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Ep018: A Journey Helping Others with Sheila Enriquez Metrics View

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Dave: Hi, Sheila. Good morning.

Sheila: Hi. How are you? Good morning.

Dave: So, first of all, thank you for being a guest on the IC-DISC Show.

Sheila: Oh, my pleasure. Thank you for letting me be on.

Dave: So, you’re a unique guest. We’ve had the same guest on twice, but we’ve never had two guests from the same firm on two different episodes. So here, let me go ahead and get the background and then I’ll explain why you’re the second one.
So, my guest today is Sheila Enriquez, the managing partner of the Texas-based CPA firm of Briggs and Veselka, which is a Houston-based CPA firm. And in the interest of full disclosure, I was an employee of the firm for several years, about 15 years ago.
So, why don’t we start by just telling me about Briggs and Veselka, the history of it, and how long you’ve been there and your role at the firm.

Sheila: Oh, absolutely. I would love to have that opportunity. So, Briggs and Veselka is the largest independent CPA firm in Houston. We currently have a little bit over 320 people now. But we started in 1973 with three people, and one of the co-founding partners is Johnny Veselka who is the main partner. It started out historically as a tax firm, and then grew to be the largest independent firm providing full-service accounting services including tax, audit, and financial consulting, and even technology consulting now in terms of offerings to our clients.
So, as a firm, really, we’ve evolved primarily because our more senior partners that started the firm, Johnny Veselka, John Flatowicz, who’s one of the ones that I know you’ve interviewed previously, Steve Awalt, Charlie Weller, Gary Trochta, several others that have started the firm, and Bill Pitt, their vision was really to create a legacy firm that is committed to the community and committed to Texas specifically. So, in that process, they’ve really done a great job over the years of creating a pipeline of leadership and identifying services that enhance our relationship with our clients providing value.
I personally started with the firm in 2007. So, I’ve been with the firm now a little bit over 13 years. I started as a manager in the audit group, and through my joining the firm, I really was able to take advantage of the opportunities that the senior partners at the time were offering up and coming managers and leaders within the firm. I’m very fortunate to have found a firm when I did because we were at a transition point. That was a time when Johnny Veselka was starting to look to transition his role as managing partner to John Flatowicz, who eventually took over, I believe, in 2009.
And I remember in ’07 when I first started, there might have been 80, 90 people. So, it’s a pretty incredible growth since we started, tripled, really, in number over the course of John’s leadership, eight years total. Because I actually just celebrated my second-year anniversary as managing partner yesterday. So, it went by really quick.

Dave: Oh, congratulations.

Sheila: Thank you. It really went by super fast. But John, in his eight years of leadership has tripled the size of the firm, both revenue-wise as well as people-wise. And so, he’s really given me a huge scale in terms of transitioning from him as managing partner to me taking over. It set us up very nicely in putting forth a vision for what the next 10 years would look like. And part of that then is our goal could be one of the largest independent firms in Texas, not just Houston. We’re the third largest currently.
And I think the notion of independence is very important to us because it really allows us to preserve our culture that is very much a client-centric type of a culture, but very people-focused. So, we start with our people first and giving them the right opportunities, leadership development, and also giving them paths that are more in line with their interests and that marry within the needs of the firm too.
So, I have sort of that poster child, I would say, of that individual that came to the firm as an audit manager and evolved to become a partner that leads even our litigation support practice that I am very proud to have helped build within the firm, and it’s one of our fastest growing areas now as a firm. It’s a passion of mine. Mary’s my legal training, I’m an attorney as well, so my legal training with the audit background. It’s a great example, if somebody that was looking for a path that was unique to me and just love my experience overall, because that type of an opportunity is not unique to me. There are many, many people in the firm as you know, David, because you know our firm quite well, that have found their own paths and created their own niches. And it’s very rewarding and it’s like being an entrepreneur within the support structure, the firm like Briggs and Veselka.
So, that’s our firm. I don’t know if that gives you or your listeners a good flavor.

Dave: Yeah, it does, and we’ll delve into that. But I’m glad you highlighted the opportunities of what the firm offers because not only have you been at the firm 13 years, that I know that you’re not a native Houstonian and I think you’ve moved to Houston just 13 years ago as well. Correct?

Sheila: That’s right. A little bit over… Well, actually, July 19, 2006, so 14 years, going on 15 years.

Dave: Okay. And the reason I want to accentuate that and then I know that you’d move from New York. But what I don’t recall is whether you were born in the U.S. or not?

Sheila: Oh, okay. So, I actually wasn’t. I grew up in the Philippines. Yeah, l I lived there, graduated high school there. And the reason why I actually had an opportunity to come to the United States was through a scholarship. So, I was fortunate to be picked as one of 10 students that received a full scholarship, all expenses paid, through a very generous Japanese sponsor, who actually paid for the 10 students, including myself, to study in an American college.

