AICPA ENGAGE: Jason Deshayes, Accounting Advisory leader at Elliott Davis

Jason joins Blake at AICPA ENGAGE in Las Vegas to chat about niching in the dental industry (and now craft beer industry), whether or not it's possible to train accountants to do advisory, working with remote clients, why Jason isn't afraid of copycats, how to properly grow a presence in your niche, his tech stack and takeaways from the conference.

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Blake Oliver: Welcome to The Cloud Accounting Podcast. I'm Blake Oliver. 
 
Jason Deshayes: And I'm Jason Deshayes.
 
Blake Oliver: We have never met before, Jason.
 
Jason Deshayes: We haven't. This is just like the real-person [00:01:00] kind of thing, when you've got your Twitterscape; you've got work through, so this is kind of cool.
 
Blake Oliver: Awesome. Yeah, it's great to meet you here at AICPA Engage 2019, and because we know each other in the cloud, I actually don't know where you came in from. Where do you call home?
 
Jason Deshayes: We live in the Raleigh, North Carolina area, so we came from AICPA town out there, because the office is in Durham.
 
Blake Oliver: Oh, okay. Got it, so you have access to all the AICPA folks whenever you want.
 
Jason Deshayes: Yes, and I actually used to work there, so I had about [00:01:30] 18 months I was out there doing firm relations, so I know a lot of the great people over there and very proud of the profession. It's kind of interesting having been on the small firm side, gone into the institute, and then now back into public accounting, so it's been a lot of fun, a big adventure.
 
Blake Oliver: What were you doing at the AICPA? When was that?
 
Jason Deshayes: Going back a little bit, I had a practice out in Albuquerque, New Mexico with a gentleman, and we ended up selling the practice to another firm in town, and then kind of do the general non-solicit, non-compete, [00:02:00] non-anything. I ended up working for the AICPA remotely. I was doing firm relations, so I'd go talk to the top 500 firms called the G400, and we would talk about the issues in the profession, what kind of things were coming down the pipeline, what they should be doing. In that work I'd been telling the firms that cloud accounting and all that is the wave of the future. I was telling everyone to drink the Kool-Aid. I was like, "Why am I not drinking the Kool-Aid?" Ended up going back into public, which I didn't expect, but it's been fantastic. It's been really great, because that's all we do now is just cloud accounting. [00:02:30]
 
Blake Oliver: When was that, that you went back? 
 
Jason Deshayes: October 15, 2018, so it's all tax deadline driven it seems like.
 
Blake Oliver: Oh, got it.
 
Jason Deshayes: Yeah, it's been a wild adventure the last eight months.
 
Blake Oliver: What is your firm like?
 
Jason Deshayes: Elliott Davis is a very large firm in the southeast. We've got about 800 people across the firm's footprint. We've got seven offices. Unlike a lot of the firms where they have multiple, multiple locations, we have a pretty concentrated core between [00:03:00] North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Georgia. Our practice unit, which we call Accounting Advisory, is about 70 people right now who only focus on outsourced accounting roles. We work closely with our tax people and our audit practice, but we are seeing significant growth, and we're bringing on lots of new people, lots of new clients, and that's been really exciting.
 
Blake Oliver: Did I hear you correctly, it's 70 people?
 
Jason Deshayes: 70 people, yeah, and we're planning to get that probably about to 125 here in the next couple years.
 
Blake Oliver: You call that Accounting Advisory?
 
Jason Deshayes: Mm-hmm. [00:03:30]
 
Blake Oliver: So your equivalent of CaaS?
 
Jason Deshayes: Yeah, exactly. Yeah, we've heard people call it managed accounting, though sometimes, it's client accounting, and so we used accounting advisory. 
 
Blake Oliver: What sort of services do you provide? What's the range of offerings?
 
