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[Podcast] Kelly Kienholz Seevers of CLA Shares Outsourced Accounting Best Practices for Nonprofits, Government, and **the** Big Game

Topic: Podcast

In this episode of the AI in Accounting Podcast, you will meet Kelly Kienholz Seevers, Principal of Outsourcing (Nonprofit and Government) at CLA (CliftonLarsonAllen), based in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

For over 60 years, CLA has offered wealth advisory, outsourcing, audit, tax, and consulting services to more than 150K clients in industries. They are dedicated to building an inclusive culture that thrives on different beliefs and perspectives.

Kelly has some fantastic advice for those who are looking to start up a client accounting services firm, as well as those who have been managing their own firm for a while and gotten into a rut. According to Kelly, the two magic words are “process improvement”:

[Podcast] Kelly Kienholz Seevers of CLA Shares Outsourced Accounting Best Practices for Nonprofits, Government, and **the** Big Game

“I think the ones that are really going to succeed, it’s really about automation and process improvement. Not staying stuck. It’s, ‘What’s the future holding?’ Looking ahead, cash-flow forecasting. … Especially during the pandemic, continue to forward-think, project out, not just a year, five years. … We’ve got to get further ahead than just, ‘Where am I at today?’ … Even taking a few hours of just taking a step back and, ‘Okay, what’s working?’ Even reflecting back on the last year. … It’s ever-changing. … Our business is process improvement all the time. Just when you think you have this piece figured out, ‘Okay, what’s the next piece of it? … There’s got to be a better way to do this.’ … There’s always something to do.”

Kelly also has a unique perspective on the need for competitors to keep CAS specialists motivated within the outsourced accounting space. In her words:

“We need competitors out there. We don’t do everything perfectly. … Who else does something that I can learn from? … You don’t know everything … but you know what? [You] can probably find the answer.”

Listen to the episode in full to learn more about the importance of:

  • Prioritizing what you want your practice to become and setting the right goals to ensure that you achieve each milestone along the way,
  • Working with clients to handle any tricky problems that you have inherited from their former accounting staff, and
  • Focusing on process improvement to continue growing your firm’s relationships with current clients, as well as court new ones.

All this and more is discussed in detail in this episode of the AI in Accounting Podcast. To learn more about Kelly Kienholz Severs and contact her with any questions about outsourced accounting, you can check out her LinkedIn profile and visit her bio page directly

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A lightly-edited transcript follows below:

Kelly Kienholz Seevers:

We actually got the Super Bowl that was in Minneapolis in 2018. I was the CFO of the Super Bowl, along with two other staff of CLA, and we did all the accounting for three years. So, I did that as my half-time job. The other half, I ran our outsourcing group in Minneapolis. At that point, the Super Bowl ended. Awesome experience that I will never forget that I will train many people, but it probably did take five years of life off of me. It was a lot of work, a lot of events to build up to, and then to build back down.

Recording:

Welcome to the AI in Accounting podcast, which helps accounting, bookkeeping, and finance professionals prepare for the future of outsourced accounting and accounting technology. Plus, you'll learn how to use artificial intelligence (AI), automation, and machine learning to scale your accounting practice. Now, here's your host, Joshua Feinberg of vic.ai.

Joshua Feinberg:

Hi, it's Joshua Feinberg from the AI in Accounting podcast, and I'm being joined today by a very special guest. I have with me Kelly Kienholz Seevers from CLA. Kelly is a Principal in charge of outsourcing for nonprofits, governments, and, more recently, the shared-services center, and Kelly is based in Minneapolis. Kelly, thanks so much for joining me on the podcast.

Kelly Kienholz Seevers:

Thank you. I'm excited to be here.

Journey to Outsourced Accounting

Joshua Feinberg:

Awesome. The first place I wanted to start was to give our viewers and to give our listeners a little bit of context on your journey, how you got to your current role in CLA. Did you know that you always wanted to go into accounting? Was this a childhood aspiration that led you down a path in college, and then to public accounting, and then different facets of it back to your current role? Was there something that lit a spark in that? Can you let us in on a little bit of insight on how you got to where you are?