Dave: Oh, wow.

Sheila: Yeah, it’s State University of New York Theater School in Loch Sheldrake, New York, so SUNY Sullivan County Community College. I ended up taking that opportunity, which completely changed my trajectory because I was supposed to be a doctor. I was graduating from high school, already accepted at the University of the Philippines in a pretty much medical program. And I decided to take the opportunity for this great adventure.
It was a two-year program, a year-and-a-half in Toyama, Japan with SCCC campus is located. And I actually ended up living with my sponsor. There were two girls and eight boys. My husband was one of the eight as well.

Dave: Oh, wow.

Sheila: Yeah. So, there were two of us that lived with a sponsor family. They had two daughters as well. So, it was a wonderful experience. We got immersed completely in the culture. Whereas the eight boys had their own apartment. So, it was a wonderful experience, got to travel in Japan, got to spend a great time learning the culture. It’s still one of our favorite places. And we were supposed to go actually this year, June 10th, and go back and visit and take our kids but with the Coronavirus, we had to cancel it.
But then, the last six months is at the New York campus in Upstate New York. But then, the story continues because what ended up happening is we actually both ended up getting a scholarship to attend Mercy College, which is located in Dobbs Ferry, New York, Westchester County. So, we transferred into that program. I ended up taking undergraduate in Management and my husband, Jose, pushed through with Accounting.
But as I was about to graduate with the undergraduate program, on my last semester, I had three credits left for electives. I ended up talking to the MBA, the dean of the graduate program of Long Island University that happens to actually have a campus within Mercy College as well, and I think it was just serendipity, really. The dean, Wayne Cioffari, ended up offering a graduate assistantship to actually pursue my MBA for free in exchange for working 20 hours as his assistant because he chose not to have a secretary.

Dave: Oh wow.

Sheila: Yeah. So, he ends up giving high-performing students opportunity to attend the program for free while working for him rather than him hiring a secretary. So, there were several of us that were in that pool. And so-

Dave: What a great strategy.

Sheila: But he changed my whole life because in that process, I was graduating with a management degree, and he pretty much sold me on the idea of pursuing my CPA license. Because he developed this 4+1 program, he called it CPA/MBA 4+1 Program. I can still see the brochure in my head. It was a pilot program that he was doing, really, ahead of the time because that’s a pretty common program now, the professional accounting program. And so, I took the opportunity.
I ended up deferring my graduation and started taking graduate classes and undergraduate classes, mostly Accounting undergraduate to come up with my undergraduate degree in Public Accounting, so I can take the CPA exam. And the rest is history because I ended up passing the exam when I first took it and it opened up a lot of doors for me to be able to actually stay in the U.S. under a working visa. And then, my employer in Rhode Island sponsored me for my green card.
It’s a bit of a long story, but I think it’s really a story of serendipity and people opening doors for me. So, that’s been the story of my life.

Dave: Sure. And I think you’re being a bit too modest. It is a story of serendipity, but it’s also, I think, a story of seizing opportunity. And it’s obviously-

Sheila: Yes, absolutely.

Dave: … most of it. And then, so I believe, the story then progresses from, so you’re living in Rhode Island. Was that-

Sheila: Yes. So, I lived in New York for about six years, five or six years. After finishing my undergraduate, Wayne introduced me to my first employer, Brenner, McDonagh and Tortolani, which was an outsourced accounting CFO controller firm focused on non-profits. So, really, it starts with them in terms of my experience in financial consulting. But then one of the partners as McDonagh was retiring, he happened to be living in Rhode Island. So, the firm itself is still in existence. They’re focused on a niche market. It’s Catholic religion basically. And so, they have offices all over the country. So, New York was their main office, still is, and then they have an office in Rhode Island, Maryland, really all over the country.
So, there was an opportunity to move to Rhode Island in 1998. And because neither my husband nor I have roots in New York, we were pretty adventurous. We were, “Why not? Let’s start over,” because Westchester County was so expensive if you all aren’t aware. New York is expensive, but Westchester is really up there in terms of…

Dave: Yes, it’s one of the affluent suburbs, basically.

Sheila: Exactly. I mean, that’s these pretty affluent, like you said, people that work in the city, they live there. But ultimately, we made the decision in ’98 to relocate to Rhode Island. So, we ended up living there for actually eight years in Rhode Island, and in that process, I made a decision shortly after we moved there to work for a CPA firm because I needed 500 audit hours to get my license, even though I pass the exam in New York. I didn’t have the experience, because as a financial consultant, we weren’t a CPA firm, so, I needed a year experience and 500 audit hours.
The plan really originally is, to your point about seizing opportunities, the plan, really, for me was to just get the hours and then potentially go back to my other firm because I was so much more in a senior position than starting at a CPA firm where I started as a staff. So, at that point, I already had a couple of years of experience. I literally started as a staff accountant and they did every… You go in there, it’s a smaller firm, Sparrow, Johnson and Ursillo, I ended up doing everything. I would do the audit and then I would do the tax, and that would be at the corporate or partnership level. And then I would do the parents and then the kids. I got so much exposure in many aspects of the business because it’s a smaller firm and my experience, or lack thereof, didn’t stop my progression within the firm, which was great.
So, I was a staff for three months, they promoted me immediately to senior. It was one of those, just a perfect place for me at that time. I stayed there for eight years. And I had my first baby while working for them, started law school in the evenings while working for them, and they were very, very supportive throughout the whole process. So, I ended up working for them through 2006, and the reason why I left was primarily because my husband and I, Jose, decided to start over in Houston.

