Wayne Bradford, CPA
Wayne Bradford, CPA credits Bruce Clark and the NCI seminar with saving his life. I’ll let him share that story with you in just a moment. In addition, the program helped him to develop a million dollar accounting, tax and payroll practice that has grown steadily and consistently during its 26-year history, including significant growth each year over the past four years, despite the persistent recession. In the interview, Wayne talks about how the NCI seminar saved his life and helped him grow his practice. He also discusses the proper mindset for approaching the marketing program and how to get the most out of it, along with some things to be aware of while running it.
I have a unique question for you to start this interview. My father, Bruce Clark, the founder and CEO of NCI, is very fond of a piece of correspondence that you sent to him thanking him for saving your life. Can you elaborate on that for our readers?
He did save my life. I attended the Plan 1 Practice Development Seminar in San Diego in 2001. I really thought it was a great seminar and had a lot of potential if implemented. It has to be put into action. I had maybe two accountants on my staff, a secretary and a marketing representative. She was essentially a CSR, although we didn’t use that term until I learned it through NCI. I had recently moved into an office; before that I worked from my home. I was utilizing a marketing approach before the seminar and we were having some success, but the approach wasn’t formalized and organized. So we moved into the office and a few months later I attended the NCI seminar.
The way your dad helped me is that during the seminar we are given a seminar outline book that has some exercises that we worked on during the seminar, in addition to the lectures and presentations. One of those was to set some professional goals for yourself and your practice. After setting some business goals, the next section was about setting some personal goals. The top personal goal I listed was that I needed to get a physical. At that time, I hadn’t had a physical in several years and I was approaching 60 years old. So I thought to myself: I need to get a physical. Without your health, none of the other goals are going to come to pass and your dad talked about this during the seminar.
So, the week after I got back from the seminar I got right to work on my goals. What I’ve found over the years is that I can think about getting a physical every day or hiring new staff or whatever, but if I write it down and look at it regularly to track my progress, I get it done. That’s the key to it, write it down and look at it.
So, I go to get my physical. The next day the doctor called me and told me, “You need to come over here today.” So I thought, “That’s exciting, they’ve never called me like that before.” So the doctor sat me down and he told me, “You have prostate cancer.” From the blood tests they could tell that I had cancer. I had further testing done, which I won’t describe in detail [laughs.] There are several options for treatment and I opted to have the prostate removed and to go from there. I had the procedure done in January of 2002 and I found out that the prostate cancer had already spread to other parts of my body, so I still have cancer and always will have it. The good news is that there are treatments using chemicals to fight the cancer, versus having to do chemo, which is rough on the body. It’s called managing the disease; there’s no cure, but it can be managed.
I’ve been doing this since January of ’02. That’s 11 years ago, and in that period of time I’ve seen my son marry a beautiful woman and give us two wonderful grandchildren: a little boy, six years old and a little girl, three. Life has been good and I give Bruce the credit for probably saving my life and I’m happy and thankful for that. So, that’s the story. It’s worked well up until March of this year; the treatments I’d been taking stopped working. To make a long story short, for the past two months I’ve been going to Memorial Sloane Kettering hospital in New York City. It’s a wonderful hospital; I wish I’d gone there from the beginning. We’re working up a plan for treatment moving forward.
That’s quite a story. I’m sorry to hear that things have taken a turn for the worse recently, but it sounds like you’re getting the best possible care. I know Bruce is very proud that you credit him with saving your life and to hear about some of the milestones you’ve lived to see is very powerful. Thank you for sharing that. Can you tell me a bit about your business background and what led you into running your own accounting practice in the first place?
I’m not sure how much of this you’ll want to put in the article; it’s a long and twisting tale. I was born and raised in Georgia and went to the great University there, undergrad and graduate school. Then I moved to Atlanta and worked for Ernst and Ernst for three years and then I went out on my own. I lived and worked in Atlanta for 18 years. Then my wife’s company was going to transfer the whole division to Arizona and I had sold my practice by that time. I had a little practice with about 10 people on staff. Somebody came by and offered me a deal I couldn’t turn down.
