GULFPORT — On a Saturday afternoon in July 1967, Wynn Alexander, a young CPA, was pondering the future of his fledgling accounting firm and wondering how he would support his wife and baby daughter.
“The first three months I took in enough to pay half of the typewriter note,” he said.
He tells with a laugh about that Saturday in ‘67 when a woman who couldn’t read showed up at his door thinking she was at a chiropractor’s office.
“She had a $10 bill in her hand and for a split second I thought about trying to pass myself off as a chiropractor,” Alexander, now retired from accounting, recalls, “but I had a wonderful career CPAing for 34 years. I can’t emphasize that enough and what I enjoyed most about it was helping people.”
The firm he began, now known officially as Alexander, Van Loon, Sloan, Levens and Favre, PLLC, is the largest CPA firm based in South Mississippi and the sixth largest in the state. Of the 45 employees, 30 are accountants and 23 of those are certified public accountants.
Alexander, 62, retired from the firm in January 1997 to pursue timber interests with his family in Stone County. “We did a good job of planning my departure, and I’m so proud of the way they’ve continued the firm and the way it’s grown,” he said. “We had a wonderful clientele, mostly in Harrison and Stone counties.”
The partners include Rodney Van Loon, Cindy Sloan, Jerry Levens, Jerry Favre and Jimmy Stokes. They have an office on Three Rivers Road in Gulfport and a branch office in Wiggins. They offer a long list of services to a wide range of clients that include healthcare, legal, government, non-profits, franchise restaurants and gaming. “Our clients run from the corner grocery store to some of the largest industries on the Coast,” said Jerry Levens. “No one is too small or too large.”
The firm has a client list of small businesses approaching 400 for whom they provide outsource payroll, bookkeeping and other elements of monthly accounting.
“We pride ourselves on our quality,” said Jerry Favre. “We have a full-time quality control director, which is not common for a firm our size, and the work product that goes out the door here will stand up to any firm.”
Levens points out that the size of the firm, coupled with the large, diverse client list, allows the accountants to develop specialized skill sets within the staff. With exposure to the varied needs of clients, each accountant is able to devote time to specific areas within the profession.
“We must focus on particular areas because we can’t be technically competent in all fields,” he said.
In a profession that has a high turnover rate, the partners stress their longevity and the importance of their relationships with clients. They feel the image of accountants could be improved with more attention to communication with clients.
“You can be the smartest statistician in the world, but you must have communication skills,” Levens said. “Unfortunately the education is still technical.”
Levens, a former president of the Mississippi Society of CPAs who represented the state with the American Institute of CPAs, noted that interest in accounting among high school students has dropped nationally from 4% to 1%. The institute is trying to increase interest by targeting junior high and high school students through its Web site, www.startheregoplaces.com.
The Alexander Van Loon firm started an accounting internship program with the University of Southern Mississippi in 1998. Four to six students selected by the faculty work 20 hours per week with the CPA firm during tax season and receive three hours of semester credit for their efforts.
“The internship program is going over great,” said Jimmy Stokes. “It gives us a chance to assess the students’ work habits and we’ve hired some of them.”
They also sponsor a yearly award to the outstanding senior accounting major at Southern Miss, he said.
With accounting becoming more specialized, there’s a lot of one-stop shopping among firms, Levens said. To that end, Alexander Van Loon launched AVL/WealthCare in 2001 to provide investment portfolio review services under the direction of Van Loon, who is a certified financial planner in addition to a CPA.
“People tend to trust their CPAs. A lot of clients were asking questions about the stock market and we started doing analysis for them,” Van Loon said. “Investment advisory is an adjunct. We offer investment management on a fee basis, non commissioned, and that puts us on the same side with the clients because we are not selling products.”
A partner since 1981, he’s currently splitting his time between accounting and investment management. Three employees are working full time for AVL/WealthCare.
“We have $50 million under management, and it’s continuing to grow,” he said. “We educate people on fees, and there was a crying need for that.”
Van Loon believes this service is unique among CPA firms, saying if there are others, he doesn’t know about them.
The CPA firm is targeting July 1 to begin another service that will be free for their clients. There will be a Web site link providing one place for clients to see data of all their accounts, including bank balances and home mortgage information, Van Loon said.
The firm’s community involvement includes providing discounted professional services for non-profit organizations, and service with the Gulf Coast Chamber of Commerce, Leadership Gulf Coast and the Gulf Coast Community Foundation. Twice each year, they sponsor continuing professional education courses and invite all of the area accounting community and clients. The most recent one was attended by 300 people.
Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at firstname.lastname@example.org.