Dave: I know. I love this story, because, as I understand it, because you all both came from the Philippines. You didn’t have “family” in the U.S., but you basically decided to make your own family, if you will, like developing close friendships. So, please continue with how that brought you to Houston.

Sheila: So, I mentioned earlier that there were 10 students that were part of that scholarship program, and one of them is really my husband’s best friend. His name is Mario, Mario Dominguez. So, when he finished his associate’s degree in New York with us, he ended up moving to Houston because his older sister, Chona, she is a nurse and she works here in Houston. So, I just remember throughout the years prior to us moving to Houston, he would come visit him because we’re very close. His family is our family at the end of the day. So, we were in his wedding party, we’re the godparents to his oldest son, Josh, he and his wife, Anjanette, are the godparents our oldest son, Anthony. So, they’re practically family. And they would come visit us in New York and they were in our wedding party when we got married in 2000.
But there was just the point in time when, and it happened to be ’05, ’06 period, where Jose and I started thinking about, “Where do we lay our roots?” because we decided we’re going to stay in the U.S. There are a lot of opportunities, but the reality is we didn’t have any support. And by this point, Anthony was two years old, I was in law school attending in the evenings, working full-time.
I think that the turning point for me was when I was asked by the daycare like, “Who’s going to pick up Anthony if we’re not there?” And I’m at a loss because all my friends are from work and school, and they have older kids., and the neighborhood we lived in was an older neighborhood, there weren’t kids around. And so, it got to thinking, “Okay, when should we move?” because at two, Anthony will not remember it, right? He’s going to be very adaptable.
So, it literally was just a leap of faith. We looked at California because we do have distant relatives there, but Mario is such a close friend to us. And I think the one trigger for us, too, is it’s so inexpensive, like the cost of living here compared to Rhode Island. We looked at the house that they were building in Sienna Plantation where we ended up moving, that’s where I live now, I mean, I think it was like 3, 000 square feet and brand new and master-planned community. And this was a long time ago when Sienna was just starting, and I think it was like 175,000 or something. It just was mind-boggling because that would be a million dollars.

Dave: Right. And then, you also throw in the lack of state income tax.

Sheila: Exactly, exactly. I think the one thing that we didn’t even really expect that was such a great bonus was the fact that Houston is such a thriving business community, right? Again, we came here for our friends, and we didn’t realize just how many opportunities there were and how warm the business community really had been to me. It’s such an open and welcoming business community. I think a lot of us come from somewhere else, and then found this very diverse… I’m just so passionate about it.

Dave: Yeah, it’s amazing.

Sheila: It’s just an amazing city.

Dave: So, I’ve been here since 1987, since I graduated from the University of Texas in Austin with an Accounting degree, but I say that so many people I know go through several stages with Houston. First, they hate it, then they tolerate it, and then it just seeps into you. I say hate because I moved here from Austin, smaller, more geographically pretty place. But you move here and at first, you just see the people, the traffic, the humidity, but what you realize over time is just how friendly and welcoming, not just the business community, but the whole city is.
I have a theory on this because I’ve talked to a lot of people and I’ve lived in places a lot smaller, and the normal reputation is that small towns are friendlier than big cities. But if I use Houston as the big city example, I found that to not be the case. I found that smaller towns are much more closed. I joke that I’ve lived in places where you live in a house for 20 years, and the neighbors still call your house the old Johnson house. It takes a while to really break in.
Back in the late ’80s when I moved to Houston, there was a joke that really summarized how welcoming the Houston business community was. And the joke then was anybody with a cell phone and leased a Mercedes could be a real estate developer in Houston. I mean, back when having a cell phone was a bigger deal. But yeah, I’ve always loved that. And that dovetails to my thing of, not only are you an American success story, but you’re a Houston success story, because I can’t imagine there’s many cities that you could move to and not be from the community.
I have friends that live in Dallas tell me this would have been harder, that Dallas is a more closed community. If you didn’t grow on Highland Park and you didn’t go to SMU, that is… But Houston is just so meritocratic. Really, when you think about it, you move here, you have no business contacts, no roots, no family and reputation. In 10 years, you not only get promoted several times, you’re the leader of the largest independent CPA firm. Is it in Texas? Are you the largest in Texas now or is it-