So, my wife asked me how I would like to go to Arizona. I told her I wouldn’t like to go at all; I can’t move that far away from the Georgia Bulldogs. She said, well the company will pay our expenses so let’s go see the sites and look at some houses. So I agreed and I figured she’s two years away from funding in her 401k plan so I said we’ll go out there and stay two years then we’ll come back to Atlanta. Well, that was 25 years ago. Time just slipped by. When I started out in AZ I saw an ad for one of your competitors and I called them up and told them I was starting a practice from scratch. I signed up to use their service, including having someone come out and help me find an office, hire an appointment setter and get some business lists.
For a while I thought I’d never get my first client but eventually we did and then I got more and more. We got off to a good start but we ended up running into some trouble with the marketing firm I utilized. I don’t remember the specifics, but they were not forthright with doing what they said they would do; things didn’t work out. Then I found out that there were other people who had not been satisfied with the service this company was providing. I ended up finding about 15-20 people who had paid this same company and not received the service promised. At some point, I stopped paying for the service because I wasn’t receiving any. The last I heard the owner of the company was arrested, but I don’t know if he served any time. That was around 1987. By 2001, I saw ads for New Clients Inc. and I decided that I needed to refocus on growing my practice so I signed up with NCI and attended the Plan 1 seminar.
Where was your practice in terms of your gross billings in 2001 when you attended the seminar?
I’m thinking I was doing around $100,000 and I wanted to increase that to $150,000. The last clients you’ve signed are the ones that make you the most money. On the first fifty clients, I don’t make any money, but on the next 50 I make about 50% profit. The overhead eats up the first 50, but there is only the labor cost on the more recent clients. So I’m always thinking that the next client I get is the most valuable client I have because that’s where my profit comes from.
That’s a good mindset to have, especially from a marketing standpoint.
Right, so I got busy after the seminar and I hired not one appointment setter but two. I also decided I would try to branch out and offer a payroll service as a new source of revenue. So I went down the hall of my office building and there was a little small office and I said I’m going to rent that and start a payroll company called Accurate Payroll. I put my appointment setters in that office as well. We moved into that office space September 1st of 2001 and I was so excited; we had a ribbon cutting and some cake and punch. Things were off to a good start and, then, 10 days later, 9/11 happened and the whole world just went upside down. That put a real kink in people’s willingness to take risks and open new businesses. If I had scheduled the office to open on October first, I would never have followed through with it. I just happened to set it up tens days before the catastrophe. So we kept at it. We had one appointment setter calling for payroll and one calling for accounting. Then I had my surgery the following January and was out of the office until March.
What a year.
Oh yeah, I could give that one back. So we’ve been growing the practice steadily. Up until this year, we have had some growth all the way through the recession. We lost clients, but we were able to recoup them. I’ve been doing this for almost 15 years. The program works but it takes commitment, it takes money and it takes patience, but it works. The thing with a lot of accountants is that they are reluctant to spend money hoping that somewhere down the line they’ll get it back. That’s a leap of faith. Also, accountants generally have no clue how to market; they’re practitioners. They want to sit at their computer with their green eye shade on and do their thing. But if you’re starting a practice and managing a practice, you have to be more than a technician.
That’s a great point.
There are two ways to go about this. If you just want to be a sole practitioner working out of your house or a small office, that’s fine. You can make a living and work your way through life and meet your responsibilities. If you want to make money, you need to stop being an accountant and start being a business owner and a manager of people and resources. I can tell you that is an agonizing process, even if that’s what you want and have committed yourself to.
What has been your biggest challenge in running the marketing program?
Finding and retaining good appointment setters is an ongoing challenge. The rejection they face is tough. One time I said, “Well, heck, I can call these numbers and talk to people.” I lasted one day.
I think that’s a good idea actually, to put yourself in the shoes of an appointment setter, even if it’s only for one day. It’s a brutal job and I think the importance of that position often gets overlooked. So I think it’s good to appreciate what they are dealing with day to day.
You need to walk in their shoes to know what they are up against.
Exactly, what is the overall size of your practice now?
We gross a little more than a million a year now. We’ve been increasing in gross billing by about $50,000 a year during the last four years. I’ve developed a good, strong, solid organization with good employees that becomes more profitable every year. We do about 1,500 returns a year and I process about 100 of them. Most of the work goes through my staff. If a client has a difficult issue to deal with, it gets run up to me to handle.