Jason Deshayes: We'll do what most people ... I'm trying not say bookkeeping because that always puts a bad taste in your mouth, but we're really bringing that kind of nuts and bolts, day-to-day accounting, and then we go all the way up to controller/CFO-level consulting. We really do focus on the advisory element because I feel like anyone can do a financial statement. [00:04:00] You can get data in there and say, "Here are numbers," but it's what you do with it is the important part. That's all the engagements, like when we bring on new clients, there's an advisory component. It's not trying to just compete to the bottom line and say, "Well, let me just give you some cheap bookkeeping here," it's really, we're there to help be their strategic advisor with their practice.
 
Blake Oliver: Got it, so you have to buy the advisory and then, really, you're just doing the bookkeeping so you can do the advisory.
 
Jason Deshayes: Yeah, it's the fuel that feeds the advisory conversation. [00:04:30]
 
Blake Oliver: All right. How do you define advisory? I've heard a lot about that this season. There's a lot of conferences focusing on advisory this season. 
 
Jason Deshayes: Yeah, I kind of look at it as is that you're like a business partner with them, and so you're talking about the strategic element of running a business, and I've ran a business, you've ran a business and helping them coach their operations, their strategy, along with the finances versus keeping that as the finances are just over here or it's just the numbers. We're really trying to breathe that into it. 
 
We get into conversations about all sorts [00:05:00] of stuff - compensation planning for employees, benefit structures, acquisitions. I've worked a lot with dentists, and we have people who are buying up practices left and right, or trying to sell their practice, and we coach them through that. It's really trying to do more than just say, "Well, here's the numbers, and those numbers are good or bad, and this is how much tax you owe." It's really about what's the practice doing? What's your business going to do?
 
Blake Oliver: You mentioned questions about personnel, and I experienced that often, when I was in the [00:05:30] CaaS world, as a manager, was "I'm hiring somebody, what do I do?" For a while, we didn't have any HR folks in CaaS, but then we went and acquired a firm that did have an HR practice.
 
Jason Deshayes: Oh, cool.
 
Blake Oliver: Do you have HR personnel, or are the accountants doing it? How do you handle that kind of work?
 
Jason Deshayes: While we have firm HR personnel, we don't have that benefits HR person that's within our advisory practice. My background, just because of being a small firm, I'm kind of that designated person. I just do a lot of that just because [00:06:00] 17 years, you figure it out over time. That's something I know that other large firms have done is they've acquired benefits practices and HR practices, because it's a driver in a lot of people's businesses. California, I know they recently made some rule changes about how everyone can't really be a contractor, anymore, so now you have employee issues all the time, and that's a whole other thing. In fact, right before I came up to talk to you, I was talking to someone on the phone about that in California. It's crazy.
 
Blake Oliver: Yeah, in California, you could probably build a whole lead funnel just talking to businesses about independent contractor versus employee, how to protect yourself. They'll come to you, I imagine, because they need the answer to this question, [00:06:30] then they'll find out everything else you have to offer.
 
Jason Deshayes: You know what I've found is that, really, you make some amazing strides in business development making client relations just by doing awesome work. You don't have to be out there beating down the doors to get work. I think if you do really quality work, people will come to you, and they will want to work with you, because [00:07:00] people talk. They know, "Hey, this accounting firm's different. It's not just cranking out numbers, it's a real, legit advisor to my business."
 
Blake Oliver: Sticking with advisory for the moment, how do you train accountants to do advisory?
 
Jason Deshayes: That's a hard one.
 
Blake Oliver: Or is it trainable?
 
Jason Deshayes: I think it is coachable. I don't think you can go to a class and suddenly you're an advisor. I, honestly, do think it's a lot of experience, but it means you have to get outside your box a [00:07:30] little bit, and you have to talk to the client outside of financial metrics and really talk about their business, and you spend time in it. The thing about that is you can't really do it as a generalist, I think. You can't really advise someone on everything at all times. I have a niche in dentists, and I spend a lot of time on dentists. I have a 50-minute commute, which sucks, but I make do with it. I listen to a number of podcasts. I am on, like, six different Facebook groups that dentists are [00:08:00] involved in, and I spend time in the industry, so I understand it. I understand what they're talking about. 
 