Kelly Kienholz Seevers:

Well, I am an only child. My parents did not go to college, and so when we decided I was going to go to college, they said, "All right, we need to go to college. You need to get a degree that you can find a job that pays well." So, that was their aspiration for me. I really enjoyed math, always loved math, and I talked about maybe being a teacher or obviously accounting, and so I took the path of accounting. Once I took a couple of classes in high school, I always knew I wanted to be an accountant. So, I took that journey, went to college at the University of Minnesota. Once I graduated, I actually started working at Larson Allen. So, now, obviously, CliftonLarsonAllen. So, except for five years, I have been at CLA my entire career.

Joshua Feinberg:

That's really interesting. It's a pattern, too, that I've noticed among a lot of people that lead CAS groups, that lead outsourced accounting groups, where they start in public accounting—not usually the same firm, but they start in public accounting—they go out; they try a couple of different roles in accounting, corporate finance controllers, CFO kind of roles, and firms of varying sizes, and then somehow, something draws them back into wanting to rejoin public accounting, but this time, maybe the first time around, they were in an audit role, and they come back and be like, "Oh, cool, I'm going to work with small businesses or entrepreneurs now," or a lot of different businesses, as opposed to just one company organization all day long.

Kelly Kienholz Seevers:

That is what I did, and 20 years ago, we did not have the flexibility that we do now. I was in audit and tax for five years, focused mainly on nonprofits. I loved what I did. I worked myself up very quickly, but I wasn't that long-term auditor; I actually wanted to stay after the audit was completed, and it was kind of a joke with our team. I wanted to stay for like 2-4 weeks, and I just wanted to fix it and make it better. So, the next year, when I came back for the audit, we didn't have the same management comments. We didn't have the same control issues. They could reconcile their bank account or had an AR aging, and so that's really what happened. I left; we didn't have outsourcing back then at CLA, so I left for five years. I was a controller of a $40M nonprofit, cleaned that all up in five years, had three children, and then I was bored, and I had people above me. I wasn't going anywhere else. At that point, at CLA, we had merged in our first outsourcing team in our Washington, DC office. So, at that point, partners that I had talked to and worked with for five years said, "Hey, we're the corporate office. We don't have a corporate office now at CLA, but in Minneapolis, we're the corporate office. We should be able to do that, too." So, I came back, took over two audit clients that we gave up their audit, did their accounting because they didn't have an accountant. Someone had either left or wasn't at the level to do the work, and I did everything from AP payroll, worked myself through financial statements, and anything in between. I was there for about six months, and that's when I hired our first staff, and so I really ran our outsourcing. We call internally “BizOps”—or business operations—but I ran our nonprofit outsourcing in Minneapolis, really worked it up to about 40 people, and then I started about five years ago, making some changes in my career. So, that's when I went from a BizOps or outsourcing leader in Minneapolis, focusing on nonprofit. We actually got the Super Bowl that was in Minneapolis in 2018. I was the CFO of the Super Bowl, along with two other staff of CLA, and we did all the accounting for three years. So, I did that as my half-time job. The other half, I ran our outsourcing group in Minneapolis. At that point, the Super Bowl ended. Awesome experience that I will never forget that I will train many people, but it probably did take five years of life off of me. It was a lot of work, a lot of events to build up to, and then to build back down. So, at that point, I became an industry leader of nonprofits throughout our whole firm. Did that for about a year, and then a year-and-a-half ago, really, we had started a shared-services center three years ago in our Minneapolis office, working with our 60 offices, working with their CFOs and controllers, and we were that back office, that staff, that senior, that day-to-day accountant. It had a rocky start, like any new business, and, at that point, I'm that fixer-upper, that cleaner-upper and came in, and a year-and-a-half ago started reorganizing and rebuilding the team, and here we are today.

Joshua Feinberg:

I was just thinking as you were recounting the story with being the CFO of the Super Bowl that if you ever get pulled into one of your kids’ career days, and you have anyone that is like, "I don't know, accounting seems kind of boring," all you really have to do is touch the raw nerve of anyone that's a football fan or sports fan. Have you ever given much thought to how much money changes hands at the Super Bowl and all the different kinds of ways the budget is allocated?