Sheila: We’re the third largest independent, but we’re the largest in Houston. And you’re absolutely right, David. I mean, I pinched myself. I was talking to our new employees the other day and I was telling them about these many, many opportunities that they can have in the firm and paving their own path, and I mean it because I am that person that lived through it. And I think it’s a testament to finding the right place and the right organization that is very inclusive, that is really pure point, very meritocratic what is it that you can deliver, right? And so, it’s been such a wonderful ride for me.
And to your point about certain communities being very insular, and this is not a knock, I think what happens is when you do have a smaller community, and I grew up in one, my hometown in the Philippines is Baguio City, 350,000 people now, which is a lot more than when I was growing up there, it does tend to be very tribal, very insular, who do you know, and it’s hard to penetrate relationships. And I kind of felt that way a little bit in Rhode Island.
Rhode Island is a very small state. So, I moved from the smallest state to the largest state. I think you can fit Rhode Island probably in Beltway 8. It is such a small, beautiful state and I built so many, many close friendships living there, but it is one of those where people rarely move. They grew up there, their friends and childhood friends. And I think Houston just is a melting pot. We all come from, not all, but a lot of people come from somewhere else, and my inclination is to embrace people that come from somewhere else because I’ve been there and I want to help. I want to tell them just how amazing the city is, and I think it almost becomes this pay-it-forward mentality and it creates this wonderful environment for people to want to come to.
And of course, for me and my husband, we grew up in the Philippines. So, I’m not as used to the humidity as he is, but it was one of those things where we still like… I still like warmer weather than dealing with the snow in Rhode Island. I do miss the fall though. I miss the fall season.

Dave: Sure. I’m from Iowa originally for the first 30 years of my life. I have a saying that says, “The worst Houston summer is still better than the best northern winter.” Because at least, this time of year, in the evenings, when the sun’s starting to set, it’s pleasant. I mean, you can actually walk around and be outside, and during the day, you’re in air conditioning. And so, it’s-

Sheila: Yeah, that’s the one aspect people forget unless you actually have lived in the East Coast is that we didn’t have central air conditioning, we had a window air conditioning, and they have heat waves there too. I typically would hang out in the basement whenever we have those 100-degree days. So, it’s really just how you look at it. I feel like the heat is really just bothersome when you’re going from the house to the car, car to your building. And then, you can pick your day of, like you said, 8:00 at night, it tends to be pretty comfortable. So, it’s just a longer day too. I feel like you can do more because with the winter, it tends to be, confirm me anyway, it starts in November, right?

Dave: Yeah.

Sheila: It gets cold, dark, and then it’ll be a while before you see spring. And again-

Dave: Yeah. So, you get off work and it’s dark in the winter, and so, you’re not really motivated to go do much except go home. And it’s interesting, the part you mentioned about Rhode Island.
My other observation is, I think, it’s a function of the growth rate, I think, as much as anything else. Because I’ve been to other large cities like Milwaukee, Chicago, Philadelphia that has those same elements of the smaller communities that you go to a place like Philadelphia, and I think a much larger percentage of the residents of Philadelphia were born in Philadelphia. And when you look at growth rates, like I tell people from Houston, I said, “If you go to a place like Philadelphia, the average age of a house there is probably 80 years old,” because the population hasn’t grown much so there’s not much need to build new houses. And so, you keep in the old ones.
And on the other hand, I tell folks not from one of those northern cities that hasn’t had the growth, I said, “The average age of a house in Houston Metro area is probably less than 20 years old.” They’re like, “How can that be?” And I’m like, “Yeah, we don’t do a great job with our history. If the house does get to be 50 years old, we tear it down and put up a new one.” Because our construction costs are relatively low here and there’s not a lot of regulation, that it’s much easier for a neighborhood to transition than I think some of the other northern cities where there’s just a higher regulatory environment.

Sheila: We were amazed, yeah. We were amazed because the value of land, I think, is what makes the difference. And I think a lot of it is also maybe the fact that Texas is a lot bigger, right, and so there’s more land compared to if you pick any one of the major cities, New York, Chicago, even LA for that matter.
But what I’ve found, though, is that the quality of life, at least for us, is just so much better, even raising a family. We decided to move to Sienna Plantation because the main reason why we wanted to move here was because of Jose’s best friend, and we didn’t look at any other neighborhood because we love Sienna. It has everything. It’s a master-planned community, which is not common at all in the East Coast. I can’t think of one off the top of my head, where you have a neighborhood. Here, it’s very common.

Dave: There’s only 20 I can think of off just the top of my head. And just to give you an idea of people not from Houston, Sienna Plantation is about 20 miles to the southwest of downtown, 25 miles, something like that.

Sheila: It’s about 20, give or take. Yeah.

Dave: Yeah. And it’s in what’s called the Sugar Land general area, but there’s probably a dozen master-planned communities just out on the southwest side of Houston.

