we add levity to a lot of situations, you know, somewhat to the point where some would find it uncomfortable, but we feel that, you know, you know, you got to be able to laugh, you spend a lot of time at work. And so we, we, we spent a lot of time just kind of trying to find the humor in things and it makes it it makes that toughness a little bit more palatable, right, but it's always followed up with a more sincere Hey, how are you doing? How's your family? Is there anything that I can do to help? And you know, most of like, there's no instances that I'm aware of in our team where, you know, a member of our team or a member of their family has been affected by coronavirus. That being said, I feel that if it were to happen, I think we would see the team really rally around those indices. rules and support them as best they can.

MAUREEN DINGUS:Right. Right. That's awesome. When we chatted before we got on this recording, there were two things that I want to make sure that we touch on. One of them was your focus on metrics. Your firm sets out some very specific challenging goals and metrics. And just because you're, you've been thrown into this whirlwind that hasn't changed. So can you tell us a little bit about how your firm looks at those and what you're doing right now?

GEORGE FORSYTHE, CPA: Yeah, certainly.So one of the things that that we've been doing for a long time, as we call them, our return counts, and so during the busy season, you can break down the majority of the returns that you're preparing, but it's most likely, you know, corporations, partnerships, individuals and trusts. There might be a few other returns in there, but that's the majority of our busy season work. And so, what we began doing a long time ago is counting by certain dates, like how many returns are prepared. And by prepared, we would say if it had been through prep review corrections, and was in for processing, that return was. Now we do track if it's filed and when it's filed and all those things. But basically, once there were no more changes to the return, we captured that as done. And so over the years, we've gotten a little bit more sophisticated, where we track those returns that are complete, but we also track returns that are in office not yet prepared returns that are in the prep phase and returns that are in the review phase. So once we have those those data points, the one thing that is our general like measurement of success. So as we know, we made it through last year. And if we made it through last year, however horrific or awesome it was, if we keep pace with last year, we know this year is going to end, okay. And generally in most years, you know, you might lose a client engagement or two, but generally we take on a lot more engagements than we've lost from the prior year. And so our goal is to keep pace plus a little. And the plus a little comes from, you know, obviously more clients, but you know, maybe more staff, maybe better processes. And so, we used to only track on certain key dates, like, let's say, the end of the month, and on the deadline day, well, now we've gotten to where we track every single day of the season, and we track these these different returns and these main categories, prep review, corrections, and then you know, processing and we look at Where are we are now and where were we that same point in time a year ago. And so, on March 16, as an example, we were 170 some odd returns ahead of where we were in the 2018 filing season. Before we went remote, we we were way ahead of the prior year and expected to have one of the best seasons ever. Well, that's also following what many in the profession would call one of the worst seasons ever, right, like, last year was significantly delayed by the tax reform law, a lot of uncertainty. And so this year, we we were poised to have an awesome season. And we added in one additional metric into our just our return counts, and that one metric was how many days or return is is held in the review phase. And in our office, we determined based on the number of returns compared to the number of technical reviewers that the review phase was probably our biggest bottleneck that we had. And so we implemented a goal and that was that all returns would go back to staff within 24 hours with, you know, noted corrections. And what we felt was that would enable the staff to not make the same mistake multiple times while waiting on a return. And also when they got the return back, it would still be fresh in their mind because they just, you know, finished preparing it the day before. And so we've met that 24 hour turnaround time. And, you know, our reviewers are, are putting in a little bit more muscle. We also have a few more reviewers to aid in the charge. And so I personally attribute a lot of our growth over the prior year to just that one change in process and that being a quicker turnaround of the world. But let me tell you, it wasn't just about the turnaround, it also was to maintain the level of quality that the review that the reviewer has. Because, you know, we don't want to just get through it faster and make a bunch of mistakes that in order for it to be a good review that needed to be error free. And so we feel that we've been able to, to rise to the occasion and still keep the quality as high as we would expect.

MAUREEN DINGUS: Yeah. So so you, you had a lot of data points. You found a bottleneck, and then you fix it, and it's working. And even in this disruption, you're still keeping your eyes on those metrics. You're not right.

GEORGE FORSYTHE, CPA: Every morning when I turn on my email, I have a few reports in my inbox, which is know our progress through the prior day compared to the past. A year, and all those different data points and I quickly scan through it. It you know, it's it's both a lagging indicator in the sense that it tells us, you know, what's been done, but those lagging indicators, they lead you in the direction of where is the future bottleneck gonna be. So a surge coming out of technical review and into corrections means that there's going to be a surge probably the next day in our processing. And so we can, you know, shift resources accordingly. And if not resources, we can, at least, you know, shift expectations and let people know what's coming so that they're prepared.

