Firm Transitions, New Opportunities

Washington CPA Magazine, January 2012 Edition
Aaron_DawsonAaron and Jen Dawson, both CPAs, met while studying accounting at Western Washington University. After working for several years at large Seattle area CPA firms, the couple moved to Longview and became second generation owners of a 30 year old accounting firm in 2009.With offices in two Southwestern Washington locations, Vancouver and Longview, Opsahl, Dawson & Company, P.S., has 22 employees and is Vancouver’s largest CPA firm, according to the Vancouver Business Journal.Born and raised in Longview, Aaron is President and head of the tax department at the firm. Aaron chose to follow his father into the accounting profession. Robert Dawson, Jr. has been a sole practitioner for more than 30 years in Vancouver.

“We share ideas often. He has been a great mentor,” said Aaron, who has experience in manufacturing, real estate, and construction industries, and specializes in entity selection, and high net worth individual taxation.

Jen DawsonJen, who was raised on Whidbey Island in Oak Harbor, is shareholder and Vice President, as well as head of the firm’s financial statement and human resources departments. Jen’s interest in accounting began while she was in high school.

“I’ve always enjoyed working with numbers and had a great accounting teacher in high school,” said Jen. “Once I decided that I was going to major in accounting, it was a no-brainer that I was going to become a CPA. I get great satisfaction working closely with clients and helping them with their business and achieving their goals.”

Jen’s industry expertise includes hospitality, construction, real estate, manufacturing, and retail.

The couple’s journey to purchasing their own practice began with a simple phone call from George Opsahl, Aaron’s longtime family friend.

“George called me and suggested we explore the idea of transitioning his firm to Jen and me,” recalls Aaron. “It was as if my dad were saying he wanted to teach me to drive his Ferrari so I could own it. It was the most important phone call of my career.

“The transition of ownership from George Opsahl and Terry Shepp was very positive. They were both very open to new ideas that we brought to the firm. After implementation, our new ideas allowed the firm to become more efficient than ever before.”

“Our transition was 100% successful; we did not lose any clients as a result of the ownership transition,” said Aaron.

“George and Terry’s strategic transition efforts helped to instill confidence with our existing clients through positive introductions, carefully planned client communications, and double checks on new tax planning ideas. George is still involved in the business, but Terry retired in mid 2010.”

Aaron and Jen offer the following advice to other CPAs preparing for firm ownership transitions: “The exiting shareholder should be as open as possible to the new shareholder ideas, provide some feedback, but ultimately allow the transition to take place. Once the clients start to call the new shareholder, the exiting shareholder should resist taking a front row seat as it will confuse the client as to who is actually in charge and the lead advisor. A back seat role can be a good way for the exiting shareholder to still be involved and continue to allow the transition to take place. It takes a lot of trust to turn over your firm and client relationships, but remember, the candidate you chose to transition your firm is highly qualified, that is why you have chosen them in the first place. Allow the transition to take place.”

“Lots of communication between the owners is very important also. Set expectations up front so there is nothing unsaid,” said Aaron.

Working for the same firm as a married couple was another transition for the Dawsons.

“Separating duties is a good way to keep the teamwork healthy,” said Aaron.

“We also are good at not bringing work home. I am more of a risk taker and am rapidly moving the firm forward with new technology. These changes always put a stress on the firm, but are necessary to succeed. Jen is more conservative and a good double check for me. We complement each other very well.”

During her free time, Jen plays sports, travels, hikes, and reads. Outside of work, Aaron can be found outdoors, hunting, fishing, or river rafting. The Dawsons enjoy spending time with their 17-month old daughter, Jade, and will welcome twins into their family on Tax Day 2012.

“We love the challenges of running our own firm and the opportunity to move to Longview,” said Aaron. “The scenery is beautiful, people are great, and life is just the right pace!”