Sheila: Absolutely. And to have all the amenities just within your reach, we have a golf course, waterparks to gyms, all the elementary schools are pretty good schools. It is such a different environment. And I have a 17-year-old and a 10-year-old.
This is something I wanted to mention too, because speaking of serendipity, so my best friend since I was 5 ended up also coincidentally moving to Houston in 2008, like the same time that-

Dave: Oh, wow.

Sheila: When did I… Actually, it was sooner than that. We moved here in ’06. They ended up actually moving a few months before we even did. Just a coincidence. Yes, her name is Veronica. And so now, she lives two minutes from me, also in Sienna. So, it’s an amazing support group that we’ve created, and it cemented that with additional families.
It’s such a wonderful neighborhood that when she was looking for a house, because they were renting when they first moved here when her husband took a position in Halliburton, I told her, “You can’t look at any other neighborhood. You got to look at Sienna.” And so, she did.

Dave: Because selfishly you wanted her nearby, right?

Sheila: Absolutely. Because her oldest, Kenzo, is the same age as my oldest. She’s got three boys, but her two boys, my little one, Jacob, is in the middle of them because her second one is 14 and then her youngest one is 8. So, it’s just an amazing story that we all got together. And she’s family. She really is like my sister. So, it’s been amazing. But this neighborhood has been so good to us, too. You’ll love it. You’ll love this neighborhood.

Dave: That is awesome. Well, thank you for being so willing to share your personal story because I think it’s just a great reminder for those of us born in this country like me, you just take the country for granted. We fail to recognize the specialness, I meant, opportunity that the country offers. And so, it’s always great to hear that perspective.

Sheila: I do want to echo you on that and emphasize that. I do feel like I’m a testament, we are. My husband and I, are both testament to just the American dream, where if you work hard enough… And this is why I’m also very passionate about education because education is what led me to where I am today, that opportunity that is given to me by a very generous philanthropist that just wanted to help just completely changed my trajectory. And it’s really very humbling to think about the past and where I am now. So, I’m super, super committed to paying that forward.
I’m very focused on being involved in educational organizations and then also just for the firm as well, being able to tell people about the CPA designation and just how special it is. This profession to me is something very special that can open up so many doors. If we have any listeners out there that are thinking about what major they might want to take in college, I can talk all day long about why you need to pursue CPA.

Dave: Well, and there’s a great opportunity, right, because a significant number of the current CPAs will be retiring, I believe, in the next 10 years. Isn’t that right?

Sheila: Exactly.

Dave: So, there’s a great opportunity. Well-

Sheila: I remind our associates that we’re very blessed because even in the midst of this unprecedented crisis, we are an essential business and I think CPAs are really able to help our clients navigate through a lot of legislation and a lot of financial issues that are coming up. So, if you’re looking for a purpose, I mean, to me, it’s really one of those professions that definitely you can find your purpose in helping other people.

Dave: For sure. And just speaking of that, what, I’m not up to date on these numbers like you are, but what are the general range of starting salaries for people who go into public accounting with an Accounting degree?

Sheila: Sure. We start off, give or take, mid-50s for staff accountant, which I think is a pretty good starting point. And then from there, it can really go up depending on the level, right? It actually can be very lucrative when you just start looking at pursuing perhaps a partnership in a firm because it’s one thing about public accounting firms is that if you end up going down that path, it’s more of a business that is based on what you bring in in terms of the time that you put… So, the profit type of role, because you’re delivering a service, and there’s a value to the service that you’re putting out.
Now, if you decide to go the industry route, there’s also a good progression that you can have there starting out as a staff accountant, senior, picking a direction that you want to take, and then maybe playing the role of a CFO controller. And I think because you’re in the numbers, you’re always at the table. You’re always part of the decision-maker. So, the potential for compensation goes up, I think, as you hit the manager level, and then you start to progress from there.
But if from a job security perspective, I also talk about that quite a bit because it is an essential role. I think there’s a good job security that comes with it.

Dave: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Now, I would agree. So, what I’d like to do now is just talk a bit about the characteristics of the companies who seem to really be the best fit for your firm. So, my sense is that a Fortune 100 company is not the best fit. The market may prefer that one of the large international firms do their audit. But on the other hand, at the size you’re at now, I’m guessing that your focus is not on trying to crank out 10,000, 10-40s for a few hundred dollars each. So, talk to me about who you really are best set up to serve the types of companies and individuals

Sheila: Sure. So, I had mentioned earlier that we have evolved the services of the firm to expand it so that we’re actually hitting a lot of the needs of our client base, and our client base has also evolved over the years. Basically, I could probably characterize it as the middle market clients is what we’re targeting and middle market businesses. And of course, middle market is a fairly large range, so it could be businesses with $20 million in revenues all the way to half a billion. Our sweet spot, though, I would say, where we are now is $20 million to maybe about $100 million, if not over, but we’re starting to move up market as well simply because we’re creating niche practices that also can help larger organizations.

