CPA Firm Grew from Three to 150 by Sticking to Core Service Principles

A quarter-century ago, Keith Barfield, Don Murphy, and John Shank left a large Birmingham CPA firm with their certified public accountant expertise. What they didn’t have was clients.

“The three of us one day just left and worked out the basement of my house with no clients and we pounded the pavement,” Shank said in a recent interview.

With the addition of member Steve Smith soon after, Business Council of Alabama member Barfield Murphy, Shank and Smith LLC became a thriving multi-city accounting service firm with 150 employees in Auburn, Birmingham, Huntsville, and Opelika.

Shank described the corporate culture established by the founders who realized their life and work balance was out of kilter.

“We were young them and we said we don’t want to miss our kids growing up and we wanted to have a place where we have great careers and have a life outside of work,” Shank said. “That stuck.”

BMSS is a traditional CPA firm offering accounting, tax advisory, bookkeeping, tax audits, multistate tax, estate trusts, SALT, state and local tax services for manufacturers, wholesale distributors, construction companies, non-profits, and governments.

Privately owned BMSS is a member of the worldwide BDO Alliance, the fifth-largest international CPA firm in the world, which enables leverage of resources for clients.

“I think the uniqueness of us is, one, we’re we’ve been one of the top places to work going on the 11th year now for the past 12 years as chosen by the Birmingham Business Journal,” Shank  said. “We’ve been written up in the Wall Street Journal and Accounting Today named us a good place to work.”

Just last week, the Birmingham Business Journal (subscription required) announced its annual list and named BMSS No. 1 in the large-company category for the second year in a row.

While BMSS is conducting its “normal” work, this spring it embarked on a survey of manufacturers and distributors leading up to its MFG Forum scheduled Thursday, June 1, from 7:30 a.m. to 10 a.m., at The Wynfrey Hotel in Birmingham. It’s free for clients and invited non-clients.

“This June seminar will help us better serve our clients,” Shank said

“The goal is to get everybody to answer our survey so that we can provide them with a report that shows an overview in the industry,” Shank said. “That way they can benchmark themselves amongst their peers,” Shank said. “The insight from the survey will drive the topics of discussion at our manufacturing forum where we hope to provide our clients with insight on current trends as well as a great opportunity to network with their peers.”

The event will feature a panel discussion of top local industry leaders such as Mike Rowland of O’Neal Industries, Harold Hudson of Summer Classics, and Gene Robinson of IMS and Vikon Surgical.

In addition, several key professionals who work with those in the industry will participate in the panel as well – John Bentley of Renasant Bank, D. Franklin of the Bradley law firm, and Kim Tarnakow, who leads BMSS’s state and local tax practice.

BMSS’s largest business segment is manufacturing, which includes wholesale distribution, and the challenge is to remain focused on the core niches including use-tax audits, multistate taxation, in order to “help our manufacturing clients survive.”

Shank recalled how, early on, one of BMSS’s first 50 clients was a family owned manufacturing company that was on the ropes and in danger of collapsing from internal issues. “We worked with them and helped them with some of their metrics and that company turned around and ultimately sold and that owner is still a client,” he said.

Barfield, Murphy, Shank, and Smith had a good plan that relied on three key advisers – bankers, attorneys, and insurance representatives, a group that is as important today as it will be forever. “Lean on your key advisers,” Shank said.

“We read a certain book and the premise was we as business advisers of clients have our own firm that we have to be looking to the future to make sure we’re not a typewriter or Kodak,” Shank said. “We’ve got to anticipate what’s coming down road and adjust accordingly and we’re going to do that.”

BMSS recently observed its silver anniversary with a goal of continuing its service into the next 25 years and beyond. “I know I’m biased, but us local guys have been able to create a firm of a pretty good size,” Shank said.