Banking & Finance

At 75, CPA firm Hungerford Nichols looks forward

Business focuses on growth, employees to serve clients

July 29, 2016
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To mark its 75th birthday, Hungerford Nichols CPAs + Advisors will throw a public celebration 6-9 p.m. Aug. 27 at Fifth Third Ballpark, 4500 West River Drive NE, Comstock Park.

The event will feature food, carnival games and live music from the Rawhide Johnson Band, as well as an appearance from former Detroit Tigers pitcher Dave Rozema.

“‘Where good ideas add up’ has been our tagline for 20 years,” said Peggy Murphy, shareholder of Hungerford Nichols and the first female shareholder for the company. “When you’ve had a client who’s been there for 20 years and you have to come up with good ideas every year, that’s huge.”

Hungerford Nichols, 2910 Lucerne Drive SE, Grand Rapids, was founded as McEwan and Kauffman in 1941 by C. Samuel McEwan and Gordon Kauffman. The firm’s original home was the Michigan Trust Building, 40 Pearl St. NW, Grand Rapids.

Ken Hungerford Sr. — whose name would eventually become the first half of the brand — joined in 1952. Jerry Nichols, the brand’s other namesake, was promoted to shareholder in 1979.

The firm moved to the Lucerne Drive location in 1993; acquired its Greenville location, 114 North Lafayette St., in 2005; and changed its name to Hungerford Nichols in 2013.

Three other game changers helped Hungerford Nichols stay competitive, Murphy said:

  • Acquiring SourcIT, which provides technology solutions for local businesses, in 1999.
  • Forming Hungerford Financial in 2011 and hiring Thomas Price to develop and manage it.
  • Adding Brandon Finnie and Kerry Bean to develop Hungerford Valuation in 2013.

These moves were key to the firm’s growth in recent years, a distinction that led to Accounting Today Magazine naming Hungerford Nichols “One of the Best Accounting Firms to Work For” in 2010, Murphy said.

But there were tough years for employees, too, Murphy said. The company has survived wars and multiple recessions.

During the Great Recession starting in 2007, “a lot of our competitors were cutting people,” Murphy said. “‘We’re not going to cut top talent. We’re going to make cuts in other areas, including our own management compensation,’ we said. ‘We’ll take the hit.’

“We made the decision to give up current compensation to keep top-level talent for the future of the firm. It was about 20 percent that we cut owners’ compensation, the shareholders only.”

Hungerford Nichols currently has about 70 employees “depending on the season,” said Rick Chrisman, managing shareholder.

“CPA firm turnover rate is about 25-35 percent nationally on an annual basis. Ours has been under 10 percent annually,” Murphy said. “We’re developing our people and delivering good client services and quality advice.”

Part of that talent development was the addition of an education director, who creates individual education plans for each person in the firm to help with their career advancement, Murphy said. For a firm of Hungerford Nichols’ size, it’s an unheard-of move that’s paid off in spades, she said.

Another key move happened about 10 years ago, when the firm’s shareholders met to write down when they planned to retire on a whiteboard, Murphy said. That meeting allowed the company to prepare for its survival in terms of leadership.

“One of the ways to get to 75 years is to have a good succession plan along the way. Places without a succession plan are forced into merging. We had intentionally planned on putting strong managers in place so that when our shareholders were ready to retire, they were ready to take on those roles,” Chrisman said.

“This is an industry-wide problem and not just in CPA firms, in a lot of small businesses and family-owned businesses. The key person is a baby boomer for whom retirement is coming up in the plan, and they don’t have a good plan on how they transition their business. We’re focused on getting the right people in place.”

At the end of the day, a firm is its people, Chrisman said.

“We really focus on people and making this a good place for people,” he said. “If you have good people, they’ll take care of your clients.”

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