Sheila: For instance, we’re creating a fairly robust consulting practice. We’ve already created it. It was initially started in banking with internal audit and-

Dave: Yeah, I remember that.

Sheila: … financial consulting.

Dave: David Phelps, really-

Sheila: David Phelps, exactly. But now, we’re actually able to serve even those that are in billion-dollar private middle market companies because they may not hire us for the audit, but they may hire us for the consulting piece. So, whether they’re preparing for the audit, that we’re now helping them through technical accounting issues, or internal controls, or any kind of maybe processing improvement that they may be looking at.
So, even though our target market for audit, I would characterize, as 20 million to two maybe 500 million, if I look at our tax group, that has also a different range because for tax folks, we still do individuals, for sure, but those are mostly they have complex issues. It’s not one where it’s just a simple 10-40, but rather they have a business, they’re so full of proprietor. There’s more complexity in their taxes.
So, we’ve started to really build what we call niche areas so that we can create a team that is focused on a particular expertise via a subject matter expert, whether that’s in an industry or a service line. But the big thing that we’re doing right now is the collaboration across the firm, so that it’s not a siloed approach in servicing our clients.
So, we’re looking for very… The ideal client for us is one where we’re able to help them with the audit and then help them with the tax as well, tax planning, and then also help the individual owners to help navigate through a lot of maybe exit planning and trying to sell their business, or tax planning and creating an estate plan, or gifting plan. So, it’s really more of a comprehensive service.
Because of that, I think our ideal client really falls into the entrepreneurial category, owners that are opening their businesses, they have a high growth company that they’re excited about. They’re looking for a partner, not just to do their compliance, but to really help them navigate to the challenges and to connect them with the right resources. You know this about us, David, because you’ve been with our firm, and that was the role that you played. We’d like to think of ourselves as truly that trusted advisor that connects our clients to the right resources, whether that’s us or somebody else that we can refer to them, because-

Dave: Sure, yeah, like a banker, like a bank, a law firm.

Sheila: Right. Exactly. So yeah, we’re a pretty industry agnostic, even though we’re building these industry verticals. We have manufacturing construction, real state. We even have a huge banking practice, we have about 50, more than that, around 50-plus banks now that we work with. We’ve realized over the course of the evolution of the firm that there is now an opportunity to really create these verticals that is servicing the industry, but also expanding the services that we offer within each of the core audit, tax, and consulting.

Dave: Yeah. In fact, I think one of your first niches, even before you joined the firm, was the benefit plan auditing. I assume that’s still probably a significant niche for you all.

Sheila: It is. And kudos to Meresa Morgan. Meresa, she started that practice from the ground up. And I think right now, we’re close to maybe 150 that do audit, and we’re definitely in the top percentage of firms in the nation who do the number of EBP plans. So, Meresa’s done a really, really good job of building the succession as well. We have several senior managers and principals that are helping her build up practice. We see that as a very sustainable and continuing niche for us. Very excited.
And what’s nice is that we also have built up the team, even at the lower level seniors and staff that are very passionate about that area and would like to see themselves developing within that niche. Yeah.

Dave: No, that sounds good. I’ve got… Boy, I can’t believe how quickly the time has passed. So, there’s a couple of last things I would like to talk about before we wrap up.
One is I would like to talk about some of the misconceptions people have about the accounting industry or the public accounting industry. And then, I’d also like if you could give me a real-life example or two of companies or individuals that just come to mind, just an example of someone that you were able to help. Maybe somebody who was with a very small firm that they’ve outgrown, or somebody who had been with a very large firm that they weren’t getting the personal service.
So, if you could just touch on those two things. Why don’t we start with maybe some of the biggest misconceptions people have about the public accounting industry?

