Succeeding in stellar service

About 25 years ago, Charlie Greer and Kevin Walker left comfortable jobs at accounting giant Deloitte & Touche to create their own firm.

They left the company for varied reasons. But they shared a similar vision: provide excellent accounting services to privately held companies.

“We stared at each other one day and gulped a little bit, and I said ‘I'll do it if you'll do it,'” Walker said.

Both men ponied up $10,000, and together they secured a $35,000 line of credit. After the first tax season, Walker said, they knew they could stay in business.

Today, their firm, Greer & Walker LLP, is the largest Charlotte-based accounting firm, employing 75 people, including eight partners. It also owns an investment arm managing less than $300 million in assets.

Their clients typically have $10 million to $50 million in annual revenue. They come from varied industries, including manufacturing, real estate, finance and motorsports.

Walker talked to the Observer about his philosophy toward company growth, the importance of a corporate culture, and what he sees as the firm's biggest mistake. Remarks were edited for clarity and length.

Q. What's your underlying growth strategy?

I've always viewed growth as a byproduct of really good service to your existing clients. If you focus on that, then good things will happen.

Clients will mention your name to somebody else. Banks become aware of you.

I call it passive marketing, where we don't spend our time cold calling … but we do good jobs for our existing clients and that becomes known in the marketplace.

Q. How did you differentiate yourself from your competitors?

There's been a gradual trend, where the (big accounting firms) have continued to go upmarket. We definitely saw that happening and creating opportunities for us.

We're niche-based. International business (particularly working with subsidiaries of foreign-based firms) has turned into a very significant niche for us.

It's like drip, drip drip. It takes a long time to build it, but once you have that critical mass, you really get some momentum.

That's been the secret to our success. Start small. Get involved (in the community or industry). Commit resources on it.

Q. You say corporate culture is important. Why?

That makes all the difference in the world – people who enjoy coming to work and have a consistent mission.

There's a saying at other, bigger companies: “Eat what you kill.”

It may be listed as a partnership, but it's really a group of individual partners doing their own thing sharing overhead. We've got the opposite model, where everybody's in it together.

Q. What would you have done differently?

We tried to expand our international business and did a joint venture with a firm in Atlanta, which also had a Greenville, S.C., presence. The idea was to cover the I-85 corridor.

We had to unwind that within 18 months. We just found that the cultures were different, and we were doing 90 percent of work for 50 percent of the reward.

We learned that it's better to do it ourselves. We create the mission, we create the culture, and we do it our way, so to speak.

Q. What's the biggest threat to an accounting firm such as yours and how do you counter it?

We have to continue to up our game. Every year, there's an increasing level of complexity. We have to spend money on continuing professional education and attend conferences.

All we have is people. We really don't have products that we sell. It's all about services.