That's some of the training you can do. You can kind of train yourself by exposure. The other part is just life. You have to experience things, and you have to have the stories that you find from clients that ... It's like, "Yeah, five years ago, we dealt with this crazy issue. Here's what you don't need to do, or here's some trends that we're seeing," which I think you can only find as you get more specified in more of a niche area, where you understand the industries really, really well.
 
Blake Oliver: So you have niched in with [00:08:30] the dental practices.
 
Jason Deshayes: With dental and then we're building another niche with the craft brewery space. 
 
Blake Oliver: That's a fun one.
 
Jason Deshayes: Yeah, I do enjoy that. My wife kind of laughed that, "Oh, you're probably in seventh heaven, you go hang out with a bunch of brewers," I'm like, "Yeah, probably would." Yeah, it's really's fascinating hearing the businesspeople talk about these things.
 
Blake Oliver: There would be more tie-in if it was dentists and candy makers.
 
Jason Deshayes: Yes.
 
Blake Oliver: Right? Then you'd be like a-
 
Jason Deshayes: You'd feed the other one, you know, it's just constant flow of patients into the stores and everything.
 
Blake Oliver: How did you get into the dental niche, was that intentional, or was it accidental? 
 
Jason Deshayes: My [00:09:00] background in my small firm, we did dentists, we had a lot of medical practitioners, and so I have years and years of experience working with those kind of people. Elliot Davis had an existing dental practice. That's the deepest niche, I think, we have in the firm. When we got into Elliot Davis, I was like, "Well, I want to get connected with some groups," and that was a really clear one. I was saying, "I can get plugged in with that and leverage my experience but [00:09:30] really support them," because we were looking for more people with that advisory mindset to advise their clients. Got connected pretty quick, and we're kind of running with that, which is great.
 
My team in Raleigh works closely with our Charlotte team which handles the dental space, but we, as a firm, have broken down those barriers. We're trying to get out of saying those are firm clients from that office. It's really just they're our practice's clients, and we're going to work on them, no matter whether someone's in Greenville, or Charlotte, or Raleigh, or anything like that.
 
Blake Oliver: And your clients tend to be local?
 
Jason Deshayes: Yes, and no. The dental [00:10:00] space is all over the country. In fact, the one I was talking to earlier was from San Francisco. I've got some in Albuquerque, which was kind of funny, because I moved 1,700 miles away from Albuquerque. We've got them all over the place. We do have a large footprint where we have offices, but we do have people, because we have that deep niche knowledge, so people don't necessarily need you locally, because they want your industry knowledge, which they aren't going to find next door, or down the street from some guy who has two dentists, or two restaurants. [00:10:30]
 
Blake Oliver: I think you mentioned that you get a lot of referrals, at this point, because you're known.
 
Jason Deshayes: Mm-hmm.
 
Blake Oliver: Do you go to industry events for dentists and prospect there [cross talk]
 
Jason Deshayes: Yeah, we get there. Part of it's not necessarily prospecting, but it's being connected to the niche, right? If you're connected to the industry, you're hearing the issues that they're hearing, you're participating with them, and you're meeting them where they are; not necessarily hoping they're going to come to you and just say, "Oh, well someone told me you're really good at this." They want to see you actively engaged with it.
 
I've talked [00:11:00] to other folks here at Engage, speaking of engage, who are doing niches, as well, and it's all the same story. You are there in their space. You go to their industry conferences, and you spend time with them, because then they see you, and they get that you're there; because a lot of firms just throw money at issues and say, "Okay, I'll sponsor this thing and that counts," right?
 
Blake Oliver: Right.
 
Jason Deshayes: They really have to be active participants to make it effective.
 
Blake Oliver: What's your tech stack?
 
Jason Deshayes: We have been using mostly QuickBooks Online. In [00:11:30] fact, since I came on, the only clients I have are QuickBooks Online because I just don't want to deal with the desktop kind of stuff, and that's pretty much been it. We've got still some desktop people, and we're trying to convert them all now. We are exploring some other options, because we've got some who have kind of moved past QuickBooks capacity, and we need to have something that's a little deeper. We've looked to Intacct; we've looked at a couple other places.
 