Sheila: Yeah. And I thank you for that opportunity. I didn’t expect that to be a question, but I’m so glad that you bring it up. And I think it’s very, very timely, because when we’re talking about that in the profession, I’m very active with the profession itself, both actually at the local state and national level. So, you might know I served as the president of the Houston CPA Society a couple of years ago, and I’m currently on the executive board of the state society. And I’m actually the chair of the Brand and Community Relations Committee, which is a new committee that we created for this year. I also just served three years on the governing council of the AICPA and I’m rolling back in next year.
So, one of our biggest hurdles, right, as I had mentioned to you before, is that we believe in the profession. I believe in it wholeheartedly. I feel like there’s so many opportunities. But there is this perception about accountants, I think, that is out there for whatever reason, and I had it too. That’s why I took management in the first place. My husband went accounting, but I went management because in my mind, “Oh, gosh, accounting is boring.” Exactly. Every time, we’re portrayed in the movies, it’s usually like this person has a half card or, you know what I mean?
So, I think essentially that you have an image issue is how I put it. And I think it’s compounded by the fact that we also have busy seasons, where some of the students may be thinking, “Gosh, if I want work-life balance, I cannot achieve that in the CPA realm and in the public accounting realm because they work 80-hour weeks during busy season from January through April.” And there are firms, obviously, where there is that need, and maybe you do work a lot of hours.
But I think it really is a misconception. If you look at the opportunities that CPAs have just in the diversity of the opportunities, so I had mentioned to you as a firm, we have our core services of audit, tax, and consulting. But if you’re coming in as a practitioner, as a staff, there’s so many exposures that you can have in these different areas because even within tax, you can be doing personal taxes, you can be doing corporate taxes, you could be doing partnerships, international tax, high net worth, state planning. So, you can pick a path that is of interest to you with impacts.
And then, if you look at audit in the same token, you can pick an industry, you can say, “I want to learn how to audit oil and gas companies, real estate companies, construction,” and then even within that, you get trained to be a consultant. So, you can become a controller, you can become a forensic accountant, which is essentially what I ended up gravitating towards where you actually do investigations and I testify in court to calculate damages involved in commercial litigation.
And then, you throw in technology. Technology is a big piece of what we do as CPA firms, where we actually implement systems, enterprise systems like SAP and Oracle, so you have the technology piece. And even as we deliver our services, we use data analytics. We’re into artificial intelligence now. We talk about blockchain. So, there’s such a broad opportunity depending on your interest.
So, we’re not just here sitting, calculating and preparing tax returns. It really is a very exciting and continuing to evolve profession, very centered on helping clients. So, whatever the client’s needs are when it comes to financial, we’re there and we can help them. And then, it even goes beyond that operationally, operational excellence, visioning, creating a plan for the future, so future planning, implementation. That’s our role as advisors. So, I really would love to change the image that we have out there of the stoic, cannot convert because we’re boring.
I mean, at the end of the day, what is the number one, to me, the number one requirement to be successful in our profession, is the ability to communicate, because every day we’re communicating with our clients, with our staff, with the community whether that’s written, whether that’s verbal. So, if you are looking for a really solid profession that you can develop yourself and then become a leader too, I think being a CPA is really one that you should be thinking about.
And I want to just touch on real quick the work-life balance issue is real, right? I mean, but you know what, I look at any profession out there, though, and it’s the same situation, a lawyer, an engineer, you name it. I mean, work-life balance, it’s just a universal issue. It’s not a CPA’s, it’s not an accountant’s issue. What I tell people, though, about that is you got to find the right organization that can provide you with a work-life balance, and I am very fortunate because that was my number one requirement when I moved to Houston.
So, when I moved to Houston, I didn’t know any firm in the area. I relied on my recruiter. But my number one requirement was work-life balance because I had a two-year-old. My oldest was two at the time, and I was going to transfer into University of Houston Law Center to pursue my law degree in the evenings. So, I needed to have an employer…

Dave: Right. With all that free time when you go to law school.

Sheila: Exactly. So, I needed to find an employer that actually understood what I was looking for, that recognize that I can deliver, but they have to give me the flexibility. You would probably be surprised, or maybe not, to learn that certain firms just weren’t open to that. They offered me a part-time position because they thought, “Well, how can you really do that?” But Briggs and Veselka said, “Yeah, go for it because that is better for us as a firm, because once you graduate,” and that’s what happened, I started our Litigation Support practice.
And so, I think, to me, don’t let that keep you from pursuing the CPA license because, if anything, it gives you the credibility and the leverage to work with your employer in creating a more balanced schedule, because I don’t think it’s a woman issue, either. I mean, it may seem that way, but I do know that millennials, in particular, the dads want to get involved, right? It’s not that Boomers didn’t know Gen Xers didn’t.
But when I started, there wasn’t really that expectation, right? It’s almost like we had to live within the structure that we found ourselves in, which is really interesting to me, because I never questioned the hours when I started in public accounting until I had Anthony. And then I said, “I’m only going to work four days with my former employer in Rhode Island.” They were like, “Sure.”
So, it’s really finding, I think, the right employers too. It’s so critical, but they share your values. So, if the value is family and finding a work-life balance, then find that employer that actually embraces that. And then, if you’re one that just really wants to put in the hours and work really hard maybe at a stage in their life, you find that employer as well that value. So, it’s really not a right or wrong, but I certainly want to just emphasize.
And I know for Briggs, we’re very, very committed to allowing our people to have flexibility. We’re all working remote right now, all 320-plus people, we’re all working remote, working from home because of the COVID crisis. But even before, they were letting people work from home some days of the week. So, I think it’s important to find the employer, so please consider. That is truly, a very good one.
And then, I think you were asking if we have some clients that maybe we’ve helped?

