Stick to Your Mission

“We recognized that we could only be all things to some people, not all things to all people.” —Harry Moehringer

Harry Moehringer talks about building a high-performing firm in a competitive industry

New York is full of accounting firms. To survive, they need to know the markets they serve and the clients they support. Harry Moehringer, managing partner of Marks Paneth & Shron LLP (MP&S), tells us how industry and niche expertise, along with a strong culture of client service, give MP&S an edge in a crowded marketplace.

1. Stick to your mission

At MP&S, the firm’s mission statement isn’t just a motto, it’s the way they approach every client interaction and business situation. “It’s one of the most important concepts we have in our firm,” Moehringer says. “It’s who we are.” That mission is talked about regularly, from employee-training sessions to partners’ meetings. It guides the team on what they’re doing today and what they should be focusing on tomorrow. “We have a specific mission statement that we refer to all the time when we make decisions,” Moehringer says.

If the management team is ever unsure about how to move forward, they go back to the core of the mission statement. It’s not only how the firm conducts business, it’s how it provides clients with outstanding support and world-class expertise. “We recognized that we could only be all things to some people, not all things to all people,” Moehringer says. In just 30 years, that core principle has helped MP&S grow into one of the top 50 accounting firms in the country.

2. Have the right leadership

Forcing a traditional management framework around the highly client-centric firm didn’t make sense for MP&S. Instead, the team realized the leadership structure should be a little bit different. “We run our firm with two comanaging partners, which is part of what’s unique about us,” Moehringer says.

Over the years, the team has found that having two managing partners really works for them. And while it could be a difficult situation if both leaders were headstrong and at odds with each other on a regular basis, this hasn’t been the case. Even the firm’s succession plan supports the leadership vision. “There were two comanaging partners prior to me, both of whom were in their sixties,” Moehringer says. “The firm concluded that we wanted to move toward the next generation, and I was elected by the partners to replace one of those managing partners.” The dual-leader strategy allows for new ideas to come into the firm, while maintaining the hard-won knowledge of the company’s veterans.

3. Manage business cycles

“We have a joke around here,” Moehringer says. “We say, ‘Our busy season starts a little early. It usually begins around November 1 and ends around October 31.’” The accounting landscape was much more cyclical 20 years ago, Moehringer explains, but complex auditing rules and tax extension time frames have evened out many of the slow and busy times. Increasing diversity in practice types also means that formerly quiet periods have ramped up. “We have a very large not-for-profit practice, and those entities tend to be on fiscal years,” Moehringer explains. “So they have a whole different busy season.”

Carefully allocating personnel to the various areas helps smooth out the bumps, and technology helps, too. “We now have the ability to do many things off-site or in the cloud,” Moehringer says. “Our staff and our clients have laptops and Internet access, so they can access files or log into the network remotely.” Before you know it, work is scheduled throughout the year and “it seems like there’s never a downtime.”

4. Be the right size

With MP&S’s laser focus on providing clients with personalized attention, it’s no mystery that the company is more interested in being the right size rather than in being the biggest. “We believe that the firm’s size matters,” Moehringer says, “But the biggest is not necessarily the best.” MP&S runs 400–500 people, which, in an area like New York, gives them the depth of expertise to be highly competitive while still being nimble.

The size also allows the partners to spend their time focusing on serving clients in addition to looking for new accounts. “It’s very important to us that the clients don’t feel like they’re only dealing with junior staff,” Moehringer says. “We want them to know that they have a relationship with at least one partner of the firm.” The partners have the time to develop relationships with clients and understand their particular business or personal situations, something that feeds into the firm’s mission to provide outstanding service.

5. Be flexible but cohesive

Part of the MP&S mission is to be a regional firm. “We have three offices, but they’re not too far from each other,” Moehringer says. With locations in Manhattan, Long Island, and Westchester County, MP&S has kept its entire team within 50 miles of each other. It’s something that helps to reinforce the strong culture of the firm while also providing clients with easy access to a professional with deep knowledge in their industry. Each office has its own personality with all the skills and capabilities needed to best serve the clients in its specific geographic area. “In some instances the tone is a little lower key in one office than in another,” Moehringer explains.

The arrangement is ideal for maintaining a widespread presence, but doesn’t interfere with communication between employees. It means that partners are able to visit each office regularly and can also meet face-to-face without schedule disruptions. Moehringer believes the most important factor is how the structure affects clients and the relationships they have with the firm. “The clients know their accountants are nearby,” he says.

6. Know your areas of expertise

In keeping with its vision to be all things to some people, MP&S has established itself around what it does best. “We really focus on specific areas that we are very good at and have built a practice in,” Moehringer says.

MP&S’s clients know of the firm’s stellar reputation in particular specialties, and even when new practice areas are brought into the fold, management is careful to ensure the necessary resources are onboard to support them. “Our deep knowledge in these specialty areas fosters the development of very long-term relationships with clients,” Moehringer says. “We are always looking for a competitive advantage relative to other firms, so the team at MP&S understands they must excel through their knowledge. You really have to show a client that you understand who they are, what their business is, and how you can help them.”