Meet the innovative virtual CFO firm that's disrupting the industry
Summit CPA Group was founded in 2002 as a firm that wanted to change the way people looked at and used a CPA firm. Co-founder’s Jody Grunden, CPA and Adam Hale, CPA, didn’t want to just do accounting work. They wanted to make a difference in business owners’ lives.
“Traditional accountants generally focus on the past way too much in my opinion,” Grunden said. “We wanted to be more of an influencer for those clients. We wanted to talk strategy. We wanted to be proactive instead of being reactive. So, we turned a traditional financial statement into a strategic meeting focusing on the forecast and the metrics that are used to build it. Only about a quarter of the meeting talks about the past. The remainder of the meeting is strategic in nature focusing on the past influenced the future.”
Summit CPA Group wanted to educate business owners and teach them to build and manage a profitable business. This “want” eventually evolved into what is now their primary service and cornerstone of their company. In 2004, they named the offering “Virtual CFO Services.”
“We help small business owners make informed decisions that generally translate to increased profits and cash accumulation. That is why I think we’ve had such high retention with our clients,” Grunden said. “For me, that’s has been the most rewarding part of being a business owner – helping other business owners.”
Summit CPA Group prides themselves on offering completely different CPA services. They’re not competing against other CPA firms in the traditional sense. They are competing against a position of value. They take over the role of the CFO.
“We didn’t want to deliver a product that everyone else delivered - boring. We wanted to give them a service that offered a higher value than what they could get than adding an employee to their team. It came from the idea that we wanted to do something different, give them more value, and then it developed from there.
“What we’re doing is providing a similar service and ‘feeling’ as what’s innate at the big companies. That’s something that most small business have never had the chance to experience. Most small business owners feel isolated because they have no one to talk to. As a Virtual CFO, we can talk to them as a peer and give them a straight, candid answer. That’s what they really want. They want confirmation. They want to be able to bounce ideas off a peer. The entire experience is pretty eye opening for most of them.”
Like most great innovators, Grunden and Hale wanted to find a solution to a problem and make life better for themselves and those around him. Gruden says the idea for Virtual CFO Services was a selfish thing at first. He was his kids’ hockey coach and had to be present at all of the events. Hockey season, as you may know, falls at the exact time as the traditional tax season.
“I knew I was taking weeks off at a time to go on a hockey trip and it wasn’t fair to the other employees,” Grunden said. “It wasn’t fair to ask my team to work hard while I was traveling around the U.S. or Canada for a hockey tournament. It didn’t feel right to me.”
Grunden found a solution to his problem by looking for ways to change the way typical CPA firm do business. His answer was taking a traditional tax client that they would meet with once a year and looking at how they could really help their client, and in the same process help Summit CPA Group and the culture the duo wanted for their firm.
The process developed into taking that annual tax client and turning them into a monthly client. Then when it came time for their tax return, it didn’t take as much time. That approach was so successful that clients started asking for weekly meetings. Clients were so excited about the level of service that they were receiving from Summit that they started referring clients to them.
Summit CPA Group is headquartered in Fort Wayne, their team is distributed and works primarily from home. Their virtual office consists of 40 employees, all but four whom work remotely. Employees are located in 10 states and their client base is represented in over 40 cities across the country.
Summit CPA Group initially performed their Virtual CFO Services communicating over the phone and in-person meetings. It wasn’t until 2009 that they started transitioning the service to 100 percent remote. In order to give the client the feeling that they are part of their team, they utilize the latest technology through video chat and screen sharing with tools like Sococo and GoTo Meeting. This is Summit CPA Group’s primary means of communication with clients. Because they can service clients anywhere, they have expanded their service across the United States.
We can talk to them as a peer and give them a straight, candid answer. That’s what they really want. They want confirmation. They want to be able to bounce ideas off a peer.
Hiring at Summit CPA Group is all done virtually as well. It’s pretty eye-opening for new hires. Grunden says 99 percent of the new hires have never worked virtually before. So, employee onboarding is an extremely important process in Summit’s high employee retention. New hires receive a “care package” in the mail which includes a laptop, big screen TV (four monitors), headsets and a technology stipend which they can use for various home office needs throughout the year.
The onboarding process includes being buddied up with a seasoned employee.
For example, Tom is a new hire who has been with the firm for 90 days. He is buddied up with Angie with who is the senior team member on the account. They hang out in a virtual room all day with video and headsets on. They can have casual conversations as they work through the day. This way Tom doesn’t feel awkward knocking on Angie’s office door and interrupting her.
When nearly all of your employees work virtually, staying on top of technology is imperative.
“You’ve have to be adaptive and make changes quickly. That has never been an issue with me, really, in anything I do,” Grunden said. “Which is atypical for accountants.”
Grunden and Hale are constantly looking for the newest and greatest thing. Five years ago, Hale was looking for a second revenue stream that could take advantage of the distributed model. He determined that 401K Audits could be that avenue. He did his due diligence and sought out an expert in the field. They were able to bring in Kim Moore to run this new opportunity. Since 2012, Kim and her team have been able to grow the 401K Audit department from an experiment to currently performing in excess of 120 audits a year. They were able to take full advantage of the distributed model working virtually with their clients.