Dave: Yeah. So, here’s where you get to really… Here’s a great opportunity, with one or two examples, maybe just one because of time, that can illustrate and really allow you to accentuate some of the positives of the firm with a real world story. It could be probably a textbook one, maybe be some entrepreneurial company that had… So anyway, if there’s an example that comes to mind, I would love to hear.

Sheila: I’ve got one. Yeah, so I’ve got one and it’s not a specific company, per se, but I think it reflects our core mission of really assisting our clients, and because generally speaking, I can give you examples of situations where we would actually get a client that maybe outgrew their CPA, and they’re now involved in, say, international tax issues because they’re growing and we would tend to bring them in and then realize that there are mistakes that were done or things that we’re not even filed, but we can now help them remedy. Those are fairly common in terms of being able to assist them.
But the one thing that actually comes to mind, for me, that is pretty recent, is this Payroll Protection Program. These stimulus packages that were put out very quickly as a response to COVID. And I think for our firm, our focus is always how do we help our clients in a situation where they’re struggling, like “What do I do? All of a sudden, I had revenue in one month, and then I have zero in next,” and they want to protect their employees because a lot of our clients are similar to our core, they’re very people focused.
And so, when the PPP program came out, we really took the time within a few days to digest and understand it and figure out a way to help our clients. And the best thing that we did in hindsight, which in the moment… I just remember, I think the legislation was finalized. President Trump signed it, I think, on a Friday, and we had a task force ready to take it in, figure out a way for us to push this out to the clients, and then figure out a way to help them.
So, the following Monday, we actually mocked up a webinar to be able to reach our clients and give them the specifics of the program. And if you’ve been staying on top of the PPP, it’s an ever-changing, very fluid situation where you think one thing as defined and then the FDA comes out with new definitions. So, the need to actually be on top of it is so crucial.
But long story short, we ended up putting out a webinar back-to-back within two days where we had over 1,000 people attend in that two-day session. And then, we added another one that Friday for non-profits specifically, because non-profits, that’s an area that we’re also building out. I was really, really proud of the team, and the feedback that we got from the clients. Because, again, it was happening so quickly and the opportunity to apply was such a short window to think about the funds initially that ran out until it was replenished. So, that, to me, was a huge thing.
I remember, at the time, we were sending out daily communication to the firm. The challenge that I asked the team was, “You got to step up. This is a time to help clients, answer questions, put them in the right direction in terms of what they need to do in order to make this happen.” And really, our connections work well for us too because the banks were in a tough position to respond. I don’t really recall that certain banks were only offering it to their clients. So, if you happen to be a client that doesn’t have a relationship with a bank just yet, you could be out in the cold.
So, we help so many of them get connected with our community banks, that really were not partial to just their clients. And so, being able to connect them… That’s been a few months now, and we’re now in the phase of the forgiveness, and we’re continuing to help, we’re continuing to push out information every time there’s an update. That task force has evolved into a niche group that’s actually helping clients with, not just their application, but their forgiveness application as well. I think it’s a testament to our ability to really pivot and address issues as they come. It’s very client-focused and being able to provide that resource to them beyond their compliance.

Dave: Yeah. Well, thank you for that explanation. And that turnaround time from the legislation being signed Friday to having a game plan by Monday is… Not every service organization respond to that quickly. So, that is-

Sheila: And by the way, we’ve never done a webinar in the history of the firm, so that was-

Dave: Oh, wow. Yeah, to get that figured out in a hurry.

Sheila: Yeah, we piloted it with the internal people first, and thankfully, we implemented Zoom last year. And by the time Zoom took off as the media of choice, we were already pretty well versed in it and had a good relationship with Zoom. I think our license was capped at 500 for the attendance and then we started getting registrations. So, we ended up expanding into 1,000.
Again, it still amazes me. I’m so proud of the team that made it happen. That’s the one that keeps resonating with me when you asked me the question.

Dave: Well, that is great. Well, thank you for sharing that. I can’t believe our hour is already up. This has been a real treat for me, Sheila. And again, I just want to reiterate how my heart is warmed by your American success story and your Houston success story.

Sheila: Oh, thank you, David.

Dave: That just is really, really inspiring and a reminder to really every native-born American about just what a tremendous opportunity this country provides. And so, yeah, thank you for demonstrating that that opportunity exists. And also, thank you for taking such good care of our clients. We share some clients, so thank you for the good job you guys do.
I don’t know if you know, we just picked up a client that a bank referred us that you all do their audit work, and I can talk offline about it.

Sheila: Oh, that’s great.

Dave: But yeah, so-

Sheila: Thank you to you for, I know you’ve always been a huge supporter of the firm as well. So, I always appreciate you keeping us in mind and the relationship. I’m hoping by the time we get to January next year, we can have the open house because I know that’s usually a time that we get to catch up. I really just appreciate the opportunity to talk about the firm and myself too.

Dave: Well, it was my pleasure. Well, thank you again for your time and have a great week.

Sheila: You too. Thank you,

Dave: Bye-bye.