Blake Oliver: The multi-entity benefits of a system like that are pretty persuasive [00:12:00] when you get to a multi- 
 
Jason Deshayes: Oh, yeah. In our dental space, we have a lot of these organizations called DSOs, or Dental Service Organizations. They have a huge number of locations and lots of complexity. They need something really powerful. You can't really do that with platforms that have user restrictions, or account numbers, and that kind of jazz. [00:12:30] We do that. We leverage Fathom a lot lately. We're adopting a few other pieces of tech that we're in the process of vetting; a larger firm. We've got a process to go through due diligence, so we're kind of getting to the end of some of that, which will be good. Actually, we have a person on our team who's dedicated to innovation. Her whole job is tech stack, and she has refined that. She's been there since January of this year, actually.
 
Blake Oliver: That's awesome.
 
Jason Deshayes: Yeah, she's relatively new on the team, but she's been fantastic, because she really just runs with that, so we can get her to focus on [00:13:00] what's the best thing for us? How does this actually map out to our clients, and are we going to create those efficiencies that we need? That's been really one of the biggest benefits for me, moving from a small-firm to a large-firm environment. In my small firm, we had eight of us.
 
Blake Oliver: Yeah, you were the tech guy.
 
Jason Deshayes: I was the tech guy. You had to go figure out yourself, with all that extra free time you had, when you were running the business, you were doing HR, you were trying to bring in new clients, and you're still doing the work. That's the great thing about our team is that we've got people who are really just experts, and they just get to go run with that kind of stuff. [00:13:30]
 
Blake Oliver: Jason, any takeaways from the conference this year?
 
Jason Deshayes: I think one of the biggest things is how important it is to spend time with your peers and actually be transparent with them about talking what you're working through. There's a group of people who have went through AICPA's Leadership Academy. We all connect pretty well around here. We talk about everything, so it's great, because you get to figure out like, "Okay, this is how you're doing things ..." Last night, we were talking about niches and what did you do? How can I learn from that? [00:14:00]
 
I think that kind of was 'a rising tide raises all ships.' I think that can apply here, so I think for the people listening, if you find those people ... Find your crew and really spend time with them. Be transparent with what's going on in your practice. I don't think the secret sauce is going to get leaked, where suddenly like, "Oh, well, if we tell them this, then somehow they'll replicate it, and all of our clients will leave." That's not the case.
 
Blake Oliver: Right.
 
Jason Deshayes: You'll figure out that you're doing things really well; you'll figure out things you aren't doing really well; but [00:14:30] we're all going to do better for it.
 
Blake Oliver: Well, and I think the niche-ing enables that openness, because it's not like somebody is going to come along ... I'm not going to come along and listen to you talk about your dental practice and then, go out and build one, because I've never worked with dentists.
 
Jason Deshayes: Yes.
 
Blake Oliver: I'm not going to build that expertise overnight.
 
Jason Deshayes: But you'll learn something about how it was built, and the things you have to connect with and go, "Oh, I can do that, but I don't care about dentists, I care about..." A friend of mine's doing one on independent RV parks, and he wants [00:15:00] to really own that space. Sweet. Do it.
 
Blake Oliver: But the principles apply.
 
Jason Deshayes: The same principles, just find the thing you're passionate about and do that. The only way you can, I think, really effectively do that is by being able to talk with people, work through it, rather than trying to do it yourself.
 
Blake Oliver: If people want to connect with you online, and network with you, and learn from you, before the next conference, where's the best place for them to do that?
 
Jason Deshayes: They can follow me on Twitter @CPAguyjase, and then they can also shoot me an email. It's Jason.Deshayes@elliotdavis.com.
 
Blake Oliver: As always, you can reach [00:15:30] me, Blake Oliver, I'm @BlakeTOliver on Twitter. Jason, thanks so much for your time today.
 
Jason Deshayes: Thank you, man. Appreciate it.
 

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