Bernie and Jason Ackerman, the father-son powerhouse behind BNA, join Karbon’s Stuart McLeod on the Accounting Leaders Podcast to discuss why they no longer use timesheets and how they’re enhancing the family business with tech.
Hands-off tax preparation software is an inadequate replacement for client engagement. Relationships still matter. When you build a loyal team, you can create long-term personal partnerships and offer higher-value services.
Accounting lags behind other industries in adopting transformational tech. Jason explains the kind of solutions firms need in order to maintain trusted client relationships, and why he believes it’ll be a while before the industry catches up.
You’d think four decades in accounting would mean witnessing a seismic shift across the industry. But the most noticeable change Bernie Ackerman has seen is the average accountant’s attire.
Back when he founded BNA in 1977, Bernie wore a suit and tie to meet with clients. Over the years, he has built a team of 30 rockstar professionals. And while the dress code has evolved for the better, the tax code, unfortunately, has not.
BNA specializes in tax, accounting, and consulting services for dentists, physicians, and attorneys. Bernie has built lasting relationships with his clients, some of whom he’s guided from the startup phase to the multimillion-dollar business stage.
His son, Jason Ackerman, started working at the firm in 2012 after three years at KPMG. Jason didn’t want colleagues to assume he was hired just because he’s the boss’ son. He felt he had to prove he was worth his salt. Bernie says he’s done just that by bringing BNA into the 21st century.
Since Jason joined the team, BNA has streamlined its systems and expanded its offerings with smart partnerships, a bit of risk-taking, and powerful accounting and payroll software.
Bernie and Jason recently sat down with Karbon's founder and CEO, Stuart McLeod, on episode eight of the Accounting Leaders Podcast. They covered how their firm’s loyal team has been integral to their success, and why accounting firms should drop the partnership model and push for client-centered tech.
Bernie and Jason also talk about what it’s like to work with each other and how they balance their generational differences. Plus, they cover Jason’s foodie blog (and Stuart’s pursuit of the perfect scrambled eggs).
Bernie credits BNA’s incredible team with the firm’s lasting success. He believes in creating an environment that makes people want to come to work—even if they’re showing up remotely.
“The key to any business, especially an accounting business, is low turnover of your people and your customers,” he says.
In a one-to-one business like accounting, loyal employees encourage loyal clients.
There are several ways Bernie and Jason have held onto their team over the years.
During tax season, the BNA team keeps relatively normal hours:
40-hour workweeks instead of the usual 70-to-80-hour weeks most CPAs are accustomed to.
No mandatory Saturdays either. They value their staff’s time and families by allowing flexible schedules.
And they offered remote work even before COVID-19 hit.
This flexibility is possible because they’ve completely removed timesheets, and as a result, the extensive administrative work needed for complicated hourly billing.
“The only people who track time are prisoners.”
Instead of keeping arbitrary (often fudged) minute-by-minute records of tasks by client, Jason explains, they take the value-added approach to pricing.
BNA moved to a fixed-price model about seven years ago and has had success implementing what Jason describes as “pricing based on the value you possess instead of how much time it takes you.” In the near future, they’d like to move to a subscription model.
By prioritizing value, Bernie and Jason free up their team to solve clients’ more complex (i.e., more high-dollar) accounting problems, proving themselves indispensable.
Time tracking methods aren’t the only thing holding back the accounting space.
“The business model has got to change in the CPA industry,” Bernie says on the podcast.
He proposes that firms move from the partnership model, in which the entire business system lacks integration and flexibility, to a traditional corporate structure.
In a partnership, the types of decisions that could transform accounting firms aren’t typically made quickly. The push-pull of deliberation amongst partners can take months. In the meantime, your team is struggling without the supportive software or efficient new process they need now.
With a clear hierarchy, decision-making is much smoother and everybody wins—including your clients.
Developing and adopting new tech is needed to move the industry forward alongside the rest of the world. But Jason says tech adoption can’t come at the expense of strong relationships with clients. People need people just as much as they need software.
“Firms have just assumed that technology does all the work for you now, but it doesn’t.”
Stuart points out that because accounting is document-heavy, paperwork management is the focus of a lot of accounting software solutions.
Jason wants to see accounting technology facilitate the ease of interaction with clients. So many of the personal services we now use are trackable (think DoorDash orders). We’re accustomed to constant communication from companies up until the moment when we pick up or receive an order or attend an appointment.
Not only would the same level of attentiveness in accounting offer peace of mind for clients, Jason says, but it would significantly replace internal manual input.
Happy clients who can track what’s happening with their tax and accounting transactions in real-time will make for happy accountants who have the time and energy to make a bigger impact for their clients.
Moving your firm into the future doesn’t have to mean leaving behind the connections you’ve already established. Embracing new tech will strengthen your relationships once you make it through the growing pains.
Recommended reading: The essential questions to ask when building your accounting firm’s ideal tech stack
Along with a notoriously complicated and outdated tax code, Jason says the accounting industry in the US is plagued by an ineffective education system. It takes a new hire three to five years to learn the ins and outs of tax preparation and truly feel comfortable.
The industry might be stuck in the mud, but your firm doesn’t have to accept that reality.
BNA isn’t waiting. It’s moving forward by leaps and bounds: Bernie and Jason have moved away from filing EZ tax returns and are expanding to offer complementary services like investment advising via a partnership with a local brokerage. They’re branching out in ways that most accounting firms haven’t considered.
“We’re not going to make 100% of the decisions right, but we’ve got to try some things,” Jason says in the episode.
Bernie echoes his son’s sentiment: “Someone’s got to not be afraid to make decisions, and you’re going to make some bad ones.”
The willingness to take risks when it matters is what keeps this family duo and their community-rooted firm alive and well. They’re accustomed to change, so when big external events—like a pandemic—shake things up, they’re ready to adapt and help their clients in other ways (with PPP loan applications, for example).
Bernie, Jason, and the team at BNA don’t want to be the type of accounting professionals who review tax returns for people they’ve never met.
They know that the greatest value in accounting doesn’t lie in those one-off jobs. It’s in offering the kind of advice you can only get from people you trust.
Their closeness and familial loyalty extends to their clients, too.
“When your clients are your friends, you can really have meaningful conversations with them,” says Jason.
Those conversations—combined with a tech stack that streamlines their processes—are the bridge to that prized advisory role. In other words, it takes a fusion of old-school and new-school methods, which is the very foundation of this father-son team.