The barrier to entry for Jerry Ogle's niche accounting business is so high it almost blocks his own firm's growth.
The firm, Lakewood Ranch-based Ogle International Tax Advisors, only handles tax, accounting and related services for companies that do business in the United States and at least one other nation. It's an intricate, highly regulated and highly scrutinized field that could take years to master. Most of the companies that do it regularly are giant accounting firms or global law firms. That makes it hard for competitors, especially smaller firms like Ogle International, to enter.
“This stuff is very complex,” says Ogle. “Even some judges who hear international tax cases get frustrated with it. This isn't something a bright tax lawyer can just learn in six months and walk in and do. It's just too complicated.”
Ogle has turned that intricacy into a thriving business, one on a growth spurt in spite of those barriers. Revenues at Ogle International Tax Advisors have grown from 30% to 60% a year for each of the last three years, he says. The company, with 11 employees and several more openings, was also ranked 14th in the University of South Florida's Fast 56 Class of 2014 fast-growing businesses run by alumni. Ogle declines to release specific annual revenue figures.
The growth has come so fast Ogle is actually in an unusually enviable position: The firm has turned away clients for fear of taking on too much and diluting its services. “We decline a significant amount of business now,” says Ogle. “We can be selective and cherry-pick our clients.”
Ogle International offers clients five core services: tax planning, compliance, audit support, accounting and management consulting. Many Ogle International clients are based outside the region, in industries from manufacturing and distribution to growers and services. That includes firms in health and beauty products, food and industrial supplies — anything that sells something in more than one country.
Specific clients include PepsiCo, where Ogle once worked in the accounting department; Fort Myers-based Fox Electronics, which has offices in England, Japan and Singapore; and Bradenton-based American Torch Tip, a torch manufacturer with offices in Canada, England and the Netherlands and clients in 53 countries.
Companies across industry lines that do business globally know the pain Ogle speaks about when it comes to international taxes.
Sarasota-based valve manufacturer Sun Hydraulics, for example, does business in seven countries. Locations are spread around, and include England, Germany, China and India. That kind of reach, says Sun CFO Tricia Fulton, requires both internal expertise and outside firms for tax work. Sun uses EY, formerly Ernst & Young, in addition to a host of other firms that are country-specific.
Sun has never shied away from global expansion because of tax issues, says Fulton, but it's a factor in the strategy, especially in the startup phase. “All it does is get more complicated,” says Fulton. “There are constant changes we have to deal with.”
Those concerns go all the way down to one employee, an American citizen, whom Sun is sending to China to work on business operations across Asia. The company hired Deloitte Touche to handle the employee's expat taxes he will owe in the United States and oversees.
Dennis Tichio, who works in corporate accounting at Sun, says the firm has considered hiring someone, or a few people, to just do global tax. But he's run into the same issues Ogle has: Who will the firm hire? Says Tichio: “It would be hard to find a tax person who can handle all this internally.”
International tax law isn't only complicated.
It's also a politically sensitive topic that plays well for sound bites about alleged U.S. tax dodgers. The latest large company ensnared in the controversy is Caterpillar. A U.S. Senate subcommittee accused the construction and mining equipment manufacturer of shifting $8 billion in profits on international parts sales to Switzerland to avoid $2.4 billion in federal taxes. Caterpillar follows a list of American companies in the global tax spotlight, a roll call that includes Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard and Apple.
Ogle says the controversy mostly stems from misunderstandings and misinformation. “There is a discrepancy between the business community and some policy makers,” Ogle says. “Saying you will tax some company to prevent them from leaving (the United States) doesn't work. That's disingenuous.”
Ogle developed that belief early in his career, when he did international tax work for Deloitte Touche. A Charlotte County native, Ogle worked on the Pepsi account for the Big Four firm. He was on a team of accountants that did due diligence when Pepsi bought Tropicana in 1998. He later worked in Pepsi's global tax unit.
But by the late 1990s Ogle saw a void in the international tax consulting market, where big law and accounting firms gobbled up the work, especially for large companies. Ogle thought middle market businesses, $10 million to $200 million in annual sales, were an open target.
“I had an entrepreneurial desire to start a business,” says Ogle. “I knew this area would be a good niche. There was a big vacuum in the market.”
He launched the firm in 2000. He did some networking in the beginning, but he mostly grew through clients telling other clients. Now the company gets clients through both word of mouth and other accounting firms that don't have the skills or capacity to handle the work. “My approach was not to go out and market,” he says. “My model was to serve people well and they will do the marketing for you.”
Martin Robinson, CEO of Lakewood Ranch-based IRISS, a high-tech infrared window manufacturing and distribution firm, is one of those clients who could do marketing for Ogle. IRISS, with $5.6 million in annual sales, does business in Europe and Australia, in addition to the United States. Robinson says Ogle and his team are like the quarterback of his firm's tax and compliance tasks, the people who orchestrate the strategy and make sure it's executed. The firm and its staff, he says, take a long-range view of every decision.
“They have done some quite complicated stuff for us,” Robinson says. “They have been a life-saver.”
Will and skill
While the business is somewhat unique in its approach, Ogle's biggest challenge — hiring and retaining top employees — is certainly common. “People are key,” he says. “It's always key in any business, but it's magnified here.”
The hiring process at Ogle International is a hard look at four areas for each candidate: skill, will, capability and work ethic.
Ogle says he will try people out who have will or work ethic but lack a little in the skill set. He's learned over the years that candidates with skill, but not will, won't work out.
Even the best hires take time to train. Ogle International senior partner Jason Catlin, for instance, spent nearly two decades in international tax law at big firms like Coopers & Lybrand and KPMG before he joined Ogle in 2009. “Whenever you cross borders with transactions,” Catlin says, “it complicates the tax analysis.”
Catlin, like Ogle, says the biggest worry inside Ogle International isn't so much the business itself. It's the challenges its clients face, in taxes and any other area of the business. “We give advice like we own the company,” Ogle says. “We are truly interested and key advisers for our clients. So a lot of our client's concerns are my concerns.”