Kelly Kienholz Seevers:

You don't want to know. It's crazy. Although, I volunteer constantly to be at my kids’ career days, and they're like, "Mom, we're not having you. Mom, no."

Joshua Feinberg:

It's so much more analytical, too. It had been probably five or six years since I'd been to an NFL game, and then I took my son to a Dolphins game last year. Yeah, it was last fall, and I could not believe how much the stadium had changed, how much the score is, how much tracking the speeds of the players, and the IoT, and everything that’s in those plays. It was insane.

Kelly Kienholz Seevers:

It was so interesting; I mean, we knew how much each seat costs, what was the layout, how many people we could have, how many people we couldn't have. I mean, it was unbelievable. We went to the game; my family had more experience than we ever would have had. It was a cool experience but for that event that day, it was enormous.

Advice for Growing an Outsourced Accounting Practice

Joshua Feinberg:

So, shifting gears now to someone that has just been empowered to lead an outsourcing team, it's just landed on their lap, and they know you through their professional network. Maybe you went to school with them, and they reached out and said, "Kelly, I have no idea what I'm doing with getting this started. What should I expect? What's normal for me to be focusing on when building a CAAS group and building an outsourced accounting group in 2021 and beyond?"

Kelly Kienholz Seevers:

I think the biggest thing is you know you're going to veer in different directions. It's ever-changing, how you thought it was going to be. So, even when I started 18, 13 years ago, really, when I started in outsourcing, what I actually thought was I was going to come in, clean it up, and then I was going to go help them hire a full-time person. That really has ever evolved and changed. I think the biggest thing I would say is, “Listen to your clients. Always listen.” I got lots of ideas. I love to talk, but you got to listen. What do they want? And they actually convinced me. Many clients convinced me to say, "Hey, you know what? Why don't we just keep you on ongoing part-time? Why would we hire someone else when it's already cleaned up?" And we may be similar-priced. So, yes, our rate could be higher, but they don't have to pay for benefits. They don't have to pay for PTO time. We're always having a backup if someone changes, and so the clients really taught me what they were looking for. We built an HR; that was another piece. A lot of clients, small companies, if they can't afford, or they don't need full-time accounting, they probably don't need part-time or full-time HR. So, we built that in. So, I think it's really about listening, bringing in groups of peers, competitors, everything, and just begin to put it together, and I think then the next step really is building the team under you. I really got to a point of building someone; somebody had to be able to take over for me, so I could be the CFO of the Super Bowl, building that team, that we're all replaceable, and building that person to take over and be with those peers, to continue to build that group out.

Joshua Feinberg:

It’s so fascinating to me that the industry and the AI CPA has done a great job of packaging and positioning with CAAS, with client accounting services, client accounting, and advisory services, but I haven't heard anyone quite articulate the idea of being a “product manager of accounting services” because, in a technology company, it's very common that you always have a product manager that spends a lot of times with customers asking, “Walk me through a day in the life,” figuring out jobs to be done, listening and constantly tweaking and evolving the services. It seems like those entrepreneurial instincts are so key to being able to evolve and refine and keep a competitive outsourcing offering.

Kelly Kienholz Seevers:

Agreed. I think that the biggest thing is listening, and what are they looking for? You really become—even as that CFO, and that consultant—part of that management team; you talk about operations; you talk about even types of vendors you use or things like that. It's many hats, and you bring in a lot of other groups, or peers, or competitors. Again, we need competitors out there. We don't do everything perfectly, and who else does something that I can learn from, and always being that one step ahead. I think also being honest with your clients, too, that you don't know everything. I don't know everything, but you know what? I can probably find the answer. Trust me; let's find the answer, and let's do it together.

Joshua Feinberg:

The interesting part with the competitors, coming from the standpoint of someone who owns the CRM, and our firm is how much merger and acquisition activity seems to keep happening, and that's why I always tell people; they ask me, like, "Who is the primary listenership for this podcast?", and it's peers. However, what often ends up happening over the course of the year—whether it's 5% or 10%—anecdotally, but there always does seem to be like, "Okay, they may have been from another firm, and now they're part of your firm." So, there's definitely that, and I do see and do anticipate that's going to continue to accelerate, as more firms roll into digital transformation.

