Linda Chapekis, CPA
This interview is a companion to the interview we ran in December of 2013. That previous interview was with Ted Chapekis who is Linda’s husband and CSR set a new NCI sales record of 18 clients in one week. Linda is the accountant and manager of the million dollar practice that they have built together following the NCI marketing model. Ted and Linda decided to utilize the NCI Plan 2 Client Acquisition program to grow Linda’s small base of large clients into a large base of small- to medium-sized clients that could support their family when Ted left his job with Chrysler. Linda talks about her experience within the program and offers a lot of good advice on both marketing and processing.
Please tell me about you background in accounting and what lead you to owning your own practice.
I’d always been in industry accounting. I started out as a CFO for the only 5 star hotel in Detroit. This was about 25 years ago. Eventually I was asked to be the CFO of larger corporations and their accounting departments would report to me and I’d report to the owner. That’s how I came to start my business. Then my husband Ted left his position with Chrysler and we decided to expand my business with a new focus on small- to medium-sized businesses instead of the larger corporations I’d been used to working with.
What was your feeling on making that change to a smaller client? Were you reluctant to go in that direction or were you ready to embrace it?
I was ready to embrace it. Ted and I are more entrepreneurial, we enjoy the game of growing a business, that’s fun for us. To be able to grow the business quickly we needed to delve into the small- to medium-size business market. The challenge was trying to figure out a way to deliver a similar service to what I had provided the larger clients to the smaller clients. It took quite a while, but we’ve been able to figure that out.
The NCI program helped with that, correct?
Yes, we’ve taken the base model of NCI and tweaked it as we’ve grown.
That’s fairly standard. The NCI model works; we know that from 27 years experience. At the same time, each person and each business is different. Different approaches work for different people. I think that a lot of our most successful clients take the NCI approach and run with it and ultimately make it their own in some way.
Absolutely, as an example, as you grow you add more layers. We have a new client manager that we’ve had for quite a while that just handles new clients coming in so it doesn’t bog down the accountants. You wouldn’t have that when you’re just starting out. I remember one week early in the program where Ted signed on 18 new clients.
Wow. I think that might be the record for a single week!
I had to stop him selling for a while just to catch up! I think one of the hardest things in this business is making sure we get all the information from the clients, we’re always telling them, “help us help you.” Initially, a lot of them don’t understand that there is a training process. That’s what our new client manager does also, makes sure that the new clients are trained in what we need and making sure that we get everything we need because that’s very time consuming.
Right, the program advocates the owner to do those setup meetings with new clients, which I think is very important early on when you are developing a reputation for the company and you have more time for those kinds of things.
Exactly, I’m very lucky; I don’t do any work anymore I just get all the credit! [Laughs.]
That’s another one of the overarching ideas behind the NCI marketing program, to develop an organizational aspect to your business and the revenue to support it so that you can step back and enjoy the fruits of your labor and also focus on bigger picture items like client problems and managing the overall business.
I remember in talking with Ted that you found NCI during an online search when you were headed in this new direction with the business. Did you have any reservations before signing up for the Plan 2 program?
We did, the cost was a consideration. We also wanted to make sure we were sufficiently capitalized to support the program. In the previous business I didn’t market, I got all of my business through referrals. So we had never done any marketing before and we wondered if that would work for an accounting firm.
My dad had a large accounting firm and I grew up in it. He always grew mainly through acquisition so it was a new approach for me. I remember several years spending January through April in the basement helping him prepare his tax work.
In the practice now we only do tax work for clients who we provide monthly accounting throughout the year. This way, tax season isn’t crazy busy for us like it is for a lot of firms. Plus the focus on monthly accounting creates cash flow year round. It’s also higher quality work versus trying to cram a year’s worth of work into four months.
That’s a great point. You want to be able to deliver the attention to detail that good accountants are known for. What has been the biggest challenge in running the marketing program?
