From the Dec. 2012 Issue.
Every business owner knows that flexibility is a requirement for success. Being able to adapt to changing customer needs, vendor issues and work schedules is a part of the job requirement, whether the business is a shoe store, a restaurant or an accounting firm.
Brian Shaltakoff has taken this flexibility to what some might see as an extreme, but it’s led to a remarkably successful practice.
The CPA initially started his career working at Big 4 firms Arthur Andersen and KPMG Peat Marwick, then at J.P. Morgan and other financial services firms. In 1996 he started doing a few tax returns, mostly for other professionals working in the financial services sector. By 2007, this entrepreneurial activity had grown to more than 300 clients, and he saw the opportunity to open his own practice.
“When I reached about 300 returns, I realized I had to strongly consider whether to work solely for myself,” Brian said. “The advantages and benefits of finally outweighed the security of being an employee.”
He noted that he also couldn’t continue to serve that many clients, especially given the comprehensive approach to clients which he demands of his firm, while also having another job. “I’ve always emphasized customer service and only took on clients when I had the time and resources to give them the best service and attention they needed. So I place an emphasis on having the processes in place before adding more than I can handle.”
Today, the practice, Brian Shaltakoff CPA PLLC (www.brianshaltakoffcpa.com), is a full-service accounting firm with more than 550 clients in the U.S. and internationally, but with minimal full-time staff. How can a sole practitioner manage that many clients alone? That’s where his extensive flexibility, engagement management strengths and effective use of technology emerge.
The majority of his engagements are still tax-focused, but the firm has expanded to also include estate planning, elder care finance issues, litigation support, payroll, business consulting, CFO services and succession planning.
During busy season, he ramps up with three to four temporary staff members, including another professional for review processes, and an administrator. Also, since his practice has been mostly digital in nature since he started it, client interaction is mostly by email or phone.
He still plans to grow his practice, with an effort at increasing profitability per client. “I’m earning less per client than I think I should be, and I think it’s because they are younger on average than most accounting and tax firms have. The disadvantage to this is that they are much more engaged with technology and often have a DIY perspective on their finances. So the key is reinforcing the value message of a CPA’s services which are as much about confidence and risk avoidance, as it is about producing a fairly-priced return.”
Using some of the latest technologies, including a completely web-based tax compliance, engagement and document management suite, Brian is also able to share files securely with clients through the system, and it allows him to access it from anywhere, which has allowed him to retain a New York City office, also working from home in Boulder, Colorado.
Just as new technologies have given him the ability to work where and when he wants, Brian extends that flexibility to his clients, most of whom send their documents to him electronically. In fact, he has not met many of his clients in person.
“A couple of them call me Charlie, as in the boss from Charlie’s Angels, because I’m a voice on the phone that they never see.” Client service still remains his top priority.
“I have clients across the country and overseas, so I try to be available when it’s convenient for them,” he said. He says that sometimes he takes client callas at midnight or later, although most client interaction is during the day, while late evening is when he focuses on reviewing and processing returns.
The majority of his clients are in the Northeast, including some friends and former colleagues who’ve been a little envious of the freedom that the change in careers has given him. However, he admits that during the height of tax season it’s not unusual for him to work as late as 2:00 am.
That said, his use of advanced professional technologies is what has enabled him to build a virtual practice, which allows him to spend as much time with his family as he wants, including meals and attending his childrens’ school and sports events.
Brian’s firm scored a 193 on CPA Practice Advisor’s Productivity Survey (www.CPAPracticeAdvisor.com/productivity), a free online tool that helps professional tax and accounting firms measure how effective their workflow practices and technologies are, and benchmark them to similar practices.
His interest in accounting and finance started in in high school, where he enjoyed classes in math and accounting. He then received dual undergraduate degrees in accounting and finance, and an MBA in Business Administration from New York University’s Stern School of Business.
An active outdoorsman, Brian tries to get on the ski slopes as much as he can before the tax season starts, and also enjoys hiking and camping. He also works out with weights and an elliptical machine every day, including during tax season.
To unwind at the end of tax season, he “gets back to serenity” by taking some alone time in the mountains or traveling. Last year, he went to Port Hardy, a rugged area on the northern tip of Vancouver Island, British Columbia, which is known for its wilderness adventures, kayaking, caving, diving and fishing.
Brian’s wife Caren occasionally helps with the practice and is an entrepreneur in her own right, with an organizational consulting business called Clutter Be Gone (www.ClutterBeGone.net). “She’s consulted other entities for years on business efficiency issues, including time and virtual office conversion/ongoing procedure. Why not for me?” And yes, she also takes some personal vacation time to unwind a couple of times a year.
The Shaltakoffs and their sons like attending football games, and also spend time together exploring the mountains. Brian still has New York in his blood, though, and is a diehard Yankees fan.
Brian Shaltakoff, CPA, MBA - Managing Member
Firm Name: Brian Shaltakoff CPA, PLLC
Location: New York City and Boulder, Colorado
Practice Specialties: Tax compliance and planning for small businesses & busy professionals
Education: BAs in Accounting and Finance, Univ. of Connecticut; MBA, NYU Stern College of Business.
Favorite Vacation Spot: Tofino, British Columbia, Canada