“We’re always looking for better ways of doing things,” Grunden said. “We’re never stuck on one way being the only way. It comes from identifying a weakness in an area and coming up with a solution to make it better.
“We take what other people are doing well and make it better. We view the world in a different way, always thinking outside of the box. Or, better yet, what box? That’s the mindset that we built the company on.”
Summit CPA Group was recognized for their innovative accomplishments in 2016 with the inaugural Indiana CPA Society Innovation Award.
The Secret Sauce for Running a Distributed Model Company: 6.5 Tips to Implement Now
Jody Grunden, Virtual CFO & Co-Founder of Summit CPA Group, shares his advice and secret sauce to making it work.
1: Schedule weekly meetings and with transparency
Weekly team meetings are crucial within a distributed company. Scheduling 30-60 minutes once a week—preferably Monday mornings—with the entire team is a great way to start off everyone’s week. It’s an opportunity for each team member to share something good and something bad about the past week, and what they are looking forward to the coming week. Weekly team meetings keep the whole team in the loop and connected and allows management to keep a pulse on what’s really happening. The same goes for weekly one-on-ones with your direct reports.
2: Host company retreats
Corporate. Leadership. Retreat. Are you cringing? Do the words “trust fall” and "ropes course” come to mind? Are you having nightmares of a very cold (or very hot because someone is always complaining about the temperature) windowless hotel ballroom? Are you envisioning yourself staring at four walls for eight hours every day while being talked at by a lifeless presenter clicking through Powerpoint decks? Wake up. It’s 2017. Corporate Retreats should incorporate compelling facilitators, interactive peer-to-peer learning, fun activities and relaxing downtime – all at a refreshingly unique venue in an unforgettable destination. If you’re not planning at least one of these for the entire team annually, you need to start. Hosting a retreat for your leadership team in Q1 will help set the tone and objectives for the entire year, and you can then build upon those lessons and outcomes with an entire company retreat later in the year.
3: Offer awesome benefits
The traditional benefits of wages, health insurance, and 401Ks are not going to cut it. You need to offer benefits beyond the cookie-cutter givens. If flexibility isn’t included in your benefits package, add it now, and make it number one on the list. The benefits of flexible days, flexible location, flexible hours is absolutely imperative. Employees can work as needed to accomplish their job and goals in a timely manner. Flexibility allows your employees availability during the day to pick up kids, go to doctor appointments and allow them to work later at night if needed. And going back to the basic benefit of wages, be sure you’re paying your team based on national average.
4: Implement communication platforms
This perhaps should be number one on this list. It’s vital. The key is to remember that it is not “us vs them.” Everyone must be on the same playing field—whether you work in Hermosa Beach, California or Charleston, South Carolina, or in the Fort Wayne, Indiana. Everyone must use the same communication platform. If you do have s few The employees that do work in the same building, its imperative they use the same platforms to communicate as 40 people spread through the country. No one is “missing” anything by being distributed. Everyone is treated equal. Tools like Sococo video chat, and Slack offer employees opportunities to “chat” both formally and informally.
5: Find the right partners
Flexible is the way of the future. Flexible works as long as you have the right communication platforms in place and have access to quality people who are looking for flexible work. Partnering up with companies like FlexJobs, Remote.co, Yonder, and Virtual Vocations will help with a more positive experience and allow companies to get ahead of the curve and reap the rewards of employing a talented, happy staff. FlexJobs can help eliminate one of the risks for growth: finding talented people. And we all know that sifting through hundreds of resumes is time-consuming. With FlexJobs, you’ll spend less time managing resumes. Remote.co is an excellent resource that provides expert insight, best practices, and valuable support for organizations exploring or already embracing the distributed model. Virtual Vocations is a great website where employers can post flexible jobs such as telecommuting, freelance, and part-time and flextime jobs. The Yonder podcast features interviews that discuss the advantages and also the difficulties of distributed teams.
6: Set a cool company culture
When working with a distributed team, it may take an extra effort to keep people feeling like they are part of the team, and they are valuable to the overall success of the team. Using the communication channels we noted above, it’s important to include a non-work related communication channel. There’s no tangible “water cooler” when you’re distributed, therefore having a “water cooler” channel on Slack where employees can share the photo of their new kitty, or ask for recommendations for dining in Colorado Springs during their next holiday brings that “water cooler” feeling alive. It’s also important for management to share the vision of the company. There’s no better way to get employees excited than to share your vision and how they are all part of and contribute to that vision. Involve everyone on the team in important projects or events. Perhaps someone on the team is really interested in helping with the company retreat (see #2)—let that person liaise directly with your marketing events director. Develop a cool, unique, but meaningful way to recognize special occasions like birthdays and work anniversaries. It’s an easy (and fun) way to acknowledge employees, and goes a long way.
6.5: Have fun!
Yep! You read that correctly. The last tip is to have fun. Life’s too short to not enjoy it. And besides, if your employees are having fun, they are going to work harder and smarter. They are going to stay at the company longer and help promote the awesomeness that sets your company apart from all the rest. Your best advertising is happy employees.