Creating Trust with a Client-First Approach
Generating new business by cultivating relationships and tapping into referrals is vital to the growth of a service firm like MCG. Chris Johnson, MCG’s lead tax partner, has played a part in that process many times.
So how did Johnson handle an opportunity that came his way in 2006 from antivirus software giant McAfee — an inquiry that would turn into a bountiful long-term relationship spanning multiple companies and engagements? Unbelievably enough, by turning them away.
At the time, Johnson held a highly-coveted position at a Big Four firm, which was then embedded at McAfee for an extended stretch. Kyle Zander was a couple of months into his position as McAfee’s Vice President of Tax and needed to farm out a large amount of work on a financial restatement with a particularly specialized technical tax piece. After a feeling-out period, he offered the technical work to Johnson. Due to firm-wide staffing changes, the organization was unequipped to take it on, a reality Johnson addressed honestly — which led to an unexpected result.
“He asked if my team could perform this piece of technical tax work,” Johnson said. “I told him, ‘No, we actually can’t — the firm just downsized that department.’ However, I said I can give you names of two guys who can absolutely do this, make the introduction and quarterback a lunch. He blinked and said, ‘So you just sold work to two competitors… you know what? From now on you’re going to get the first bite of the apple every time because I trust you.’”
By selling himself and not the work, Johnson assured Zander that he could be a trusted partner. Although he broke ranks with the Big Four partner, Johnson’s client-first philosophy built a bridge to future work as he moved to MCG and Zander transitioned to several new companies.
“When you do the right thing, create trust and tell people what you really can and cannot do, and even go so far as to facilitate ways to solve the problem that would be at least initially at your expense, it brings multiple returns in the future.”
“I ended up leaving to join MCG, and I told Kyle that I was heading to a smaller firm — not trying to solicit work, but just to let him know since he would need to find a replacement,” Johnson said. “He smiled at me and said, ‘You’re the same exact person but less expensive, right? I don’t see any reason to disrupt this relationship. You’ve always told me what you can and can’t do — let’s continue on.’”
After six months working together, Zander flipped the work to MCG, which included all their federal and state corporate tax compliance, IRS exam management, research credit work and tax consulting around a restatement of financials. Since 2013, Zander has moved from McAfee to Intel (which acquired McAfee in 2011) to Atmel. At every job, one of his first acts was to contact Johnson and add him as a service provider.
“The moral of the story is building trust and relationships,” Johnson said. “When you do the right thing, create trust and tell people what you really can and cannot do, and even go so far as to facilitate ways to solve the problem that would be at least initially at your expense, it brings multiple returns in the future.”
Taking an unconventional path to success has been Johnson’s approach from the start of his career. Rather than take the typical path of joining a Big Four firm after graduation, he started in industry with Cinemark Theatres’ corporate tax department for eight years. The self-starter aspect of wearing every hat while working in industry taught Johnson resourcefulness that benefited him when he decided to make a move to public accounting, first with Arthur Andersen and then with the Big Four position that started his relationship with Zander. Along the way, he learned where his true interests and gifts aligned.
“I never intended to stay in public accounting longer than 36 months — I always planned to come back to industry,” Johnson said. “I was pleasantly surprised that I really enjoyed the client relationship aspect as well as the internal relationship aspect. I love to make a positive impact on the internal environment I am in. But it’s really rewarding to also help clients solve problems and be that quarterback sneaking over the goal line. Public accounting allowed me to let my extrovert out and I really enjoyed that.”
Johnson struck up a relationship with MCG founding partner Matt Coscia while Matt was doing tax consulting work on a mutual audit client. After about 18 months, Coscia asked Johnson to join the firm. Johnson was not positive the firm’s client profile matched his experience and skill-set, but received assurances that the support would be there to provide the service he wished for his clients.
“He literally used the words, ‘This is your canvas, go paint it,’” Johnson said. “I asked about getting resources that were not with the firm at that time, and he said identify who you want and go get them. Matt was true to his word. The biggest appeal to me about MCG was the autonomy and the ability to paint that canvas and to write your own script.
“That’s been the case ever since. I use the same sales pitch on every experienced person I bring in here when we’re acquiring talent that’s very specific: I’m just here to give you what you need and then get out of your way — you’re going to do a far better job than I can within your specialty. Time and time again, that autonomy and that empty canvas to paint have been appealing to some very talented people.”
It’s clear that Johnson’s ability to connect with clients paired with MCG’s adaptability and capability have created a ‘secret sauce’ that ultimately benefits their clients. “The stickiness of the relationships and the ‘I’ve got your back’ personal side of this is really the moral of the story,” Johnson said. “It’s more than just being a service partner, it’s more than just an advocate, it’s trust. When your clients become true friends, their interests naturally become your interests.”