Kelly Kienholz Seevers:

Oh, my gosh. I feel like, at CLA, we are emerging in if not one, two every quarter. I mean, there's always something, and then I like to talk to them, not to teach them always about CLA but learn what they do differently. What do they do that we maybe don't do? What do you do better? What's the best way you do things? I'm a big soaker-upper of just information. I don't know all the answers but if we put our heads together and talk about it, what is the best process? What is the big way? I'm very big into team discussions, getting buy-in of anything that we're working on, automation, process improvement because, at all levels, it could be a staff person paying the bills. When's the last time I actually paid bills over and over and over? I'll go in and understand the system, and that's the thing that is getting all people involved.

Advice for Getting Your Outsourced Accounting Practice Back on Track

Joshua Feinberg:

So, that's great advice for beginners. You have an extremely impressive resume. It's rare that I get to talk to people that have more than a decade of experience in outsourcing at this stage of their career. What would you advise somebody that's been trying to grow a practice for five, 10 years, or more, and they've just gone through a really challenging year? Maybe they've had a lot of churn among their clients. Maybe they've had a lot of turnover among their staff, or maybe just in the last year, their client mix had brutal exposure to the pandemic, and they’re feeling a big sense of burnout. What would you tell them to help them recharge and get back on track?

Kelly Kienholz Seevers:

I think the biggest thing is who are your peers? Is it a team, or whatever? Even taking a few hours of just taking a step back and, "Okay, what's working?" Even reflecting back on the last year. I do it every year. I do it every six months, come with a group and say, "Just be honest." You'll find I'm a very honest person. I want to know honest feedback, what's working, what's not working. You're not going to hurt my feelings. I want to know because I want to make it better. I think you're in this business, it's like many businesses. You're listening. You're talking about honest feedback, what's working, what's not working, and now continuing to build upon that. It's ever-changing. Even as we talk about, our clients’ process improvement, I do believe our business is process improvement all the time. Just when you think you have this piece figured out, “Okay, what's the next piece of it?” Just when you think you have your client all cleaned up, “It's all cleaned up? Process improvement.” To me, I'm one of those people who just create work out of nothing. Like, "Okay, there's got to be a better way to do this or maybe there's a cheaper vendor, the better efficiency with this piece of it." There's always something to do.

Joshua Feinberg:

And just when you think you have it all figured out, everyone needs to get an MBA in PPP and the CARES act in the last year because it was the thing of “nobody got the answer right on where you see yourself in five years”.

Kelly Kienholz Seevers:

Completely agree. I will tell you—even during the pandemic—the last year, of course, people were worried about revenue. It's like, "Okay, what's going down?" I can tell you; we have a lot of restaurants and retail clients. Well, of course, they wanted to reduce services. They were closing. What was going on? But then again, we got into the PPP piece of it. I also believe bill pay was a huge deal if people weren't going to offices, cutting checks. We used a lot of bill.com, putting them on that piece of it, of saying, "Okay, let's get out there. Let's get in the cloud because not everyone's coming into the office." So, there has been a lot of changes. We've really tried to adapt to, “What is our clients doing? What are we doing?” The last year, a lot of our group—I have a team of a hundred people—the majority of us have been working from home, and not just with COVID. Minneapolis, obviously, a lot going on downtown, down there, and we've had to really look at, “How do we become accountable, communicating things when we're all virtual?”

Joshua Feinberg:

It's really been fascinating for me over the last several months is there's a perception that most CAAS leaders had all of their clients ahead of the curve on cloud accounting, and I was moderating a panel last fall, talking to someone who heads outsourcing from a large firm and said, "No, actually, there's quite a few stats that not everyone was there." I think what's ended up happening is the people that are most likely to raise their hand and say, "I'm going to come on a podcast that's technology-focused," are doing that because they're largely ahead of the curve, and their clients are the ones that are kind of like, "Eh, I don't want to talk about it." So, a selection. Self-selection.

