Chris Williams shares how he used his search fund skills to find, vet, and acquire accounting firm, System Six. Remote work and a growing industry were part of his criteria.
In the transition from former CEO Jeremy Allen, Chris focused on keeping things as familiar as possible for System Six’s team.
System Six doesn’t focus too heavily on verticals. Instead, referrals from its client base drive a more natural niching.
Chris Williams didn’t let the pandemic hold him back over the last two years. While many were baking sourdough bread, Chris was looking for the best business to acquire.
With experience working for an investment bank and private equity firm, Chris has a strong background in financial services. After getting an MBA, he found himself helping entrepreneurs in the search fund business—identifying businesses that looked promising for acquisition. This knowledge would eventually come in handy for his own search.
“I spent about a year looking for a business to buy across a bunch of different industries with some common themes of what I was looking for,” Chris says of the journey. “One of my investors pointed me to outsourced accounting and outsourced financial services, which led me to cloud accounting.”
Beginning with a wide search before narrowing it down based on his top values, Chris eventually struck a deal with System Six, a remote accounting and financial services company. System Six strives to free up time for entrepreneurs while giving accountants their dream jobs handling bookkeeping, payroll, bill-pay, and other finance operations services.
Chris discusses his search process in more detail with Karbon CEO and host Stuart McLeod on episode 39 of the Accounting Leaders Podcast. He also discusses the factors that set a team up for success and his perspective on company verticals.
Chris relied on a number of criteria to narrow his search for the perfect business. Being Sausalito-based, he had to find something either local or where he could work remotely on a permanent basis.
He also wanted to make sure that the business he chose was easily transferable, and not dependent on its founder for success.
“If you buy a construction business where it's dependent on the owner's relationships, that's going to be really hard to take on as a business,” Chris tells Stuart on the podcast. “I tried to apply my background as well. Coming from real estate finance, I was looking at everything from blue collar services to the real estate industry. I was a bit all over the place.”
Because Chris felt that software was too competitive, he shied away from those opportunities. He also found that he was best suited to taking a business from their current level and turning that dial up closer to 10, rather than taking a business from level zero to level one. In other words, he wasn’t interested in launching his own startup.
“Starting from scratch is a very different risk profile. When you think about what success looks like in four or five years, it makes a lot more sense to try to start a venture-backed shoot-for-the-moon business,” Chris explains.
Chris’s search process stretched over 10 months. When he first met with System Six’s founder Jeremy Allen, Jeremy wasn’t ready to sell. But when the timing was better, Jeremy revisited the conversation about acquisition with Chris. They met in person at Jeremy’s Michigan home and spent quality time getting to know each other, both on hikes and while boating.
“To Jeremy’s credit, he cared a lot about who he was selling the business to. Not just choosing the top-dollar offer, but [the offer that was] going to take care of the team, and take care of the clients,” Chris recalls of the negotiation process. “I think he liked the idea of selling to a person versus selling to a firm, which creates all those integration challenges.”
Jeremy had been focusing on other aspects of his life outside of System Six for a while before selling to Chris. Because of this, Chris brought some renewed enthusiasm to Jeremy’s already strong team. He focused on not rocking the boat too much for the employees.
“I think if I tried to push our team a lot harder, we'd have a big issue. For the most part, people have been happy that the transition wasn't rockier, that there weren't really any big changes,” Chris says.
Recommended viewing: Growth by practice acquisition
System Six has fully embraced the remote work lifestyle, with 28 employees across 14 states. Though Chris guesses that remote work probably leads to more meetings in place of office drop-ins, he’s okay with that tradeoff.
To keep up the team spirit, Chris takes the company on an annual trip. For 2022, he’s looking forward to their group whitewater rafting trip.
And when it comes to providing an excellent client experience, Chris starts with making sure his employees are happy. This means setting client expectations around how the team works. Here’s how he avoids “prickly” clients and bolsters client relationships:
“I talk about it in every sales call to set the precedent of ‘Hey, we are absolutely focused on delivering excellent service to you as a client. But more importantly, we want this to be an awesome place for our team to work. That means we have expectations of you as a client around communication style and communication cadence.’ By talking about it more with clients upfront, they understand.”
Chris is also a proponent of putting the right people in the right seats, making sure each team member is doing work that fulfills them.
“There are team members who want to do more advisory work. So for the clients that want that, we give it to that team member. But we don't need to ask every team member to be an advisor,” Chris explains.
“Some people just want to be great at sending off clean books every month, doing payroll.”
Does Chris hope that System Six will eventually specialize in a certain niche? Sure, but probably not just one.
“We'll have four or five dropdowns on our website of industries we love to serve. But I don't think it's ever going to be planting our flag with just one industry because we're trying to become a decent-sized business,” Chris explains to Stuart.
Although he doesn’t feel there’s enough work for System Six within a single industry, Chris does find that some natural verticals emerge. For example, about 10% to 15% of the company’s new business comes from current client referrals, giving a loose form of a vertical.
Despite this, there are some companies that aren’t a good fit for System Six’s model.
“We don't want to serve a client who just wants very simple plug-and-play outsourced bookkeeping, because they can probably get that done cheaper, whether it's a $50/hour old school bookkeeper or just other firms that have a lower price point,” Chris says. “We're really looking for someone that wants outsourced financial services.”
Chris plans to increase his team again this year, hoping to eventually reach 100 employees. However, he recognizes that rapid growth often comes at the cost of strong team building.
“I think about building a business that's got 100 employees. I don't know if it's five years or seven years. It's not two years, because that would break us. To get to that long-term goal, we've got to build an awesome management team that is excited about joining me to build at scale and put in place more processes and systems,” Chris shares.
One thing that will help Chris work into that future: the time-saving assistance of Karbon. Chris speaks to the ripple effect that Karbon has for firms like System Six.
“Karbon provides services to firms like us to make our jobs easier, so that we can then provide services like that to our clients—taking stuff off their plate, giving back more time. If we sign four clients in a month, that's four business owners that we just made their life a little bit less stressful,” he tells Stuart. “We gave them some time back, whether it is to go spend with their family, or focus on growing their business. That's a pretty nice impact.”