The Most Common Mistake When Selling Your Accounting Practice or CPA Firm

Sell a CPA Firm

I get this question a lot from principals that are working through the process of exiting their accounting or CPA firm. There are many mistakes that can be made throughout the process, but I will discuss just one mistake that can impact your financial results significantly.

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Retention Is The Most Common Mistake

The One Mistake that can Impact your Financial Results Significantly During the Exit of Your CPA or Accounting Practice: Retention – Most contracts that are written for the acquisition of an accounting firm or CPA firm have something called a retention clause. This clause directly reduces the purchase price of the business for lost clients (clients that do not return after the sale).

Many sellers believe that because they have a great relationship with their clients or because they are staying on for the transition, that there will be very little impact to the bottom line. The most recent AICPA succession survey quotes 75%-80% as the average retention achieved after a sale.

In my experience, retention is better than this when a strong transition plan is in place, but it certainly needs to be high on the list of items to consider when receiving offers. In my experience, this can be somewhat mitigated by a strong transition plan, and most of the companies we have helped have transitioned better than this average, but it must be considered.

The length of the retention clause is also a very large factor. Typical practices have annual attrition rates of 5-10%. This is caused by people moving, death, divorce, and a host of other reasons. While the original principal is involved in the daily practice, there are new clients that come in to replace those who have left, and the practice revenue remains at or around the same level as the prior year. After-sale, however, the principal cannot normally replace these clients any longer, so the practice by nature will fall in revenue due simply to attrition. If the length of the retention clause is over five years, then you could have between 25%-50% attrition over the life of the deal. Negotiating a fair contract and understanding the nuances of this recurring issue are of paramount importance.

Increasing Your Chances of Having a Successful Transition When Selling Your CPA Firm

The key to establishing good retention is also the expertise and the personality/culture of the buying entity or individual. Don’t be afraid to do some buyer due diligence upfront. You can increase your chances of a successful transition simply by understanding who you are selling to and what their intentions are.

There are many other strategies and tactics that can mitigate the negative effects of a retention clause on a selling principal. If you find yourself considering exit this year, be sure to associate yourself with someone who has experience in selling accounting or CPA firms in this market. Berkshire Business Sales & Acquisitions has this experience with helping more accounting practice and CPA practice entrepreneurs exit than any other intermediary in the Phoenix Metropolitan Area.

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