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Transforming Accounting: Aprio CEO Richard Kopelman

CEO Richard Kopelman unveils Aprio's massive 2023 expansion, secret projects, and shares invaluable CPA advice for global accounting success.

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For today’s show “CEO Richard Kopelman unveils Aprio’s massive expansion, secret projects and shares invaluable CPA advice for global accounting success.”

Richard Kopelman, CEO and Managing Partner of accounting firm Aprio, shares his personal philosophy of staying positive and never giving up, the importance of having a well-written strategic plan, and his vision to have truly global accounting firms.

Kopelman shares how staying positive and persistent has been key to leading Aprio’s tremendous growth from $70 million to $450 million in revenue. 

He emphasizes the importance of having a well-defined strategic plan and sticking to it, even though growth is never a straight line. 

Kopelman also provides insight into transitioning accounting firms beyond traditional partnership structures into more corporate models in order to scale. His vision is to have truly global accounting firms without restrictions. 

Throughout the discussion, Kopelman’s passion for the profession and commitment to seizing opportunities comes through clearly.

“My personal philosophy is to stay positive and never give up. I’m not very good at taking no for an answer.”

Key Takeaways:

  • Staying positive and never giving up has been Kopelman’s key to success in leading Aprio from $70M to $450M in revenue.
  • Having a well-defined strategic plan is crucial – you need a North Star even though growth is never a straight line.
  • Firms need to move beyond traditional partnership structures and embrace more corporate approaches to scale.
  • Hiring great people and getting out of their way is his leadership philosophy.

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Transcript
Richard Kopelman:

my personal philosophy is stay positive and, uh, never give up. really, I'm not very good at taking no for an answer.

Rob Brown:

Okay, so belligerent and stubborn then? Uh,

Richard Kopelman:

I guess in British terms, yes.

Rob Brown:

Hey, Lyle Brown here on the Accounting Influencers Podcast, part two in a couple of interviews we'll do with Richard Kuppelman, CEO and managing partner of Aprio. Richard, great to have you on the show again.

Richard Kopelman:

Great to be here. Thank you for having me again.

Rob Brown:

Richard, uh, we don't have many guests on twice, so congratulations on that. The Aprio story is, is pretty game changing. Just give our audience who haven't heard that first episode, a quick 60 seconds of the Aprio story.

Richard Kopelman:

Alright, Aprio in 60 seconds or less. So, 72 year old overnight success. We plotted along for, uh, quite a while. We did our first merger. We were 60 years old, uh, in 2007. And we, uh, I guess we were 55 years old, 2007. We did our first deal. We did two. We took a hiatus. Uh, 2016, we changed the name from HAW, which stood for Habiff, Arrighetti, and Wynn. To Ario, which means head and heart. Uh, we, Dr. We created 31 Fundamentals of Behavior to back up the Ario brand. Uh, since then, we have taken the business from 70 million in revenue, uh, which was in 2016 to 450 million of revenue going into 2024. About

Rob Brown:

60 seconds of a

Richard Kopelman:

lot of change. It is, and by the way, we went from one office. 350 people in Atlanta to 2100 people in 25 offices, uh, in the U. S., Philippines and Medellin, Colombia. And you've pretty

Rob Brown:

much led the charge. You're something of a formidable personality. Would you say you're a pioneer?

Richard Kopelman:

Oh, I would not say I'm a pioneer. I'm a great steward of our business. I have an amazing team. that, uh, that is on this journey. We're on this journey together and, uh, uh, I'm just doing what our founders set out to do, which was create opportunity for the next generation. Do you have

Rob Brown:

a personal philosophy for success?

Richard Kopelman:

personal philosophy for success. Uh, my personal philosophy is stay positive and, uh, never give up. I never, uh, really, I'm not very good at taking no for an answer.

Rob Brown:

Okay, so belligerent and stubborn then? Uh,

Richard Kopelman:

I guess in British terms, yes.

