Small town firm, big vision: Gary Wood’s pursuit of a satisfying life

  • Gary Wood, Partner at Compere Robinette CPAs (CRC), discusses the benefits and challenges of leading a small accounting firm in small-town America on the sixth episode of the Accounting Leaders Podcast.

  • Small firms allow accountants to form meaningful relationships with clients and deepen service offerings, while also following a client throughout a business’s life cycle.

  • Leaders of small accounting firms must support one another in the industry. By sharing resources and knowledge, CPAs can form think tanks that help small firms thrive. 

What does a small-town guy heading a small firm have to say about the accounting industry? Quite a lot.

Gary Wood started his accounting career on a traditional trajectory. He joined a 40-person firm and lived the daily grind with the idea of becoming a partner dangling in front of him like a carrot.

But the ‘work, work, work (and then work some more)’ mindset didn't sit well with him. So at the age of 31, Gary set out to find another way—a better way.  

He packed up his desk and headed back to his hometown, Ozark, Missouri. There, he purchased Compere Robinette CPAs (CRC), an 12-person firm ready to transition to the second generation of leadership. Together with his partners, Gary transformed the traditional, 30-year-old accounting firm into a modern, firm of the future.

As a business executive and family man, Gary's focused on building a comfortable but fulfilling life. He recalls attending his first national conference years ago. The AICPA played a video featuring a man riding a Harley Davidson, pulling up to his family's beach house, and throwing some crab legs on the grill for dinner. 

It showed Gary what life as an accountant could be—a far cry from other jobs built around manual labor.

"It's the recruiting pitch that speaks to me," says Gary. "I want to have a nice life, but I don't want to work 5,000 hours a year." 

Gary's been in pursuit of ‘the nice life’ ever since, although he’s also wary of how CPAs can easily slip into burnout culture.

On episode six of the Accounting Leaders Podcast, Gary and Stuart McLeod, CEO of Karbon, discuss the pivotal role of a small firm in supporting work-life balance. They also tackle how the industry needs to shift its messaging when appealing to aspiring accountants and what legacy Gary hopes to leave. 

Networking is a necessity, especially for small firm owners

Owning a small accounting firm comes with a unique set of challenges, some of which became especially clear at the onset of the pandemic. 

"In the business community, so many of the [COVID-19] economic relief programs… required working with a professional in an advisory relationship," explains Gary. "[Firms had to] filter some of those legislative changes and interpret and analyze what it means and how to do it." 

While larger firms could turn to their bountiful team to understand these new legislative changes, their smaller counterparts had to unpack the same questions with much less support. 

For Gary, his network saved the day. 

"I'm pretty active in the small firm community," he explains. As a graduate of AICPA's Leadership Academy and a charter member of AICPA's networking group for young CPA firm owners, Gary didn't have a large pool of resources for interpreting PPP rules. But he did have a slew of industry friends and contacts who were experiencing similar challenges. 

Instead of working in silos, they worked together. 

"We needed resources that larger firms had. We needed resources outside of our four walls," Gary states. And so, Gary's network of accounting firm owners (which includes a think tank of accountants he's gotten to know over Twitter) came together to problem solve as a team. 

Gary knows that he isn't the only firm owner craving connection right now. As a leader of AICPA's Annual Engage Conference, he’s made difficult decisions with the planning committee about how to structure Engage's programming in light of the pandemic. This year's conference used a hybrid model. 

It was a tough decision because Gary understands the power of personal connections. As a small firm owner, sometimes it feels like he's on an island. But when Gary attends Engage, he's quickly reminded that he's not alone. 

Right-sizing your team and your clients  

Gary is a passionate advocate for small firms. With less red tape to navigate, smaller firms have more capacity for actual relationship building.

"I was able to mail out birth announcements for my son to all of my clients," boasts Gary. It's something that wouldn't have been possible in an enormous firm with a big caseload.

CRC's 12-person team allows accountants to build meaningful relationships with their clients.

Gary himself has emotionally invested in his clients as individuals and in the success of their businesses. He believes that accountants are helpers by nature and that helping feels exponentially rewarding when you follow a client throughout their journey.  

This also benefits business, as CRC sorts its clients based on life cycle—a system that requires accountants to understand the companies that they serve. It tailors services and communication to fit each client's specific needs by identifying where a company is in its journey.

Gary's favorite scenario is to support a company from its launch through to maturation. 

I have so many of those [client] relationships that I'm so proud of. Those are the relationships where it doesn't feel like work.

Gary Wood, CRC

The life cycle model has allowed CRC to right-size its customer base, going deeper with pre-existing clients instead of casting a wider net. This strategy, coincidentally, served Gary and his team well at the onset of the pandemic, as they were able to focus on the needs of their carefully curated client list.

Painting a better picture to recruit new accountants

Gary loves his clients and his work, but he also loves his family. Wanting both shouldn’t be asking for too much.

Gary shares that he struggled with the old, large-firm model that expected him to put work before everything else to pursue the coveted partner status. (“If you haven’t lost your soul at that point,” laughs Stuart.)

It’s a cultural mindset that a lot of millennials, including Gary, reject. It’s why Gary found his way to CRC, and it’s also why talented accountants are leaving the profession in droves. Unfortunately, the 18-month-long tax season that has resulted from COVID-19 isn’t helping matters. 

Burnout in the accounting industry is more prevalent than ever before. Adding the stress of overseeing the dissemination of pandemic relief funds to an already-intense job has created an unsustainable work culture. 

Gary believes that recruiting strategies must change because the old ways aren’t cutting it anymore. And according to him, small firms are the blueprint to a prosperous and balanced life in accounting. 

To recruit more young professionals into the accounting industry, the messaging needs to shift to: “Hey, this job will give you a nice life—and you’ll be helping people in the process.” 

“The beach house is possible,” says Gary. “Will you be a gazillionaire? No. But you’ll be very comfortable. You’ll do important work and you’ll be satisfied.” 

Gary believes his blueprint can change the reality for young aspiring accountants—the Gary Wood, Jrs. of the world. If he escaped the grind and found a way to practice meaningful accounting while still having time for his family, then others can, too. 

For Gary, it’s no longer about wearing the ‘busy badge of honor’ but instead about improving the people's lives in his community through valuable services delivered in personable ways. 

Designing it right 

In his journey as a second-generation accounting leader, Gary's learned many lessons the hard way. Through trial and error and countless tough decisions, he’s built a forward-thinking, contemporary firm—he's found a blueprint for balance. "It's all about designing it right," he tells Stuart. 

He wants others to be able to do the same, but without the same pain points. 

When asked about his legacy, Gary is less focused on growing CRC and more concerned with helping other aspiring accounting leaders run their own accounting firms in small towns across America. He dreams of being able to provide a blueprint that others can follow. 

Gary wants to help fellow accountants pursue ‘the nice life’ by finding (or founding) right-sized firms. And perhaps, when they arrive, he'll be manning the grill, ready to serve up some crab legs.