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'Passion brings focus'

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  • | 6:00 p.m. May 29, 2006
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'Passion brings focus'

MANAGING by Jean Gruss | Editor/Lee-Collier

Of all the professions that could give real insights into how to run a successful business, accounting would probably rank near the top of the list.

That's why a group of executives recently showed up early one morning in Fort Myers to hear Gail Markham speak. Markham, who has built one of Southwest Florida's largest CPA firms, Markham Norton Mosteller Wright & Co. in Fort Myers, says many successful businesses have common traits.

Among the most important: their founders worked hard. Markham says she's annoyed when people tell her how lucky she is. "No, it's because of hard work," she reminds them.

In the early years of the firm, Markham and her partner worked 80 to 100-hour weeks building the business. "While everyone else was playing, I was working," she recalls. "We were totally exhausted, but happy."

Markham's firm started in 1,200 square feet of office space in Cape Coral in 1979. Today, the firm has about 35 employees who work in a 14,000-square-foot building in Fort Myers.

"In order to be successful, you have to have a passion for work and life," she says. "Passion brings focus."

Be a leader and a mentor

Markham says she's the person who provides the vision for the company, but she doesn't want to be surrounded by mini-Markhams. "I don't want clones of myself," she says.

She says she hires people who bring something new to the firm. For example, she recently hired someone with a master's degree in forensics and who will be the firm's expert on tracing hidden assets.

"I keep trying to hire smart young people," she says, though she concedes that she often has to recruit them from outside the Fort Myers area. She uses recruitment firms that charge as much as $20,000 per hire. "If you get the right person," she says, "it's worth it."

It's essential to mentor young employees. "You learn by watching someone else do it," she says. Junior employees usually accompany Markham so they can meet the client and can do the work if Markham is not present.

Invest in training and technology

"My belief is that investing in education comes back multi-fold," Markham says. The firm spends thousands of dollars on helping employees stay current with industry standards.

What's more, the investment in employee education helps attract good candidates and retain the current employees. "In our industry," she says, "the pickings are slim."

Technology goes hand-in-hand with education. As it turns out, the firm can often use its own experience to counsel clients who need to upgrade their systems.

For example, Markham decided in 1995 to make the transition to a paperless office. The experience gave the firm's employees a better understanding of the challenges so that they could help their own clients make that difficult transition. No detail was unimportant; for example, everyone got two side-by-side computer screens so they could read one document while typing on another.

Treat your team like gold

Once a year, Markham hires consultants to meet with and survey her staff without the presence of the partners. An employee advisory board then reviews the results and makes recommendations to the partners.

Markham and partners Joni Norton, Karen Mosteller and Randy Wright take the employees' recommendations to heart and implement them. "They tell us and we do it," Markham says, emphasizing the words "do it."

Recent recommendations have ranged from eliminating the requirement for women to wear hose at work and increasing the frequency of work evaluations.

The employee surveys and recommendations are conducted anonymously. One of the most important requests that employees were reluctant to ask was to formalize the career path to achieving partner status within the firm.

"Empower them to make decisions," she counsels, "and stand behind them."

Reward service to others

To reward employees who go out of their way to help customers and each other, Markham instituted a reward program called Wow Bucks.

Whenever an employee exceeds expectations, they get a "Wow Buck." A buck is worth $5 and employees can use them to buy gifts for themselves. Anyone can give a buck to any other employee in the office if they've done something to help that person or a customer. At staff meetings, every employee who has received a Wow Buck stands up and says what they did to deserve it.

The bucks are photocopies on green-colored paper of a $100 bill with the picture of one of the firm's four partners in the place of Benjamin Franklin.

"What that did was change the whole dynamics [of the office]," Markham says. "They started thinking about what they could do to help someone else." She saw employees go out of their way to help fellow employees or a customer complete a task.

Markham acknowledges that some employees are especially generous with Wow Bucks-someone once got a Wow Buck for stapling papers-but she says it's more important to promote a culture of service than to criticize generosity.

Give back to your community

Markham says giving back to the community is a "strong gut thing." For example, she says she's helping Lee Circuit Court Judge James Seals to raise money for a Pace Center in Fort Myers. Pace is a program designed for troubled teenage girls to help them stay out of jail.

"I was one of those girls," Markham says. "I had nobody to turn to."

She remembers fleeing with her mother in the middle of the night to escape an abusive father. "It's a miracle I got out of that mess," she says.

Markham says Pace has already raised $5,000 without starting formal fundraising activities. The goal is to raise $350,000.

"We're fortunate to help others and we should," she says. "It increases the quality of life when you give back."

CPAs know how to have fun (really)

Fun isn't the first word that comes to mind when you think of accountants. But you'd be wrong, especially at the Fort Myers CPA firm of Markham Norton Mosteller Wright & Co.

The firm has a full-time Fun Committee. Sandie Peterson, who is the firm's marketing coordinator, chairs it. It's a demanding job: There are parties to plan, gifts to give and games to organize.

The Fun Committee's busiest time-you guessed it-is tax season. That's when the firm's version of the popular TV show Survivor begins.

Everyone in the firm joins one of six Survivor teams in January and Peterson schedules each team for 15 minutes a week to play a game that she scores. Then, during the last week of tax season, there's a game every day. Scores are cumulative and tallied after April 15.

Peterson says she's impartial. "I don't care who wins," she says. "The point is to see if they have fun."

Games include building the tallest tower out of Popsicle sticks, tossing a toy monkey into a tree, blowing the biggest bubble-gum bubbles and bowling a frozen turkey down the hall. Peterson's favorite was seeing who could transfer water from a bucket to an empty two-liter soda container using a little plastic limejuice bottle in the fastest time.

At the end of the four-month competition, the team with the most points wins and the firm celebrates with a pig roast and a beach party on Sanibel Island.

Fun and games aren't limited to tax season. For Valentine's Day, Peterson organizes a "Secret Admirer's Week." Every employee draws a name from a hat and buys a small gift for that person every day for a week. At the end of the week, the "admirers" reveal themselves. The whole exercise is aided by the fact that every new employee fills out a questionnaire when they're hired that reveals what their interests are, from books to candy. As a good accounting-firm employee, Peterson keeps this information updated on a spreadsheet.


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