A good accountant, of course, is a pre-requisite for smart tax preparation, something that may be on your mind as April 15 looms large. But the fact is, accountants can do considerably more for you than help you to fulfill your obligations to the Internal Revenue Service. A smart CPA, especially one who has worked with a lot of small businesses, is able to do everything from introducing you to helpful lawyers to providing business advice.
“Your accountant can become like another business partner,” says Josh Dubrow, a CPA with Nussbaum Yates Berg Klein & Wolpow, a New York City-based accounting firm, and vice president of the small business outreach committee of the New York State Society of CPAs.
The key is understanding how to get the most out of your accountant—and not let that invaluable resource go to waste. Take these steps:
Make sure you have the right one. The first issue is ensuring you’ve chosen an accountant who’s a good fit for your business. The best way to find one is by getting a reference from your attorney, banker or a fellow small business owner. You want someone who not only understands your industry, but also has worked with small companies in your sector before. “I’ve never handled a restaurant client,” says Dubrow, “So if a restaurant owner came to me, I probably would explain I don’t have the right expertise.” In addition, it’s a good idea to look for a firm that will be able to work with you as your business grows.
Tap their networks. Most savvy accountants are connected to a network of lawyers, bankers and other professionals who might be helpful to you. Your job is to bring the topic up with your accountant and ask point blank about contacts you could meet. What’s more, your accountant probably has clients in a variety of other fields, people you might want to get to know. Be sure, then, to find out who some of those clients are and explore how you might be able to help each other. For example, Dubrow recently matched a client looking for certain products with a distributor who was also a client. Ask your accountant to make the introductions more than once—just don’t overdo it.
Seek their business advice. Accountants who work with small companies also tend to have a deep understanding of everything from pricing strategies to cost controls. Result: If you’re facing a business challenge, make sure to bring it up and ask for your accountant’s input. “They understand business as a whole,” says Dubrow, “Even if it’s something that doesn’t have anything to do with numbers.”
Stay in touch. Don’t limit your contact to tax season. Meet in person or call quarterly, or even every month. That way, your accountant can help monitor your business throughout the year. “If you only meet, say, when the year is over, you’ll miss out on all sorts of potential recommendations,” says Dubrow.
Come prepared—and be a student. Make sure you have the proper documents and records with you when you meet. If you’re not prepared the first time, your accountant should tell you exactly what to take with you for the next appointment. In addition, if you don’t have a thorough understanding of finance, your accountant should be able to help educate you about not just key financial measurements, but metrics that are especially important for your industry. “Use their expertise,” says Dubrow. What’s more, you can ask your accountant to help you understand how your results compare to those of other similar businesses.
Look for their help in getting a loan. If you’re applying for bank financing, your accountant should be one of your key resources. Of course, you’ll get help preparing or gathering the appropriate documents. But that should include not just looking at your balance sheet, but also offering advice about what to put in your business plan. And, consider taking your accountant along with you when you meet your potential banker, especially if they already know each other. “When you walk into the room, do you want go alone,” asks Dubrow “or with a guy who played golf with the banker last week?”
First published on American Express Open Forum on March 17, 2011