John Geffert is CBIZ’s Legal Goalie

John Geffert helps make CBIZ’s unique business model a model of success

Cleveland-based CBIZ Inc. has grown immensely since John Geffert rejoined the company in the early 2000s after law school and a brief stint in private practice. Now as associate general counsel and assistant secretary, he often acts as the company goalie: the last stop between CBIZ and incurred liability. This is no small task at one of the country’s largest providers of accounting, tax, advisory, employee benefits, retirement planning, and property and casualty insurance services.

John Geffert CBIZ
John Geffert, CBIZPhoto: Sheryl Culp

As CBIZ’s legal goalie, Geffert strategizes and enacts protections—most of which he has managed to standardize—and he looks mainly to one core value when it comes to decisions and interactions with both employees and clients. “We are One CBIZ,” he says. “This is the guide I use.”

For Geffert, success means the development and use of diverse talents to make complex, strategic maneuvers. In fact, the excitement about a team-oriented position is what drew Geffert to in-house legal work, where he gets to be a generalist and provide support across different business lines, touching a variety of areas of the law, when and where needed.

Geffert was introduced to CBIZ as a college-student accounting intern in 1997 and returned after completing his law degree. Geffert wasn’t the only person to see CBIZ’s value: with a track record of maintaining talent, much of the current leadership team joined the company shortly after its inception in the late 1990s. Like many, Geffert always believed in CBIZ, though he admits that it began with a different mind-set as a roll-up.

Not long after launching, the highly decentralized company found itself wobbly and stock plummeted. About fifteen years ago, Geffert began to combat issues of standardizing various practices, from valuation to litigation support, as well as getting the financial services division to use standard contract forms. “The roll up was a bit fast and loose,” he says of the company after it committed to completing dozens of acquisitions each year. “Some of our changes were technical in terms of standardizing protective contract language that has become industry standard and some were art, such as branding our different services to the market.”

Eventually, CBIZ created structures to guide its development. After the company was stabilized, “we began to focus on our strategic vision and execution, and thus saw lots of growth opportunity,” Geffert says. Despite old-guard leaders in the industry questioning CBIZ’s new and innovative business model, he explains, the company now ranks as the country’s tenth largest accounting provider, with total revenue approaching $1 billion and its share price climbing to all-time highs.

Being part of an ever-growing company thrills Geffert. When he arrived, the corporate legal department consisted only of the general counsel, two paralegals, and an administrative assistant, giving Geffert the opportunity to advance his skill set from environmental law and M&A to securities and corporate compliance. Over the past two decades, the department has grown and now also enjoys the cross-functional support of specialists in the field.

He is passionate about protecting CBIZ’s reputation as one of the “Best and Brightest Places to Work.” Serving on the Great People, Great Places committee, Geffert encourages a people-centric environment and helps advance CBIZ’s flexible and understanding culture. “We want people to share opinions,” he says. “It’s not a place that you have to hesitate and wonder if you should. We treat everyone as a professional, and we look for solutions to help each other.”

“We want people to share opinions. It’s not a place where you have to hesitate and wonder if you should.”

Keeping this ideal culture a reality—not just a reputation—is key. Throughout the company’s hiring efforts, CBIZ aims to welcome diverse new staff and celebrate those who are already deeply ingrained into the business. “It does not matter who you hire if they are not actually heard and respected,” Geffert says, which feeds into his philosophy of using everyone’s unique experiences to unite as a team. He says he constantly seeks opportunities to share knowledge, both his own and others’.

Besides adhering to core values that focus on “doing the right thing” with a “dedication to clients’ success,” Geffert identifies another CBIZ strategy for success: “We out-national the locals and out-local the nationals.” Because of the company’s scope, when a client needs something, Geffert says, “We have someone somewhere with national expertise. We can answer nearly every question a small- to mid-sized company might have. But the delivery is local. It is your local accountant or broker, the one who is active in your community that you work with daily.”

As a key player in M&A, and therefore one of the first interactions key sellers have with CBIZ, Geffert takes on the responsibility of demonstrating the culture he’s so proud to help enforce. Understandably, contracts and RFPs are very important, but ultimately, strengthening relationships is what leads to a stronger company.

“We negotiate like crazy to protect ourselves,” Geffert says, “all while trying to be reasonable and approachable in order to maintain relationships.” Though part of the corporate team, he says, “Everyone in the field: those are my clients.” He wants new clients to become a part of the family, to know that they will be important after the deal closes and they become a member of the CBIZ family. The result, Geffert says proudly, is that when people join the team, they like it.

CBIZ has established a national footprint and they will expand their play. They seek to be a company that responds to any issues small or mid-sized businesses might have. Geffert is excited about CBIZ’s key strategy of investing in high growth industries like niche advisory services and continuing to expand its human capital management business—that with sophisticated technology combines group health benefits and payroll into one seamless process with an entire suite of employee services—so CBIZ can better serve the needs and “grow deep roots with clients.”

At the core, Geffert says, it sounds too simple, but the experience of working with the CBIZ team, the idea that they are One CBIZ, comes down to a critical concept, easy to name and difficult to enact: respect.