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To lead first requires individuals to see the needs of those around them before acting. It's a conscious decision that results in great impact, and in today's business climate, is, unfortunately, a fading characteristic of leaders. But when combined with the commitment to encourage others' success, servant leadership can become the defining principle of a firm's culture. It's certainly the story of Smith & Howard, which celebrates that philosophy with perhaps one of its most notable announcements in its 47-year history: Sean Taylor who joined the firm 25 years ago as an intern, will assume the role of managing partner.
Sean, currently partner-in-charge of Smith & Howard's Assurance Service practice, takes the helm in January 2019. He brings the values of and lessons learned from his modest mentors Jim Howard and John Lucht, among others, to his leadership role, and epitomizes Smith & Howard's commitment to recognizing drive and results as critical factors in career advancement. Sean’s goal is to help everyone tap into that strength, elevate their performance and contribute in impactful ways.
When Jim Howard and Joe Smith left a national CPA firm in 1971 to launch Smith & Howard, they brought with them a handful of committed clients and a mission: To develop loyal relationships with their staff, and to bring a higher level of service and commitment to clients than they believed businesses were getting from CPA firms. It was a risk that required a leap of faith and a vision that looked beyond the present. Other accounting professionals in Atlanta were attracted to this vision, and Smith & Howard continued its steady growth over the next two decades under the humble leadership of Jim Howard as managing partner.
Fast forward to 1990 when a seasoned Big Four partner also believed the future of accounting depended on attentive, creative and higher levels of client service. Enter John Lucht, who for 20 years would shine at the art of collaboration and would ultimately guide the growth of the firm’s Assurance Service practice started by Wade St. John. A young intern, Sean Taylor, would also join them in January 1994, and the pieces that would comprise the future of Smith & Howard managing partner leadership were in place.
The firm’s then-24 professionals and staff continued to build a client family that, to this day, includes the South’s most successful and entrepreneurially driven individuals and businesses, among them some of the largest companies in the region.
John Lucht would be named as the second managing partner in 2010. In tandem with its client roster, Smith & Howard grew exponentially and attracted some of the brightest accountants and staff in the marketplace to join its ranks. Guided by the belief that promoting from within and providing staff with development opportunities and training pays dividends for the entire firm, Smith & Howard has grown to be a recognized industry leader. It was named as one of Accounting Today’s “2017 Best Firms to Work For,” among other consistent accolades over the years.
Sean Taylor, as Smith & Howard's third managing partner in its 47-year history, will assume leadership of the firm that today is comprised of almost 125 accounting professionals and staff, many of whom have also worked there for decades. While longevity and loyalty are hallmarks, make no mistake that the two have not led to lack of progress. Innovation is a top priority for Sean, as he believes it creates a healthy competition among peers to see matters differently and approach challenges in new ways.
Client service expectations have evolved to a 24/7 model with technology presenting both opportunities and challenges. True to the firm’s core values, Sean recognizes that, while technology – such as web-based auditing platforms and artificial intelligence – streamline today's accounting practice and bring efficiencies directly to the client, it is critical that Smith & Howard not lose sight of who it is and how it got to its current status: taking time with clients, even when that requires rapid response at work, on the road or at home. Also, paramount has been the firm’s core competencies of its renowned compliance, tax and advisory services.
Clients Since Day One
Smith & Howard’s client list ranges from startups to large, established businesses, nonprofits and individuals, some of whom were original clients from 1971 still served today. The firm’s client retention is extraordinary for the profession. Among that list of long-standing clients is Benning Construction Company in Atlanta, to which Sean was assigned as a young intern on his very first day in 1994.
Sean believes that all too often organizations become distracted by the “new and shiny,” losing sight of the lessons learned along the way. As a result, his vision for the future of Smith & Howard is clear: Continue to reinvest in the well-oiled machine; maintain and keep core practices ahead of the curve; and stay in front of the competition.
Smith & Howard has long-recognized that it must possess a deep knowledge of its clients’ industries, and Sean believes there is still room for growth in some of the firm’s more mature niche industries, including manufacturing, distribution and nonprofits. In addition, the firm has seen continued growth in hospitality, construction, insurance and real estate. With a laser focus on serving these industries, Smith & Howard trains its people to be sector experts, understanding how clients conduct their businesses to offer more than compliance work to the client. For example, succession planning is one service that Sean notes is unique to each industry – and a value-added service the firm provides that goes beyond just the audit.
Time for Future Leaders
Beyond skills training, Sean emphasizes training of the next generation of leaders. Smith & Howard's mentoring program is structured to address the senior partners’ almost unanimous response to the question, “What made the difference for you?” The answer? “Someone senior took the time to help me.”
Mentors and mentees sign a contract that outlines their respective responsibilities so that each can maximize the benefit of participation. Board service is encouraged as an avenue to further develop leadership skills. The firm also accounts for generational differences among its ranks, noting that two-thirds of its employees are millennials. Sean notes that the core approach of getting to know people as individuals also helps chart the right course for success for these younger professionals.
While the younger generation at Smith & Howard follows suit with their millennial counterparts and have a strong interest in what their employer is doing for the community, service is part of the fabric of the firm – and has been since its inception. Each year, the firm makes contributions to nonprofits in the Greater Atlanta community on behalf of its clients. For the firm’s 40th anniversary in 2011, employees completed 40 community service projects in 12 months – one project for each year of the firm’s existence. Sean himself co-founded FoodStock, an annual food packaging event in Dunwoody, Ga., where more than 1,000 community members come together to assemble more than 300,000 meals in one day for children in school feeding programs around the globe. Additionally, he mentors 13 teenage boys through a group he co-founded called Fit 4 Life, meeting weekly to discuss various aspects of faith and life.
“Atlanta has given a lot to us,” he notes, “and we need to give back.”
As December approaches and Sean prepares to take the reins at Smith & Howard from his mentor and friend, John Lucht, his first meeting as managing partner will begin just as all of those preceding it: By reading from the firm’s values statement. One of those values focuses on perpetuity and leadership, which suggests just what kind of leader Sean will be – which will come as no surprise to his clients and peers:
“Living the firm’s values is key to establishing long-term relationships with our clients and our people, thereby ensuring the firm’s perpetuity and leadership in the profession and community. We desire that the firm transcend generations and be a place where future partners can succeed,” said Sean.