St. Petersburg tax and accounting firm Spoor Bunch Franz challenges industry norms, traditions and expectations. Its methods seem to be working.
For a company that doesn’t have a sales team and doesn’t do much in the way of marketing and advertising, St. Petersburg tax and accounting firm Spoor Bunch Franz, founded in 2016, has crafted a profile that not only challenges industry norms and tropes but also wins it a steady stream of new business.
Since the merger that combined Spence Marston Bunch & Morris with Spoor & Associates, the firm — led by partners Stephen Bunch, Richard Franz III and W.G. Spoor II — has seen its revenue, built on a foundation of work for clients that specialize in affordable housing and opportunity zones, grow from $6 million in 2016 to a projected $9 million in 2020. Staffing-wise, in that time, it has increased from 45 to 65 employees.
The firm, which goes by SBF, has also routinely been lauded for its workplace culture. One recent example: It ranked No. 4 in the small business category on the Tampa Bay Times list of the region’s top workplaces.
“We take a different approach,” Franz says. “We’re not a traditional accounting firm. We’re a little more relaxed. It’s funny, when people ask what you do, and you say you’re a CPA, they think of that stereotypical guy with the glasses and the pocket protector. But the industry has changed a lot — our people have a lot of personality.”
That became apparent in 2016 when merger discussions began between Spence Marston Bunch & Morris and Spoor & Associates. Franz and his current partners bought out the “legacy partners” — Ed Bunch, Mike Marston, George Morris, Bob Spence and Gordon Spoor — and almost overnight, two small firms became a relatively large firm, with all of the attendant challenges such a transformation can bring.
“It was a slow process,” says Franz, 45, “and not everyone bought into it.”
So how did they do it? What kind of alchemy did Franz and his partners perform to successfully unite two firms whose roots stretched back to the 1970s and had very distinct — and different — ways of operating?
Franz says some significant strategic risks were taken in the early days of the merger, such as maintaining two separate offices even though operations were consolidated under a single business entity. “We purposefully left it that way, so we could start chipping away at the culture and processes,” he says. “We didn’t want to throw everyone together in one office right away. We wanted it to be a slow transition.”
In some cases, the risk wasn’t rewarded, Franz admits: “Not everyone bought into it, and we had to, unfortunately, make some difficult decisions for those people who didn't buy into it.” However, he adds, some of the initial skeptics stuck it out and gave the merger a chance, eventually becoming “cheerleaders” for the new firm.
“Some of the transformations that we've seen through the process have been incredible,” he says. “Rarely do we have any workplace culture issues.”
Another key move was to get people from each legacy firm together to hammer out new ways — SBF ways — of doing things, instead of just doing a “copy and paste” of existing policies and procedures. “It wasn’t just, 'Oh, one firm’s processes work better — we’re going to go with those,’” Franz says. “We brought them together and worked as a team to come up with it.”
‘Some of the transformations that we've seen through the process have been incredible. Rarely do we have any workplace culture issues.’ Rich Franz, partner at Spoor Bunch Franz, a St. Petersburg tax and accounting firm
That strategy helped to establish and shape the new firm’s identity after the partners eventually brought everyone together under one roof, at 877 Executive Drive W. in northern St. Pete. Yet Franz is quick to point out that, even after four years, the staff doesn’t sit around singing "Kumbaya." Just like any other business, personality conflicts sometimes flare up. But the firm takes a proactive approach by retaining the services of an outside, third-party executive coach who can counsel employees and help resolve disputes.
“Once we establish a relationship between the executive coach and our employee, then we're out of it — it’s an external relationship,” Franz says. “They don't tell us what's going on or what's said, so the employee feels comfortable knowing they're working with this coach, but it's not going to impact their employment negatively. And we're batting a thousand when it comes to that relationship — it's been really good. Our employees buy into it, … and once they go through that, they get it, they get what we're trying to accomplish, and then they can become a mentor or a coach for others once they've been through that process.”
The pandemic, no surprise, has thrown up some hurdles in SBF’s pursuit of a harmonious company culture, partially by forcing most of the staff to work remotely. That has left Chief People Officer Jessica Espaillat scrambling to maintain the high level of camaraderie that firm has enjoyed over the past four years.
“We genuinely like each other and care about each other, and that stems from being together in the same place and getting to know each other and spending time with each other,” Espaillat says. “And so when you take that whole element away, we still like each other and care about each other, but a lot of that was formed from being together under one roof.”
SBF has hired six employees during the pandemic. That presents Espaillat with the additional challenge of integrating new staff members into a company whose cultural rhythms have already been severely disrupted.
“I think a big selling point in coming to work at SBF is how great of a workplace it is,” Espaillat says. “How do we maintain that in this remote environment? To answer the question, we've tried a lot of different things.”
Espaillat has rolled out a wide range of online activities to keep employees engaged, ranging from remote-work staples including trivia to scavenger hunts, wine tastings — hosted by a California vintner — and, most creatively, a version of “MTV Cribs,” a hit show in the early 2000s that featured celebrities giving tours of their homes.
“That’s an easy thing to do and really fun,” Espaillat says of the video-call tours of employees’ houses. “We’ll show a different ‘episode’ of ‘Cribs’ every time we get together.”
Fun and games aside, another way firm leaders have kept employees engaged has been via the creation of an office reentry task force focused on planning for a post-coronavirus world.
“It’s been meeting since the beginning of the pandemic,” Espaillat says, “to talk weekly, monthly, about how we are handling this and ask, ‘What can we do better?’ We also have a process revision task force where we're talking about what were our processes before the pandemic, what have we been doing differently and what should we do differently in the future.”
On an external basis, Franz says one of the reasons SBF’s revenue growth has been on a solid upward trajectory is its focus on building long-term client relationships as opposed to operating as more of a transactional service provider. Although that’s typical of many accounting firms, SBF has taken the added step of establishing a wealth management division that has helped the company’s accounting and tax experts become more like all-around financial advisors who handle both business and personal matters. As a result, Franz says, it’s not uncommon for SBF to involve attorneys and insurance experts in client meetings.
“We don't advertise that,” he says, “because we still have a lot of clients that have a strong relationship with their own wealth advisers, and we respect and appreciate that, but for clients who have come into sell their business, and they're looking for something to do with it, or maybe they’re not happy with their existing wealth adviser, we now have an option, an alternative, for them. So instead of having five separate meetings or conference calls, they can get all of that done in one room — it's a lot more efficient.”
Finally, the relationship that’s most crucial to the present and future success of SBF — that of the three partners — is balanced and going strong, Franz says. He describes himself as the “quarterback” who enjoys handling in-house matters — “putting out fires and finding ways to improve, internally” — as opposed to Bunch, whose strengths lie in cultivating existing client relationships and seeking out new business. Spoor, meanwhile, is the partner who floats between the internal and external operations of the firm.
“We've all done the personality tests, and we're well aware of our strengths and weaknesses,” Franz says. “And I think we do a good job of playing to that and making sure we're doing the things that not only we're good at but also enjoy.”