Rob Brown:

That's not a bad trait when you're leading a vision.

Richard Kopelman:

Can I take that? I can just label myself. What did you say, belligerent and? Stubborn. And stubborn, okay. We're going to take that belligerent and stubborn. That's going to be my new, my new title. Well, well, the

Rob Brown:

point is as a leader, you can waver because there's so many voices speaking into the vision. So many people have an opinion and an agenda and a say on which way we should be going and how we should do it. So good leaders do need an element of stubbornness or strong will, strong mindedness to stick to the plan.

Richard Kopelman:

You do need to stick to the plan. You need to have a plan first. I find that a lot of people don't have a plan. We've had a very well written plan since 2015 that we continue to update every year. We're in the process of developing our 2030 plan, and we are sticking to our strategy. It's never, of course, a straight line. There's plenty of zigzags along the way. There has to be. That's just business. We have our North Star, though, well defined, and we're, uh, you know, focused on that. And it's really around how our client needs to be served and wants to be served.

Rob Brown:

growth, scale, everything you've achieved is not a straight line. Good leaders pivot, they're agile, they change their mind on things. Is there anything in particular that you've had a U turn or change your mind on in the last few

Richard Kopelman:

years? Probably a longer list that we have time to cover. Um, we had a You know, I'll go back a little bit further. We had a, uh, event that occurred that caused us to really rethink our wealth management business and how we were serving clients. Uh, we did that very effectively. And that business, I'm glad to say, is, is growing. Uh, we have, of course, have had businesses that we have started and gotten into were service lines that. We determined weren't the right fit and we had to, you know, lay those off. Uh, the west coast entry for us was not something that was planned, but it was an opportunity that arose. The cultural alignment was phenomenal. The, uh, the practices and the client fit was perfect. And although we were not focused on going to the West Coast at the time, we decided to charge forward and, uh, we've gone from zero to 30 million dollars on the, uh, in the West region, just in the last, uh, in the last 18 months.

Rob Brown:

Fortune favors the open minded. That's where the opportunity comes.

Richard Kopelman:

mindedness is good. It goes with that growth mindset. We talked about on our other episode.

Rob Brown:

In terms of your own philosophy, there are no perfect jobs. You seem very passionate about what you do and you, you've got longevity in this game. You don't look like you're giving up to play golf and go and be a consultant anytime soon. So you're in it for the long haul, but managing partner and CEO, you're in a unique position to talk about the, the leadership structure of a firm. A lot of people say the managing partner role is becoming redundant because partners cannot be managed. And the C suite type approach, the corporate approach, is coming in a lot more. Seems like you have a foot in both camps. Where do you stand on that?

Richard Kopelman:

Yeah, it's interesting. As we have evolved over the last seven years in particular with this, you know, hockey stick growth that we've had, we have changed the organizational structure. three times. We've rewritten our operating agreement, uh, three or four times. And they've all been as a response to where we're headed and what we've accomplished and how we want to run, how we want to run the business. And I don't think there's, if you do it, right, I don't think there's redundancy in the role. Uh, we do, you know, call it CEO and managing partner, managing partner because of the operating agreement and the LLC. Uh, our holding company, but the CEO title because of how we run the business. Hmm. And I view we're running a financial service, professional services business, and that means we're not just running a bunch of practices, which I think is where firms run into this redundancy. And they have executive committees, and I think we do, as a profession, have to move beyond that structure, and we need to let our people be great client service professionals, or great leaders, or sometimes a combination of both, and, uh, and run it like a business, which means, you know, evaluating investments and, um, growing through lateral talent, joining the firm and through mergers and acquisitions and, you know, technology changes, automation, all of those changes that are occurring every day in our business require leadership, not management. And so my philosophy is hire great people. and get out of the way and let them do their jobs. That sounds

Rob Brown:

good. I'm just picturing Richard Kopelman as a 16 or 18 year old thinking I want to be a CPA. I want to lead a firm. I want global domination. I want all of this. What was it like back then in your early days?