MAUREEN DINGUS: So, George, I think that one of the things that will always happen in such a disruptive time are that the fact that we want to look for opportunities and look for the help that you can give your clients so Tell us about something that you've done in the situation that has been maybe a bright spot or an opportunity that you've pursued pursued. Sure. So, so we haven't always been the best

GEORGE FORSYTHE, CPA: marketers and communicators at our firm. So one of the things that that we've worked hard on is communicating with our clients timely, relevant information. And so as all of the COVID-a9 emails were coming out, coming out all of us, right, like every business that we interact with is telling us what their protocols are. We we started compiling resources and information and when the first legislative Act, the the family's first legislation came out, we we immediately got a newsletter out to our clients that included a lot of the resources that we've been accumulating. But one of the things that we did that I think was pretty, pretty good Cole was we have lined up our HR attorney. So we we use a woman named Patty Gill and she's been our firm's HR attorney for a decade. Well, Patti agreed to jump on a Zoom call, where we invited all of our clients that wanted to attend. And it was posed as being a get your questions answered session regarding the family's first legislation. And so that call was yesterday, and we had 87 people in attendance. And the flow of the call was, I'd say 15 minutes of Legislative Review to talk about what the family's first legislation is, what it means how it applies. And then for the next 45 minutes or so, having just knocked out questions like rapid fire, and a lot of people have sent questions in ahead of time they wanted to make sure they got answered, and then we use the chat feature. In zoom, for people to ask questions real time, and she basically sat there like a panelist and just chipped away at question after question after question. And what you saw was, it became a very interactive, engaging experience where each client felt like they were in a dialogue with the HR attorney directly. But because they were using the chat feature, and we had turned off everyone's video in mind, it allowed for Patty to, to conquer more ground than getting too deep into any one person situation. It also from my perspective, it really highlighted just how awesome of an attorney she is. I mean, she, she knows her stuff. And it was it was really cool to be a part of that. And that was yesterday at lunchtime, and, you know, so it's been, I don't know. 30 hours now. And I have gotten at least 30 to 40 emails thanking wells Coleman for how awesome that was and how much value they got out of it. And so so yeah, so that that has been a bright spot, especially coming from a firm that hasn't really been the best marketers and newsletter type. We look for, you know, what information do we want? And how can we provide that same info to our clients in a manner that will, will drive value and it doesn't have to be pretty, it just has to be helpful. And I feel like at least yesterday that we achieved that,

MAUREEN DINGUS:  Well, you have a partner that obviously you trust, and you've worked with, and I'm sure that your clients can feel that and know that. You know, they trust you. So that it's like a friend of a friend type thing.

GEORGE FORSYTHE, CPA: Right. An extension of it. Yes, absolutely.

MAUREEN DINGUS:  Yeah. So that's great. I think that's That stickiness is something that, that all of us need to think about whether it's clients or customers or members that would that thing that brings them closer brings bring makes you increases your value, especially in this time of stress and confusion. So that's awesome. One last thing that I want to ask before we wrap up, I know that in years past, when we've gone out and talked to firms at different meetings, you've always had great insights into some technologies that you've implemented at your firm. Um, some of them are, you know, big game changers, some of them might be just simple type tools out there. Is there any one tool that you all are using right now that you're thinking, Oh, my gosh, I'm so glad that we dove into that one.

GEORGE FORSYTHE, CPA: Well, you know, and this isn't gonna be innovative by any sense, but you know, I feel That zoom has really hit a need, you know, we use Microsoft or Skype for for business and you know, that's been fine. But the ability to mobilize and set up a meeting with ease and then to schedule it, and also have a list of attendees and even to record it, you know, zoom has been extremely, extremely beneficial to us. I have also heard recently that their their capacity has nearly been met and so they may be limiting the amount of new users so if you haven't done so needed, I'd encourage you to jump out and do it. I've also looked at their stock and I wish that I bought their stock about two weeks ago because it has also gone through the roof. Um, but but you know, this season you know, I would say zoom is the is the main ticket for us. operate you know, we do a lot of things Source accounting and there's a ton of resources and new slick Client Tools there that that we've been using. But But you know, those, I'm sure if you're in that space, they're all things that that that you're familiar with. So I would, I would I would take zoom as the go to right now for the season.

MAUREEN DINGUS:  Yeah, well, when we, when we get through this and maybe when we connect in the fall, we can talk about some lessons learned, because it's probably too fresh right now. to really think about maybe what you've learned what you've learned unless you have anything right now. Have you learned any lessons in this brief time?

GEORGE FORSYTHE, CPA: Yes, so probably the the biggest thing that that is top of mind is that, you know, we're at Wells, Coleman, we're all service providers, and you know, our partners, they oversee a bunch of clients and they have some administrative duties. I do feel that you know, one thing that we we need to do better is never anticipate, you know, a crisis however small or big it is. And in looking back, I feel like if we had more capacity on our plate like less of a full calendar, we would have more time to carefully and cautiously manage a situation like this, but it being busy season and it being, you know, lots of clients to get their returns done. I feel like we we we were forced to react fast, which I think we did and did very well. I just I wish that we could rebalance our loads and our priorities so that way. Everyone's operating at a highest and best use and is able to thoughtfully and intentionally manage the situation. And, you know, that's one of my biggest lessons learned through this and that's to kind of revisit, you know, just our roles in wrestling. possibilities among our leadership to make sure everyone's operating at their highest and best use and that that includes having intentional whitespace on the calendar. So when things come up like this, you're able to devote attention to it, and not having to devote attention to it after everything else you've committed to.

MAUREEN DINGUS: Right. Right. Well, that's great. I think that that's well said that these emergency situations that we're all reacting to, we're getting through it. But how could we have created that space? I like how you said that created the whitespace to think through it and do our highest highest potential? Well, George, thank you. I know you're super busy. And it's been it's always fun talking to you, and we will

GEORGE FORSYTHE, CPA: Appreciate it. All right. Stay healthy.