That’s really the goal of having an organizational aspect to your practice. The staff handles the majority of the day-to-day work. If something more complex comes out of that, then the owner can step in to address it. The great thing about it is that it frees you up to focus more on the bigger picture for the practice and in life in general. For example, you now go to New York for a week each month to get treated for your cancer. The practice needs to be able to run itself to a certain extent when you are away like that. Something to consider for our readers, if something were to happen to you, could your practice continue to operate without your input for days or weeks or even months? In fact, this months CEO’s Corner deals with this exact issue of what happens to your practice if something happens to you. What advice do you have for someone considering our marketing programs?
It’s a good program that gives you a process to follow so you don’t need to figure it all out on your own. The people at NCI have spent years developing this formalized program that tells you what to do and in what order to do it. If you decide you want to grow an accounting practice, you have to learn how to manage people and resources; you cannot do everything, but you can hire people to help you. Also keep in mind that you don’t get a reward during the first several months of a marketing program commensurate with what your costs are. You’ve got to be willing to invest a lot of time and money to get to the next level. It’s a daunting process and it’s taken me a lifetime to bring the practice to where it is now. Unfortunately, I turned 69 yesterday and my health is failing, but I feel like I can say, “I got there.”
With a million dollar practice I think it’s fair to say you’ve arrived. Happy birthday, by the way.
Thank you, my staff and I had a nice “Georgia picnic” as we call it with fried chicken, potato salad, pecan pie. It was great. So anyway, you’ve got to start being a business owner rather than a technician. I’m a fairly good accountant, I can get the job done and my secret to success is “Show up early and work like hell.” Those are two things that will make you successful. You have to be willing to pass work off to your staff, and it’s difficult because you know that you could do it faster and more accurately, but, you need to know when to delegate. Trying to do everything yourself is a fatal mistake if you want to grow beyond a certain point. That is a whole different mindset and a whole different business than being a good accountant.
What advice do you have for clients currently running the marketing program?
Don’t give up. You need to do this and make it a priority. If you say, “I’ll do my marketing when I get some spare time and there’s no work to do,” you’ll never do any marketing. You have to make a commitment and go with it and not look back.
How many clients does your firm service?
We have about 300 monthly accounting clients to go with our 1,500 tax returns. I do want to mention that NCI’s marketing program is the foundation and the core of our growth. The program works and it works on a long-term basis if you commit to it. That commitment includes your appointment setter’s hourly pay, and paying a CSR a living wage [under Plan 2]. So you need some working capital to support yourself until the cash flow turns and comes back your way.
That’s a good thing to point out. To start any business you need working capital, especially if you want to aggressively market that business and grow it quickly. At the same time, you have to look at the big picture, especially with the NCI marketing program. Like you said, you are planting seeds for future success. It doesn’t happen overnight.
There are two ways you are rewarded in the long term from the program. The first is that if you sign up 50 monthly clients at $300 a month, that’s $15,000 per month that you’re making, which is enough to provide a nice living for someone. You just need to get from 0 to 50 clients. The other side of it is that you have value there if/when you want to sell those clients. This book of 50 clients is worth about $250,000. Accountants tend not to look at the fact that they are building a revenue stream that is also worth a lot of money to somebody else.
I also wanted to point out that I have purchased a few practices over the years that contributed to my growth and in getting to the million dollars in gross billings. Those acquisitions account for approximately $200,000 to $300,000 of the gross. Also, the more ambitious members of my staff, maybe five people, are also involved in various networking groups and they bring in clients through that and through referrals.
Very true, when it comes to selling accounting practices it is absolutely a seller’s market. You get a premium when selling write-up and tax work because it’s relatively easy to transfer that type of work to a new owner. We broker the sale of practices for our clients when they sell and I can say with confidence that a write-up and tax practice will typically sell for 1.25x gross billings, sometimes as high as 1.5. So, in building a practice like this, an accountant is also building a tremendous asset that can be sold to retire on or to build capital for a new venture.
Can you sum up your feelings on NCI and our marketing programs to wrap up the interview?
It’s a good, workable program if you follow the model. You can’t do it halfway or when you get around to it. It has to be a top priority. It’s the engine that’s going to pull the train. This is the thing that makes it go.
Wayne, I’d like to thank you again for taking time out of your very busy schedule to do this interview and share your thoughts and experience with our readers. Good luck with your treatments and with the practice moving forward.
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.