Updated September 2, 2020
When looking for accounting firms for sale, there are numerous things a buyer will want to consider. Choosing to purchase an accounting firm is a big decision that shouldn’t be rushed. It sets the tone for the business and for your career, so it’s important to find a firm that works for your goals and needs. What works for one buyer might not be the right situation for you or meet the vision you had in mind for your business.
Before you jump into a decision, here are the top things to look for when purchasing an existing CPA practice.
The location of the firm should be one of the first things you consider. Are you willing to relocate, or do you want something in your area? The geographic region you are looking in will impact the types of practices that are available to you. A smaller radius likely means fewer options of accounting firms for sale, which may limit your choices and force you to compromise in other areas. Opening up how far you are willing to travel to a new firm adds potential choices, but it can also impact your commute time and lifestyle.
Consider also if the practice is located in an urban, suburban, or rural location, which will likely impact your workload and the type of services you perform. An urban practice may get more foot traffic and have a busier workload, but that could also come with longer work hours. A suburban location could bring in an older clientele, while a rural location may do more small business or farming-related accounting tasks. The type of work and client isn’t the same for each location, but it is important to find a practice location and setting that matches the type of work you want to perform. If you are looking for a smaller firm, an urban location might not be the right place to look. Similarly, if you want to do business-related accounting tasks for larger companies, you might not want to look in the suburbs.
The size of an accounting firm is also an important consideration. There isn’t a right or wrong size—it’s simply a matter of personal preference. A smaller firm allows for more client interactions and can come with more growth opportunities, while a larger firm typically comes with more employees and clients and a heavier workload, but it can mean higher revenue.
When considering the size of the firm, think also of what you want to manage as the new owner. A larger firm will likely have more employees and more resources for things like marketing and recruiting new clients, but it will also likely demand more time and people management. A smaller firm may not have as many resources, but some owners find it easier to manage a smaller group of employees and clients. If this is your first time owning or managing an accounting firm, consider if you are ready to jump into a larger firm.
If you want to specialize in a certain area of accounting, look for firms that match your interests. Many firms offer general accounting services that run the gamut depending on the needs of customers. However, other firms are more specialized and tend to focus on just a few services. The type of specialty you choose could impact the location and size of the firm. For example, a firm in an older part of town might attract an elderly clientele and do more services related to wills, trusts, and retirement. A firm in a central urban location may do more work for small businesses.
There are pros and cons to owning a general accounting firm versus owning a firm that is more specialized. A general firm opens up the potential for more clients and allows you to do lots of different types of accounting work so things don’t get repetitive. But having so many available services can also mean you end up performing tasks you aren’t interested in. On the flip side, a specialized firm can limit the number of potential clients, but it also allows you to focus and become the local expert in a certain area.
You can also specialize in a number of other areas, including auditing, forensic accounting, personal financial planning, mergers and acquisitions, international tax, or a variety of other things.
When looking at accounting practices for sale, it’s important to consider the growth potential of the firm. Look at the firm’s financials to see if it has grown in recent years. Steady growth is a sign that the firm has a strong client base and a good business model. Dips in growth can raise red flags and may need to be explained by the current owners so you have the full picture of the firm you may be buying.
You’ll also want to consider the type of clientele it brings in and if there are any competitors in the area. A firm without any competition likely has more potential for growth because it has a wider selection of potential clients without having to fight for customers. The type of firm can also impact the potential for growth because some types of accounting firms, like those that focus on personal financial planning or estate planning, are likely to bring in more clients in certain areas.
The most important thing to look for with growth potential is a firm’s trajectory for future growth. Match the firm’s growth potential to your own goals of where you see your career and the firm going in the next few years to make sure it is a good fit. You may have aggressive goals for a new firm and want to see it have huge change in size in the coming years, or you may be satisfied with smaller, steady growth for the firm. Find a firm that matches what you are looking for and your plans for the future.
Financial considerations are also something to look for. Be honest with how much money you are willing to invest in an accounting firm, including the purchase price and any other growth projects or improvements you want to make. Having a realistic idea of how much you can spend can direct you to accounting firms in your budget. Have an open conversation with your broker about how much you are willing to spend so that you only consider firms in that price range. You don’t want to start a new business venture by going over budget.
You’ll also want to consider the value of the firm to make sure it is priced correctly and will return a positive investment. Look through the financial documents of the firm before you finalize the purchase to see its history and growth trajectory. If you know it will take a significant investment to get the firm back on a growth path, consider that in your purchase price. You may be able to negotiate for a lower price if there is work to be done. This is when an experienced broker is especially useful—they can walk you through the entire financial history to ensure that the firm is within your budget, even after additional costs are factored in. They can also negotiate the best deal possible for you.
Look for a firm with a workload that matches your lifestyle. Some firms are incredibly busy with employees who regularly work 80-hour weeks. Some buyers thrive in that environment and love the fast-paced, busy atmosphere. Other firms take a slower pace and only expect their employees to work from 8-5 every day. Some owners prefer to work in that type of environment and realize that it creates a different type of firm culture that might not grow as quickly. If you want time to build strong relationships with clients and only have a handful of clients or employees, buying a large, bustling firm probably isn’t the right choice for you.
Match your personal preference to the workload and culture of the firm with realistic expectations that a growing firm likely will require more than the typical 40-hour workweek. Even a firm with a slower pace will likely require more work at the beginning as you get your feet under you and adjust to the new firm.
How involved do you want to be as an owner? At some firms, the owner is simply a figurehead who comes into the office on occasion. At other firms, the owner is there every day, working alongside employees. See what has been done with the existing owners to decide if you could easily step into their shoes.
If you want to be a hands-on owner, you can still purchase a firm that has previously had owners who weren’t as involved. But you will likely have to change the expectations and culture of the employees. As the owner, you are in charge of the firm and your involvement level, regardless of what has been done in the past. Just keep in mind that maintaining the previous owner’s approach tends to make for a slightly easier transition.
Professional Guidance for Your Purchase
These key considerations when buying an accounting firm can help you better know what to look for to find the firm that best meets your personal and professional goals. The entire process of researching and purchasing a CPA firm is complicated and has lasting consequences, so having an advocate by your side is incredibly useful. As you are considering a purchase, it’s important that you have guidance from professionals who know the industry and have experience in the sale and acquisition of accounting and CPA firms. ProHorizons has been working since 1995 to provide the professional guidance their clients need in the selling and buying process on the West Coast. Contact ProHorizons today to learn more.