All around the world, CPA firms are considering a growth strategy around launching an international practice. Whether you have launched an international service niche, or would like to, here’s advice on what works so you can avoid some common pitfalls you may be overlooking.
“The world is shrinking, and business is being conducted across international borders routinely in the daily course of business,” said Alan A. Lips, a partner at Gerson, Preston, Klein, Lips, Eisenberg & Gelber P.A., a CPA firm based in Miami. “As an accounting firm based in Miami, our clients are increasingly not locally based and, in many cases, are not U.S.-based. Our international tax and audit practice has grown dramatically and, as a result, our relationships with clients has become much more than compliance based. We are serving in a consultancy role, advising our clients on many matters, including their formation of international structures to achieve tax efficiency.”
Neal Morrison is a partner at McInerney Saunders, a firm of chartered accountants and business advisers located in Dublin, Ireland. “In times when the world has become so easily connected it is important for us to be able to assist clients who are looking to enter into new markets, and in doing so, ensure that our clients have the same positive experience and knowledge base as they do when conducting business locally,” he said.
Helmi Talib is the managing partner of Helmi Talib & Co., located in Singapore. “Global reach is necessary for long-term growth in profitability and client base,” he said. “An international reach secures your access to a pool of talent with diverse backgrounds and skills that will boost productivity and efficiency. It can also help you increase your brand awareness and market share. Ultimately, it provides competitive advantage over your competitors.”
Each of these firms, located in various parts of the world, offers traditional services such as tax, accounting and auditing. But they differentiate themselves in the international market by offering services that go over and above these traditional services. All the firms emphasize the importance of building relationships with their international clients through appropriate introductions to other necessary service providers.
“In addition to traditional services, we assist our clients in introducing service providers internationally,” said Talib.
Morrison added, “For clients looking to expand internationally we provide the introductions, project management and hand-holding to establish their operations in new jurisdictions. With clients establishing operations here in Ireland, we advise on the most appropriate structure for both operational and tax efficiency. The initial setup will also include personal introductions to key service providers.”
Gerson Preston caters to global clients whose sophistication demands a deep international knowledge, in addition to the right relationships. The firm has paid careful attention to hiring specialized professionals to support their international practice. “Over the years, we have recruited professionals with specific international expertise and reach,” said Lips. “We hired a Harvard-educated economist to oversee our transfer pricing practice, and this area has grown dramatically. We now have many clients who have operations in multiple countries under common control doing business across many borders.”
Global marketing can be a major challenge across borders. “Talent, technology and communication is how we overcame our challenges in marketing,” Talib explained. The firm took advantage of technology, such as enhancing its website through search engine optimization to increase visibility in search engine results. This helped the firm build brand awareness in the global market. Communicating the fact that they understood the needs of the international clients they were serving, or prospecting, took special attention and required constant communication. “Having an adequate capability of talent within the firm to serve these clients is, of course, key,” Talib added.
One major, significant advantage these firms share is they are all active members of an international association. Lips credits much of his firm’s success to its membership and active involvement in IAPA, a global association of independent accounting, law and business advisory firms that provide accountancy, audit, tax advisory, legal and business consultancy services. “I believe that our greatest success from a global marketing perspective has been being part of — and taking an active role in — international accounting and legal organizations like IAPA,” said Lips. “Attending conferences around the world and specifically focusing on building relationships with the partners of firms from other countries has developed our international reach far beyond what we originally anticipated. We have developed long-lasting relationships by spending time with other members in their offices all over the world, getting to know them and their clients, and learning their culture. This has been invaluable in growing our global market presence.
Morrison couldn’t agree more. “There is no replacement for the personal contact with other members in IAPA — especially from being able to get a brief overview of the local market requirements,” he said. “We make a point of taking the time to personally meet them and learn about the members firms in the network and their specialities.”
“We are lucky to be able to tap the resources of other IAPA members to serve our clients who cross borders seamlessly,” Talib added.
When asked to offer advice to other firms who would like to follow in their footsteps by launching an international practice, the three accountants recommended:
• Join and become active in an international association of other professional service providers who share a target audience and work together to grow and expand relationships among partners and clients.
• Establish networks or connections with local markets that you target.
• Ensure that both operations and administration process are robust and in place before expanding globally.
• Have adequate financial and human resources capabilities to support the expansion need of the practice.
• Possess a strong understanding of the market where it is intended to expand the practice.
• Build and share knowledge of local compliance and regulatory procedures.
• Develop a strategy that supports the vision and mission of the firm.
A final tip from Alan Lips stresses what he feels is the most important thing to remember: relationships. “Meeting someone for five minutes and having a quick conversation doesn’t establish a relationship,” he said. “Having a list of names of people around the work without knowing them is only as good as the paper it’s written on. But establishing international relationships in virtually every major country around the world is what allows your practice to truly be international and offers your clients the best service possible.”