Richard Kopelman:

Well, at 16 or 17, I was definitely not thinking about being a CPA. That didn't happen until I was a sophomore in college. And I had a call with my dad because I didn't know what I should do. And he said, accounting is the language of business. My older brother, one of my older brothers, uh, who's a partner here at the firm, Mitchell, give a shout out to Mitchell. Uh, he was already at that time, a CPA already here at Aprio. And, uh, so that was my path in terms of deciding. And, uh, I'll also mention that, and this was key. I had a professor, Dr. Keith, so a little shout out to Dr. Keith at USF, that when my, my dad passed away when I was in college, I was a junior and I dropped most of my classes that semester, but I kept my accounting intermediate class and Dr. Keith was about the only professor on campus that was. compassionate. About what I had gone through. And, um, I've actually sent him some emails recently just to say hello and touch base with him. Uh, he had lost his wife a few years earlier. I don't know exactly when, so he had experienced a loss as well. That I think had a pretty pivotal, emotional, you know, I probably had an emotional response to, to that. And, and I think that also locked me in. And, uh, You know, continued my path in the, uh, in the accounting program. What would you say is

Rob Brown:

the best piece of career advice you've

Richard Kopelman:

ever been given? Well, initially I was, it was get the CPA exam out of the way. That was definitely pretty, pretty important. well, I almost left Aprio once and my critical career advice was to stay. Right. That I received, uh, from a couple of our partners. And I think the story is. You know, told now. So that was the right decision. That was a pretty key part of, uh, of, of advice that I was given. Uh, I joined a CEO group and that was advice given to me by a client that was pretty critical. I had lots of probably little tidbits. Like one time I was with a client and I said, why don't you show up at some of these events that we have? And he looked at me and he said, if it's that important, you are my accountant. You are gonna call me and tell me what I need to know. And I think everything we need to know about client service is encapsulated in that statement.

Rob Brown:

What's the biggest thing you're working on right now, Richard?

Richard Kopelman:

Well, the biggest thing I'm probably working on right now is, uh, top secret and I can't share it. What's the biggest thing you're

Rob Brown:

working on right now that you can

Richard Kopelman:

share? What we are working on is going to be trans, is definitely going to be transformational. you know, it's interesting. The biggest thing you asked was biggest thing we're working on right now. I would say in 2023, if I can a little bit, in answering your question, In 2023, it was about bringing together, Aprio and a number of other firms, nine other firms in total, that more than doubled the size of the business, and that was pretty critical transformation as I look forward to next year. Uh, institutionalizing process and moving to enterprise level technology and driving automation and global teams are some of the things, big boulders that we are focused on. Looking forward into the next 12 months. And final question.

Rob Brown:

If I made you the global czar of accounting worldwide, top of the tree, everybody, every professional association, society, governing body, every firm, every qualifier, everything answers to you. You are the top. I'm interviewing you right now with what question? What, what would you sort out first? What would be top of your priority list? I

Richard Kopelman:

don't even know how to answer that question. I was the global czar of accounting. Um, what would I do first? I mean, you'd

Rob Brown:

have the chance to change anything you wanted. You'd have the chance almost to start from scratch or I'll change anything because people would follow you. So,

Richard Kopelman:

well, I'll give you something that is just, it's not possible. Can I give you the

Rob Brown:

impossible? Well, the job's not possible, so you can certainly give me a suggestion that's not possible.

Richard Kopelman:

You know, it would be amazing if. We didn't have the restrictions that exist today in practicing globally. And if there could be, truly be firms that are just global firms, because although people think they're global, we all know in the profession they're not. But that would be a fascinating shift to, um, to do that. And, uh, so that would be, uh, that, that, that's one. I'll give you that one.

Rob Brown:

Well, Richard Kopelman, that's a great vision to end on. Thank you so much for your time and

Richard Kopelman:

your passion today. Thank you. I appreciate you having me.