A Less Taxing Workplace

January 30, 2006
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GRAND RAPIDS — At many companies, employees who reach their 10th year of service are rewarded with four weeks of paid vacation time. At accountancy firm Plante & Moran, that reward comes around the 10th minute of service.

The Southfield-based firm of 1,600 recognizes that the best way it can compete with the “Big Four” accountancy firms is to offer a stellar work environment. Liberal vacation policies, flexible scheduling, extensive training, and a strong sense of collaboration have resulted in satisfied, hard-working CPAs and a national reputation. The company was recently named to Fortune Magazine’s 100 Best Companies To Work For list for the eighth year in a row.

Why? Free day care. Lots of parties. Barbeques on the deck. “Frazzled Friday” happy hours. Extremely flexible schedules. Extensive, desirable training. And, perhaps most importantly, a general sense of friendship and family.

George Riddering, managing partner at Plante & Moran’s Grand Rapids office, said that the company’s caring, supportive attitude starts from the senior partners and works its way throughout the firm.

“I think it starts right from the day we bring people in for their interviews. We hand out to every recruit a golden ruler that says ‘We care’ — for the Golden Rule. So, we emphasize that. It’s just a simple little token, but it really sums it up. We care. We care about our clients. We care about our staff. We care about each other. That really goes a long way. Now, you can say those things as a way to try to get folks in, but unless you’re living it, it doesn’t work.”

According to the staff, Plante & Moran is “living it.”

Perhaps the first unique feature a new employee at Plante & Moran notices (other than the month of vacation time) is the firm’s buddy system. Every new hire gets a more experienced adviser who will not only help familiarize the newbie with the firm, but also help with career planning.

“At first it’s just a ‘Where is this? How can I get this resource?’ kind of help. And then it turns into ‘OK, here’s where I want to go, how can I get there?’ And your buddy, who has more experience than you, will help you get pointed in the right direction,” said Nicole Deane, an associate who came to the firm directly after earning her CPA in 2001. “When I first started here and heard them talking about career development planning, I thought ‘Wow, what planet am I on?’ That does not happen out there.”

The firm looks for employees’ strengths and allows them to cultivate them in the practice area of their choice. According to associate Dean Feenstra, that is not common in the industry.

“I came from a small, local firm where I had no opportunities,” said Feenstra. “It was like you go to some (client’s) job and work on it. I said, ‘I’d really like to try tax,’ and they said, ‘Well, maybe when you’re at eight-year level you can try going to tax.’ So I said that wasn’t going to work for me.”

Plante & Moran is not simply looking to appease its employees’ desires; the firm is also looking out for the bottom line.

“The firm recognizes that if we’re allowed to work in the areas that we’re best at and are most passionate about, we’re going to do the best work. … We really don’t take someone and say, ‘We have a need in health care, so go do that,’” said associate Jason Marvin.

Once an accountant has settled in to a practice area, the company offers many benefits to manage the balance between work and personal life — especially during the busy January to April tax season.

“One thing I really enjoy here is the flexibility, because it plays into my personal life a lot,” said accountant Cherie Munson. “During the summer I work a four-day week, but during tax season I work whatever (hours are necessary). Not only is that something that they offer here, it’s something they promote.”

The firm’s technology allows for flexible scheduling, as CPAs can access the company network remotely. That makes it easier to stay home, or work from the road if necessary.

“Case in point: I was sick yesterday and I worked from home for six hours or so,” said Munson. “So I didn’t have to drop a whole day of work. That’s an extreme advantage — that you don’t necessarily have to be in the office to get your job done.”

Whether company policy states it in so many words, Plante & Moran invests a great deal of trust in its employees.

“You’ll never have anyone tell you, ‘No, you can’t go watch your kid’s first baseball game,’” said Marvin. “They understand we’re all people. We have lives. We have family commitments. So it’s left to us to make sure the work gets done.”

Finding the right people to do that work is one of the core operations at the firm. Partners and associates are constantly in recruitment mode. As Riddering puts it, any of Plante & Moran’s competitors can get the best people out of the best schools. His goal is to get those people by offering them the best work environment.

“(Firm founder) Frank Moran called it the ‘wheel of progress,’” Riddering said. “You hire good people. You treat them right. You treat them fairly. They enjoy what they’re doing. They’re out serving clients and serving them well. The clients like the product, so they’re willing to pay the fees. Good fees allow you to go out and hire good people.”

The four weeks of vacation doesn’t hurt, either.    

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