How to Turn Accounting from a Necessary Evil to a Strategic Advantage

May 17, 2018 | By Blake Oliver

Recently I had the pleasure of chatting with Tom Gabbert, the founder and managing director of mAccounting, an Indianapolis based CPA firm specializing in outsourced accounting, tax, and CFO services to small and mid-sized companies. In 2015, mAccounting was recognized as one of the most progressive accounting firms in the nation when it was selected as an Intuit Firm of the Future.

Prior to launching mAccounting, Tom spent 14 years in the technology industry as a CFO and controller. He's also a self-professed Excel geek.

Here’s the edited and condensed transcript of my interview with Tom on the Cloud Accounting Podcast.

Blake Oliver: Tom, thanks for joining me today.

Tom Gabbert: Thanks for having me.

Have you always been mAccounting? How did that name come about?

Our first name was Milestone Advisers. There were too many people that came up to us and said, "You know, I bet I know what you do," thinking that we were wealth management advisors — and we weren't — and so our common response was, "I'll bet you don't," and then we'd go on to tell them what we did.

But really the name change came about four years ago when we had a desire to grow our firm beyond our Indianapolis area. And we wanted to play on a national stage. So the name Milestone Advisers didn't really work. Milestone is too generic, too many “Milestones” out there. It didn't really tell the world what we did. So we decided to rebrand and go with mAccounting.

Obviously, it says what we do with the accounting part, but we also wanted to keep the M in there. And the M has kind of a dual purpose meaning. Part of it is a legacy throwback to the Milestone days. But more importantly, it's an emphasis on the mobile aspects of what we do.

We are cloud-based accounting. We have been for sometime now and we believe that really drives efficiency and creates a real win-win for us and for our clients. So anyway, we love to tell the world that we are mobile and you can get your information anywhere, anytime.

What else makes mAccounting different?

I'm going to start with a kind of cliche answer, and it's our people, but it is absolutely true.

At mAccounting, we put a real emphasis on hiring the right kind of people. And we're looking for not just good number crunchers, but folks that are good accountants. Obviously, they have to be good at that part of their job, but we want them to be really good people people. They have to be good communicators. They have to have an entrepreneurial focus. They have to be passionate about what they do everyday. So, the people is the most important thing.

We also have a strong emphasis on client experience in our firm. We have a mantra around here that we're trying to turn accounting from a necessary evil into a strategic advantage. It's more than just a saying. We want to create an experience for our clients where we make it easy, first of all, so their part in the equation has to be easy, and what they get out of it has to be true value add.

The shift we made several years ago to move everything to cloud-based accounting has been a big driver in that. We spend far less time today getting information into the system and making sure it's right, which used to be a large part of the accountant's role, back in the day. We spend much less time doing that now, and more time looking at what the numbers are telling us, and interpreting that for our clients, and helping them make smart decisions.

So, that's all wrapped into this client experience that I was talking about and I feel that as a firm we've made this pretty dramatic shift into a trusted advisor role, and that creates a positive experience for our clients.

Where do you think the profession is heading in the next five or ten years?

We’re at the forefront of a pretty significant change. Part of it is driven by technology, and that's not necessarily new news. But a lot of firms are slow to embrace it, and I think that's a mistake because it's not going away.

Cloud tools create efficiency and opportunity to add value. We spend much less time doing the mundane tasks, and more time doing the value-added stuff. And that creates a real win-win. Our clients are getting more value for the money that they spend and accountants are spending more time doing rewarding work.

The first thing is, technology changes are coming fast and furious. We go to a number of conferences every year to kind of see what's out there on the horizon. And every year I'm blown away by the new advances in technology that are out there and available to small business owners and accounting firms. It's exciting. I've never seen a time like this for the accounting profession.

There's also an emergence of outsourced accounting services. And that's near and dear to our hearts. When you think about old school accounting, there was audit and there was tax, and there were two disciplines, and for years that's how it's been, and I would say in the last several years we've seen that shifting where now outsourced accounting services has become a third legitimate discipline, and even the larger firms, the national firms, the regional firms, if they're not doing it now, if they're not going in that direction, I think they're talking about it in their strategic sessions and it's probably going to  become part of the roadmap.

Colleges are going to have to adapt. Right now, I have a senior who's graduating with an accounting degree and so I've had a first hand experience with him. We've also been on the recruiting trail and what most students hear over and over is, “You have to choose a path.” You have to go audit or tax, and audit or tax is all they talk about. With the emergence of this third path, this outsourced accounting services path, students are going to have choices and it's going to force some change at the colleges where they have to change their curriculum. They have to embrace teaching kids some of the real world tools, giving them some of these software applications to use, and projects in class so that they come out with a different skill set that lends itself toward this third discipline.

So you mean doing T-charts by hand isn't going to cut it anymore?

It's a good foundational thing we should all learn, but I would love to see kids come out of school having used QuickBooks, having used, having used Expensify and Fathom. I'd love to see them come out and hit the ground running.

And why do you think that the education system is still so focused on audit and tax?

I just think they're behind. I don't think it's a purposeful thing, I just think that the whole outsourced arena has really evolved in the last five years. Companies are more comfortable outsourcing, whether that's HR, or marketing, or IT, and now accounting. That's really evolved a lot in the last five years. And so that discipline is relatively new. And I think colleges are somewhat playing catch up.

In addition to leveraging technology, how do you create the firm and the life that you want?

One of the smartest things I did a couple of years ago was join a peer group. It was a group of other small business owners, and that was a fantastic decision for me.

One, it gets me out of my routine once a month. I get to think strategically and hear input from others. It's been great. But it also has forced me to look at my business differently and it's created some accountability for me. So that decision sparked a lot of change.

So in terms of the life that I want, I'd made some fundamental changes. I started restructuring our group. We started with a leadership structure where we put in place industry practice leaders that were dedicated to their niche and had the expertise. I gave them the freedom and flexibility to grow their practices, and empowered them to do it, and didn't feel the need to make all the decisions anymore.

And I tell you, that was liberating because I hired a fantastic group of people. I just needed to trust them and turn them loose, and let them do their thing. And some great things started happening. It allowed me to step back and spend my time a little differently. I have gone from probably 80 or 90% of my time on client service to 50% or less on client service and the other 50% on the firm, focused on growing the firm and thinking strategically, where do we want to go with the firm.

I've worked hard on work-life balance, which is one of our core values at mAccounting. Crazy things like just thinking about working remotely. I get down to Charleston, South Carolina. It's my second home, I love it down there. And I get there as often as I can. And I'm now finding ways to get down there for a week or two at a time and work remotely. It’s created this life that I want, where I still have a very productive firm. In fact, we've never been better. And yet, I'm not stuck in the old way of doing things where I was a slave to my office and a slave to the same schedule. It’s changed a lot.

So now that you have this free time, what do you like to do outside of work?

I'm a photographer. I've been an amateur photographer for a long time going back to my college days. My wife and I love to travel and I love to drag my camera around and take landscape photography pictures. We have several of them in my office, so that's a fun hobby for me. I'm a die-hard Cubs fan, too.

Well Tom, that's all the time we have today. Thanks for being here.

Yeah, thanks for having me, this was fun.

Blake Oliver
Blake Oliver, CPA, is an entrepreneur, accountant, writer, and speaker who specializes in cloud accounting technology. In 2016 and 2017, Blake was named a “40 Under 40” in the accounting profession by CPA Practice Advisor. He is the Senior Product Marketing Manager for FloQast.

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