Kelly Kienholz Seevers:

When we have a mix, I'll tell you; we do a lot of cloud-based, and we don't make clients come in and say, "You have to be on this software." As much as possible, we do a lot of Intacct, a lot of QBO, a lot of software in the cloud, but we do a lot of QBD for somebody who is on a certain software that's basically at their office, and so we look at all of those pieces. Yeah. There's a lot of areas, too, that people don't want to change. If it's not broken, why would we fix it? So, continuing to look at that, I think we've had a lot of good changes but again, you can't make everybody change, and if they're happy with it, and to me, you know what? If we are profitable at a good point, and things are good, there's always enough work for clients that want to continue to improve, continue to buy in, and eventually, I always say, it's a third, a third, a third. There's a third that are ahead of the curve. There's a third that needs to hear about the third to make sure everything's going well, and then they'll get on the bus, and then there's a third of the group that they're still over here and again, you're always going to have those clients. I don't want to turn away good revenue, or good clients, either. If it makes sense, then okay, but you can see—even during the pandemic now—there are half of those people are starting to think differently but still, there's a half we still get those shoeboxes with receipts and stuff that are mailed over or hand-delivered because we need to hand-deliver them. We still have those, too.

Joshua Feinberg:

It's great that you have the resources, and the team, and the processes to allow clients to stay with what they're comfortable with, and it seems like that's a real differentiator for CLA; it's not something that I hear very often. So, I'm sure that's served you well in being able to attract and retain a certain kind of client.

Kelly Kienholz Seevers:

Well, I think it's, again, listening to the client. I am very fond of individuals that can make it all standard, go to one chart of accounts, one software, whatever. I sometimes think that is the perfect world, but then I listened to the clients, and you can't force them, and I look at it that it's like, "Okay if it's decent realization, they're paying their bill." We continue to move forward and really provide that; we call it that “CLA family”, that constant discussion, just like at times, I look at automation; wouldn't it be nice to just churn out financials? And I look at the pricing. Well, you know what? People want some of that handholding, that delivery, that personal touch; you're not going to get rid of that and again, that's not who CLA is. So, it's adaptable; again, trying to stay ahead of the curve as much as possible. I mean, I always look at it as paying bills, or if it's $65 an hour for a staff person, it's what our going rate is. If it's $65 an hour—even to enter invoices or pay bills—I think that's expensive. I grew up in a small town. My parents didn't make a lot of money. I think that's expensive. I also look at it as, “What's a better way?” We got to continue to do that. Now, there are some clients that are going to pay for that, and they don't want any changes. Okay, but we've got to have options for people.

Outsourced Accounting Mistakes to Avoid

Joshua Feinberg:

Shifting gears, when you think about new clients that your team onboards, do you see any big mistake across the board that they all seem to be making before they end up outsourcing to CLA?

Kelly Kienholz Seevers:

I think what we get 90% of the time is it's usually a mess before we can get going. Either somebody couldn't do the accounting; they didn't know, and, a lot of times, as a CEO, executive director, whoever it is, they aren't in the details, but I do believe if you have the perfect accounting group, the perfect accounting team, most of the time, you don't call us because you already got it fixed. It's all good over there. It's the ones where they maybe waited too long. That's the hardest part; you want to help them. You don't want to charge them tons and tons of money, but the last year or two, they have no accurate numbers, and the hardest ones are the ones that have now cashflow issues, and we need to make payroll next week. I mean, we got to get organized but in order to bank payroll, you got to make sure you got your deposits, your AR. It's tough because you want to do the right thing. You want to get organized with it. That's probably they waited too long. They didn't think it was that bad, and when they come, and although we move as fast as we can, we can't always do miracles right away.

Joshua Feinberg:

It seems like there are certain elements of running outsourcing that is akin to being an internist, where you're expected to know about a lot of different areas of medical practice, and it seems like, in that particular case, you're also expected to be an emergency room doctor once in a while, where you're literally trying to save hemorrhaging red ink.

