A new accounting

Bill Troup works the room at the Duquesne Club at a reception held to roll out a relationship his accounting firm, Sisterson & Co., has formed with financial planning giant AXA Advisors.

As servers pour drinks and pass hors d’oeuvres, Troup, Sisterson’s managing partner since 1997, moves smoothly from group to group, shaking hands and chatting with guests, representatives of AXA and his partners and associates.

Like the firm he manages, which is playing down a buttoned-down image without sacrificing the prestige it has acquired over three-quarters of a century, Troup has undergone an evolution over the course of his career. He’s gone from accountant with then Big Eight firm Price Waterhouse (now PricewaterhouseCoopers) to managing partner of Sisterson & Co., gaining business skill and savvy and learning to enjoy selling himself and pitching the value of his firm.

“I found that in order to survive in business, you’ve got to sell yourself,” Troup says.

Troup concedes he didn’t always enjoy elbow-rubbing and networking functions like the Duquesne Club event. In fact, he recalls complaining to colleagues at Price Waterhouse about the mandatory practice development activities the firm required of its professionals. Accountants, he says, would rather be checking numbers in a telephone directory than hawking their firm at a business social.

He went to college — first to become an engineer and later to train as an accountant — because he liked things technical, not because he was eager to spend time meeting people and extending his circle of business contacts.

“I don’t think I did that because I wanted to work with people. I think I did it because I was more of a techie type rather than an extrovert,” Troup says.

Nonetheless, he’s done an about-face in his attitude toward developing and exercising the soft skills of business. Now, he says, he enjoys making the sales calls. Last year, with prodding by his marketing director, he agreed to serve as chairman of the American Heart Association’s HeartWalk, and he sits on the boards of several nonprofit organizations.

Much of that change has come, it seems, as Troup acquired responsibility with Sisterson, first to bolster its audit practice, later as partner and, ultimately, as managing partner in a firm that realized it had to change or stagnate. Doing the big-picture stuff doesn’t make as much sense when you’re doing the more narrowly focused work of an associate in a big firm, he says.

“But when you do it on your own and you see the benefits and you have a hit and you make new friends, it becomes a lot easier,” Troup says.

The arrangement with AXA Advisors is another step in the evolution of the firm from tax accountant and auditor to one offering a broader range of services.

Tax compliance and audit work are commodities that often go to the low bidder. As clients’ needs have grown more complex and diverse, and as accounting firms have sought new revenue streams, they’ve found it necessary to change and grow commensurately or risk losing clients to better-equipped shops.

Changes in the market

Sisterson was founded by Douglas G. Sisterson in 1926 as D.G. Sisterson & Co., a firm that serviced the tax and transactional needs of the multiple businesses under the Hillman Co. The firm transformed from that rather simple model into a boutique firm with about 80 employees that offers a wide variety of services to its roster of closely held companies, nonprofits and public sector clients.

Sisterson began implementing these fundamental changes about the time Troup joined the firm two decades ago. He moved from Price Waterhouse at the invitation of Sisterson’s managing partner, who wanted to bolster the audit practice. Sisterson had just 18 employees when Troup came on board.

“He felt there was this void in serving the clients, that doing just tax work can’t be a good thing,” Troup says.

Donna DeFilippi, who joined Sisterson in 1984 and now heads Sisterson Financial Design Associates, the venture with AXA Advisors, recalls the firm when she joined it as much smaller, “a very, very busy group,” and in the traditional accounting firm mold.

“We were very focused on the traditional compliance and planning, and a lot of that at the time was Hillman-related,” says DeFilippi.

By 1984, Troup and three partners acquired the firm and began to slowly but steadily build the practice. In 1997, the partners selected Troup as managing partner and set out to put together a strategic plan that would allow them to continue to grow the firm and offer additional services.

“We reached the point where we needed to add some programs, some new niches,” says Troup.

Troup and his partners concluded there wasn’t much choice if they wanted to grow the firm. Other firms vying for the same kinds of clients — primarily closely held businesses — had mounted aggressive marketing campaigns to capture a larger share of a regional market that wasn’t growing very fast.

And the clients they were all serving and seeking tended to be busy people with complex business and personal needs that required expertise in a variety of disciplines, including business consulting, personal finance and estate and succession planning.

“We decided that the one-stop shopping concept had become very popular, and that if we didn’t change our service offerings, we were going to start shrinking considerably while others around us were growing,” Troup says.

The firm built on its basic capabilities and added a cluster of complementary services — including business consulting, business valuation and litigation support — to offer to existing and potential clients.

The search for a financial services partner began about three years ago. The first two were spent looking at options, and Troup says there was no shortage of potential dance partners.

“We had a lot of service providers approaching us during that two years,” says Troup.

On their surface, many of the offers looked lucrative, but Troup says his firm’s concern was that it not compromise the trusting relationships it had developed with clients. Sisterson didn’t want to be perceived as using its ties with clients to simply sell financial products that may or not be appropriate for their needs.

Says DeFilippi: “Our concern was that people would look at us as less than objective.”

Sisterson was cautious, and an initial meeting with AXA Advisors didn’t indicate to the accounting firm that a relationship with the financial services giant was likely. But AXA persisted and ultimately won Sisterson’s confidence. In the end, AXA prevailed because its business approach was not unlike Sisterson’s.

“They seemed very closely focused on client services,” says DeFilippi.

A hands-on approach

Despite the demands of managing the firm, Troup remains actively involved with his clients. Not surprisingly, he maintains his role as lead partner for the Hillman Co.’s work as well as several others.

“I also feel I need to stay technically competent, and one of the ways I do that is to have a broad base of clients,” says Troup.

The hands-on approach pays off, not only for existing clients but in prospecting for new business as well.

“I’m always amazed to watch because he can go in and establish the rapport with individuals and he can have the knowledge level and experience level to be able to discuss it all the way across the board for that particular business,” says Cynthia Kutcher, director of practice development and communications.

And because he serves on boards and gives advice to CEOs, he says he needs to stay sharp to offer them counsel grounded in current, real-world experience.

Says Troup: “I can’t do that just from reading magazine articles.” How to reach: Sisterson & Co., www.sisterson.com