USA Today Article
GARY HELDT, JR., OWNER OF THE MARYLAND BASED ACCOUNTING FIRM SMALL BUSINESS ADVISORS, BREAKS THE MOLD OF TYPICAL CPA'S WITH HANDS ON, YEAR ROUND DEDICATION TO CUSTOMER SERVICE
By Jonathan Widran
Breaking every possible stereotype any of us have ever harbored about what an accountant or CPA is supposed to look and act like, Gary Heldt Jr., owner of Gambrills, Maryland based Small Business Advisors, transcends even the catch-phrase at the top of his website that reads “More Than Just an Accountant."
Small and bookish? The charismatic 6'3", 275 lb former college football player matches his "gentle giant"persona with a commitment to not simply recording history, but helping his clients write it. Emotionally detached, barely accessible by phone and only available during tax season? SBA's proactive attitude, complete menu of tax help and accounting services and the personal year round relationship with his individual and corporate clients sets a unique industry standard for customer service. Combined with the firm's high standards and specialized staff, these dynamic qualities have driven Small Business Advisors' growth over the past 11 years to five times the clientele and revenue that the company was generating when Heldt acquired it in 1999.
Considering that Heldt's goal when he bought the original practice was to double the size of its business, SBA is on a pretty powerful trajectory. Though he started advertising in the past year, the company built most of its current clientele of 750 personal tax clients and 250-300 small businesses by word of mouth and bringing that personal touch to their mastery of payroll, taxes, consulting and bookkeeping. Currently in an expansion mode, Heldt recently hired an additional, year round CPA and is bringing in additional staff members—with an eye towards doubling business over the next two years. He is a contributing writer to the Best Selling Book called "Breaking The Tax Codes," which features chapters by eight other high profile CPAs and accountants. Heldt's chapter focusing on writing off meals and entertainment expenses is called "Eat, Drink, Be Merry and Document, Document, Document."
The basic principles of how SBA serves its clients can be found on the home page of its website, where the key line is "It doesn't matter how good your tax accountant is with a stack of receipts on April 15." Heldt's belief is that for clients to come out with more on their bottom line, they need an overall plan that involves long term strategies and preparation. SBA specializes in such tax planning and preparation.
The response to a few simple questions can mean additional thousands of dollars saved every year: 1) Have you organized your business right? 2) Do you have the right benefit plan for yourself and your employees? 3) Do you have the right retirement plan to prepare for your future? 4) Are you taking advantage of all the legitimate deductions, credits, loopholes and strategies the Tax Code offers?
One of SBA's unique innovations is "cloud computing," in which a web portal is created with a copy of the client's tax return and supporting documentation. Clients can do all their work online beforehand, including answering 20 key questions about their finances and business that will help Heldt and his staff better serve them. SBA mails hard copy tax organizers to elderly clients who may not be as internet savvy. Everything is geared around convenience and proper preparation.
Breaking those aforementioned stereotypes has been and continues to be something of a joyful challenge as Small Business Advisors expands its scope and prospective clientele. "We charge our clients very reasonable and competitive fees," Heldt says, "but I think our success is based just as much on the fact that we are very accessible and put an emphasis on customer service-which is something I think the accounting industry has largely gotten away from. I think it's because typically accountants and CPAs are bad business people who look strictly at numbers.
"The focus is usually on what they can charge per hour to make a certain amount of money," he adds, "or figuring out how to maximize profit for minimal time invested with each client. Small Business Advisors is equally concerned with the human touch. In working with different businesses and talking with friends and small business owners, I hear the same complaints about most accountants. They do so much talking to the client that they don't take the time to listen to their needs and concerns. So that's one thing our industry often fails to do. They're so used to telling clients what they need to do that they're not open to what the client really needs." One of the common questions a relatively small but innovative firm like SBA receives from prospective clients is why they should hire them and not nationally recognized chains like H&R Block to do their annual taxes. Heldt’s response is simple: "If you go to H&R Block during tax season, that's the only time you're going to see them. If you have questions outside of tax season, you can’t talk to the person who prepared your taxes last year. The chances of ever reaching that person again are unlikely. We’re here year round and encourage our clients to call throughout the year to ask questions so we can help them plan way ahead for April 15."