Ted really handles that, but I’d say staffing has been the biggest challenge. Some of the appointment setters can be a bit challenging. Right now we have one part-time appointment setter working and Ted does a little bit of prospecting. About 50% of our new clients come from referrals at this point.
In talking with Ted he mentioned that you are looking to ramp up growth significantly again. You’re at a million in gross billings now and you want to get to 3 million. How are you planning on approaching that goal?
Yes, we absolutely want to keep growing pretty significantly. I was in sales previously; I think my personality tends to run more to the sales side than the accounting side. So we’re trying to get me to a point where I can do some more national sales.
Do you service clients nationally now?
Internationally, we’ve got clients in Southern Monaco, Mexico, China, India and Luxembourg to name a few. We’ve had some clients here in the U.S. that moved or expanded into a different country so they just stayed with us.
Is it a challenge to do taxes in other countries? How does that work?
It’s very challenging. Typically there will be a partner in the foreign country that we work with and they produce the taxes that are required by that country. We coordinate to make sure we’re producing what needs to be done here. We still produce the monthly financials for these clients which are needed for both sets of taxes. Our clients still fly in to see us too which is nice, we usually still get to see them a few times a year.
With technology in its current state, you really can service clients anywhere in the world with relative ease.
I was just talking about that. When we first started, things were more manual. Now we get everything online from about 80% of our clients.
What advice would you give to someone currently running the NCI marketing program?
I’d have to second what Ted said about sticking to the program. I think sometimes we tend to veer off and try a lot of other things, but you have to stick to the basics through the ups and downs. We have constantly stuck with the program and used appointment setting. That’s the biggest thing. Another thing is that we’ve called Bruce [Clark] a couple times over the years for support and I think it’s important that your clients utilize your company in that way. Another big one is goal setting and sticking with your goals. Ted is big on that and I know your father is too. It’s easy to lose sight of them and get stuck on the day-to-day treadmill. Ted has always been good about tracking our goals and holding my feet to the fire on that.
Definitely, we offer unlimited support for a reason! You mentioned some difficulty keeping up with things on the processing side; can you offer any advice on that topic?
We provide a checklist to clients to make sure they get us everything we need, which is part of the NCI program. With processing now we try to get everything electronically, that’s the goal.
Do you get resistance to that?
We do run into some resistance. At this point there are probably only a couple of clients out of hundreds that we don’t have the login information for their accounts. One of them is a security guy, so it’s people like that. I always just tell them with all the information I’m going to have I could do a lot more than I could with your bank logins. I’m surprised we don’t get more resistance to it actually. We also require all our clients to pay us through ACH [auto-debit.] We don’t run into any resistance with that because we insist on it. A lot of banks have accountant logins now too, which is nice. In those cases we get our own separate login.
Do you have any tips on handling back work?
We make sure to always get signed back work agreement before we do anything. We weren’t good about that initially.
Good idea. Do you still use the NCI pricing model or have you adjusted that?
We have made some adjustments. We take into account the number of balance sheet accounts the business has when quoting a price. Ted also has a list of all the banks that we can download from directly, so if a client doesn’t use a bank on the list we increase the fee a bit. Also, Ted now looks at the overall level of organization the business has when he’s there and will adjust the price somewhat based on that.
Very interesting, thank you for the insight. Can you sum up your feelings on your experience with the NCI program and the success you’ve been able to generate because of it?
It’s been wonderful. I think we wouldn’t have achieved what we have without starting out with NCI and following your model, and I would have never tried that model on my own so it’s been wonderful.
Linda we really appreciate your kind words and advice and you taking time out of your undoubtedly busy schedule. Good luck on your new goal of reaching 3 million in billings!
Chris Clark is the oldest son of New Clients Inc. founder and CEO Bruce Clark. He has worked as a Senior Account Executive at NCI for the past four years. During that time he has presented at the Practice Development Seminar on Internet and E-mail marketing and he also plays the prospective client during the seminar role play sessions. Chris also edits and contributes to the NCI newsletter, New Client News.