Kelly Kienholz Seevers:

There are, many times, and it's funny that you say that because I say to my team all the time, “We are not an ER; I am not a 911 hotline.” It's accounting. I think we all want to help our clients as much as possible, and, a lot of times, that shared-services center, our clients are not only our offices—who are the CFOs and controllers—it's also our clients, and I think as much as possible, getting on an organized schedule, we want to help clean it up. I look at it as it's three phases. You've got to understand where the numbers are. We can't just have financials cash flow—unless we've got the numbers. It's cleanup time. Then we're putting in processes. I think that's very important is making sure we get on a schedule. We don't have to pay bills every day. We don't have to do things. We're not an ER; we don't have “The minute they get a deposit, we got to put that in right away.” Getting on a schedule of organization, and then I think the last piece, which I will say, I do feel like a lot of CFOs and controllers forget. They believe they're in maintenance mode, and “We're good.” Now, I believe that there's a third phase of process improvement. There's continuous, looking at the best way. “How long does it take to do things? Why does it take that long? Is it the software? Is it doing something in Excel, financial statements setup, automation?” That, I believe, is looking at that third phase of, really, that strategy.

The Future of Outsourced Accounting

Joshua Feinberg:

No, that's a great insight. The final area I want to get your advice on today is where the industry is headed. Is there anything that you see going on right now where we're going to look back in 12, 18, 24 months from now, and this was the big inflection point that was going to change everything on what it meant for the business of outsourced accounting?

Kelly Kienholz Seevers:

I think the ones that are really going to succeed, it's really about automation and process improvement. Not staying stuck. It's, “What's the future holding?” Looking ahead, cash-flow forecasting. I think sometimes, we look at it of, “We're in this period. Yep. Life is good.” I think if we can continue to help businesses—especially during the pandemic—continue to forward-think, project out, not just a year, five years, and have those different points of, “Well, what if this happens? Should I lay off two people? Should I reduce salaries by 10%? What should I do?” I think having those scenarios, and those options and beginning to look at that ahead of time, I do think it caught some people off-guard. I think that cash flow was tight, and then, all of a sudden, this happened, and here we are. I think it's really looking at it. We've got to get further ahead than just, “Where am I at today?”

Joshua Feinberg:

So, it's all about using automation to provide better services to clients and helping them stay as proactive as possible.

Kelly Kienholz Seevers:

Yes.

Joshua Feinberg:

That's terrific. Kelly, what's the best place for somebody that's watching this or listening to this to get in touch with you if they have any questions, any feedback, want to connect and share? Are you active on LinkedIn?

Kelly Kienholz Seevers:

I am active on LinkedIn. You can start there. I’m always happy to talk to people, and I can give you my phone number there, email, things like that. I'm willing to always partner, have conversations. Again, my way isn't always the right way or the only way. CLA isn't the only way. I really try to collaborate with others. Again, we need competitors. We need to continue to really keep us challenged, so we can be the best for our clients, the businesses out there, companies out there. I'm always looking at it. It's always nice to have that competitor to keep working towards that edge.

Joshua Feinberg:

Is there any place, in particular, you'd recommend on CLA's website for someone to go if they want to learn more about what you and your team do?

Kelly Kienholz Seevers:

Just go right to our CLA website, CLAconnect; you can pull up outsourcing, and they'll say “outsourcing BizOps”; you'll see my name out there, too. Overall, our whole entire BizOps—or business operations—is run by J.D. Dietzen. I report directly to him, and again, you'll find my name on there, too, but always happy to take that cert and get you connected to the right place.

Joshua Feinberg:

Thanks so much, Kelly. Thanks for joining me today on the podcast; it's been super insightful. I'm sure you've given a lot of food for thought to people from firms of all different sizes that work with all different kinds of vertical industries with all different kinds of applications and getting them to think about how to prioritize and focus on the right goals, how to deal with messes that land on their laps, and how to really stay focused on where to go with their relationships with clients in the future.

Kelly Kienholz Seevers:

Thank you, and it's been very insightful for me, too, and it's great to at least talk about what we can deliver and continue to collaborate together.

Joshua Feinberg:

Awesome. Thanks so much, Kelly.

Kelly Kienholz Seevers:

All right. Have a great day.

 

What's your favorite outsourced accounting tip? And what did you find most valuable from this podcast interview with Jason Warford? Let us know in the Comments section below.

Learn even more about client accounting services (CAS) when you download the free report: The State of Client Accounting Services and Outsourced Accounting.

 

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