Heldt adds that there's nothing worse at tax time than a client realizing that he or she should have done "this or that" and now must pay more to Uncle Sam than necessary. For clients who can file on a quarterly basis—including those receiving retirement income or who are self-employed—SBA sends out estimated tax coupons four times a year, along with envelopes to mail to mail their payments. He cites a strong example of how the firm helped save money for a client who is an electrical contractor. He was paying an employee in the field $25 an hour while billing him at $35, assuming the $10 per hour was pure profit. Heldt showed him how all of the ancillary expenses connected to the employees’ work (including the use of a truck, gas, etc.) actually made him lose money on the arrangement.
“One of our ongoing goals is to reach out to consumers and let them know there are alternatives to the kind of treatment they have gotten from other accounting firms,” he says. “It’s simply not acceptable during tax season not getting a return phone call from your CPA. I heard one story where a client told me they tried to get a hold of the guy who did his taxes and couldn’t, and when he got his tax forms back on April 14, he owed $20,000 which he could not afford to pay. That should never happen. If you have a business, you should meet with your CPA in December or even on a quarterly basis to review your books and make sure you’re where you need to be.”
Efficiency overriding complexity is the foundation of SBA’s success story, but for many clients, it’s the personal touches and the unique ways of keeping in touch that matter just as much. In line with being told by many clients that they consider him and Small Business Advisors extended family, Heldt keeps them in the loop with a monthly newsletter that features a humorous section called “Tyler’s Corner”—“written” by Heldt’s son who is only three years old! A recent edition showed Tyler dressed up as a UPS delivery man for Halloween, and another had a photo of Tyler holding his newborn baby sister. Many clients say that this is the first thing they read when they get the newsletter.
Believing in the importance of giving back to the community, Heldt helped form a business referral group where trusted firms recommend each other when their own clients need a different product or service that they themselves cannot provide. Small Business Advisors also helped found a non-profit charity called “For The Kids”; for the past 11 years, this charity has organized a charity golf tournament where funds are raised for a seriously ill child. In 2010 alone, the charity was fortunate enough to be able to donate over $21,000 to a local family in need of money for medical bills. The tournament is played at Crofton Country Club in Crofton, Maryland, where Heldt and Mike Thomas, his friend and co-founder of the event, are members. It has sold out for the past seven years. “I think I measure my life in terms of the number of people’s lives I have touched, whether through my business or charitable endeavors,” says Heldt. “To me, that’s something that is very important. My mom raised me and my two sisters by herself and we struggled financially as she did the best for us with what she had. She taught me what was important in life and my belief once I had established myself in business was, if I can do this, anyone can do it.”
A devoted family man, Heldt’s wife Jen has been a loving and supportive force in his life, and he is the proud father of three year old son Tyler and a four month old daughter named Madelyn. In essence, it was family that sparked his lifelong interest in helping people through their tax trials.
Observing the trouble and expense his mom went through one year doing her taxes inspired Heldt’s early interest in accounting when he was growing up in Riverdale and Landover, Maryland. It was the early 1980s, and he felt that she was getting ripped off having to pay $350 to do her taxes. His ambition kindled, her signed up for a basic high school bookkeeping class and found he had a knack for numbers—which he attributed to common sense. He was an accounting major at Shepherd College in Shepherdstown, West Virginia and knew that eventually he wanted to own his own business. He laid the groundwork for that working as an accountant for a series of for-profit and non-profit organizations for a number of years, including a medical management practice (starting with hospital inventories and later, hospital layouts), a small accounting and tax practice and the YWCA of Washington, DC.
This background, coupled with his desire to provide the best service possible at the fairest price, led him to open his own firm in 1999. “I was doing taxes for many people on a freelance basis and told a friend of mine that I wanted to take the plunge and open my own firm. He knew a guy who had a successful practice but wanted to sell to the right person. When I bought Small Business Advisors we had 150-175 clients and worked out a deal to smooth the transition where the previous owner would stay with the company as a consultant for three years. We implemented a new business model right away, shifting from a one man operation to a firm with a multi-talented staff. When the original owner passed away two years later, I was glad that we had gone with that new approach, which is part of SBA’s success story today.”