As part of our series about the “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Ernie Villany.
Ernie Villany, CPA is the founder and president of Boulder Valley CPA (BVCPA), a Colorado-based CPA/advisory firm representing clientele in 30 states. Villany has over 20 years of experience in public accounting, helping small to medium-size businesses around the world plan and manage their financial growth, while mitigating tax liabilities.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
My father was passed over for a partner promotion when I was in elementary school. He started his first practice from our garage in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn and it was a family affair from the word go. By 8th grade, I was doing the data entry for financial statements into a General Ledger application my Dad wrote in Lotus 1–2–3. It functioned much like the first DOS version of QuickBooks and made understanding how computers would change double-entry bookkeeping forever, with the foundational experience of using manual ledgers. By the time I was a junior in high school I was training CPAs on my father’s staff to do tax preparation and bookkeeping on a computer. By my senior year in high school, I was meeting with clients and doing much of the preparation work myself.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
Biggest “Aha Moment” of my life was in the fall of 2008 when we visited our dearest friends, shortly after they moved to the Front Range of Colorado. I had left a busy NYC public accounting career in late 2005 and had begun a gratifying career as a CFO for a large YMCA in New Jersey when we first came out to visit. We were having beer and BBQ in our friend’s backyard when my wife and I looked at each other and without saying anything, immediately knew Boulder was the place to raise our sons. And building a CPA practice out west was the adventure that could help make that happen. We went home that week and immediately put our home up for sale.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
When we finally pulled up stakes in NJ and headed west to Colorado, we did so with the personal items we could fit in a single-axle U-Haul trailer and moved into our friend’s basement for six months. Remember, this is the height of the real estate collapse. We couldn’t give our home away, and we couldn’t sell the building that housed my wife’s chiropractic clinic. It was a dark time. For nearly two years we were spending $3,000 more per month than we were earning, cannibalizing our savings, and pounding the pavement to generate new business. I networked seven days a week back then and I distinctly remember the day I went to the ATM for the $20 I needed to get into a networking event. But couldn’t make a withdrawal because there was only $18 in my account. Giving up came up almost monthly, especially when our much smaller Schwab statement would show up at the end of each month. But we knew something was going to happen for us. We could taste it. The drive to succeed came from the simple fact that, no matter how tough things were, we had each other, and that’s really all the four of us ever needed. We could live in a van and still be happy to have each other. We feel that way as a family to this day. Plus, we were fighting the good fight in Colorado. 300 sunny days a year, great schools, wonderful community, an active/outdoor lifestyle, and a vibrant economy.
So, how are things going today? How did your grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
About two and a half years into our adventure something particularly important happened. I was introduced to a public accountant who had been practicing in Louisville, Colorado for almost 40 years. He had run into some serious health issues and needed to retire immediately. At the time I was commuting from Colorado to NYC every other week, just to make ends meet. While I barely had two nickels to rub together, I figured “what harm would come from meeting him?” Thank heavens I did. We hit it off tremendously, from the moment I shook his hand. He told me he could tell just from my hands that I had true grit. He knew from my tales of commuting to Manhattan for two years that I wasn’t afraid of hard work, came from a good family, and would treat the clients he spent four decades helping in a way he could be at peace with. Despite three competing offers at nearly twice what I could afford, he sold the practice to me. No money down, to boot! We agreed to a retention agreement, and he set out as the biggest cheerleader of the transaction that I could ever find. Well over 80% of the client base stayed on board and I was able to pay him more than what we agreed. It made him incredibly happy. What I didn’t realize was that I hadn’t just purchased a small tax practice, but rather access to multi-generational Coloradan individuals and businesses owners. It was an undisclosed asset that would become the catalyst for all future success.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Our firm, Boulder Valley CPAs, provides outstanding service to our clients due to our dedication to three underlying principles: Professionalism, Responsiveness, and Quality.
Our firm is one of the leading firms in the area. A combination of our expertise, experience, and the energy of our staff, gives us the ability to give each client the personal and professional attention they deserve. Our ambitious standards, service, and specialized staff spell the difference between our outstanding performance and other firms. We are passionate about meeting the individual needs of every client.
Our firm is responsive. Companies who choose our firm rely on competent advice and fast, accurate personnel. We provide total financial services to individuals, large and small businesses, and other agencies. There’s a reason much of our client base came to us on a referral basis — our exceptional commitment level.
An accounting firm is known for the quality of its service. Our firm’s reputation reflects the lofty standards we demand of ourselves. Our primary goal as trusted advisors is to be available and ready to provide the insight for our clients to help them make informed financial decisions.
We feel it is extremely important to continually educate ourselves to improve our technical expertise, financial knowledge, and service to our clients. Our high service quality and “raving fan” clients are the result of our commitment to excellence.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
When I first started out, I was young, and full of bright-eyed enthusiasm. Fearless almost, and no job was too big. Particularly IRS audit representation. I didn’t have five minutes of experience when I agreed to take on my first IRS audit appeal. The Appeals Unit at the IRS is a special place, particularly in New York City where my career began. The agents are seasoned experts in their field and have no time to waste. Especially with an inexperienced CPA. Well…what a way to spend an hour. Thirty seconds into the meeting the agent had my number, and with coffee in his hand, as well as jelly dripping from his donut, carefully explained the world of IRS audits to me. A master at his craft, he made it noticeably clear there is no excuse for being unprepared, shuffling papers is a rookie mistake, substantive evidence is critical, and you only have minutes to make a compelling argument in front of someone whose job it is to prevent frivolous audits from going to tax court. If not, you’re leaving so fast you won’t even realize it’s happening. Which he did. Fortunately, as he was showing me the door, he agreed to give me a week, and one more shot. Not one to miss a second chance, I returned the next week, armed and ready. The agent confessed he knew I would be back and was excited to see me again. At the conclusion of what was almost an entire day, I successfully defended more than 80% of what the taxpayer was being challenged on. As the agent described, “I like you. You’re a good kid. You never tried to BS me. I’m going to grade you on a curve and give you 100% of what your client claimed.” Clearly a victory I will never forget, but the experience was so much more valuable than that. I had formed an ongoing relationship with a professional adversary who showed me kindness and respect, sharing wisdom with me that no academics could ever provide. Most importantly, I learned a valuable lesson. When someone gives you an opportunity, or a second chance that you clearly do not deserve, recognize it, and show gratitude for it. Make the most of it. It won’t happen again soon, and you may not be as lucky the next time around.
Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?
Not so much advice, but more of a philosophy or belief I wish I hadn’t followed. The onset of electronic accounting systems happened in the 90s, when Intuit created Quicken and soon thereafter, Quickbooks. Well, when those two products took hold, I began to believe the benefit of professional accounting, or bookkeeping was a thing of the past, and that more important roles and responsibilities CPAs bring to the table were more valuable to the client and more lucrative for the CPA. Over the years, I enabled a large number of business owners, creating dysfunctional relationships with no real boundaries. What I didn’t realize is just how much effort, stress and time was being wasted pulling these enabled business owners over a myriad of business finish lines. Not to mention the countless decisions I wasn’t prepared to help them make. Most of the relationships I no longer have can be traced to my complete misreading of how vital it is for business owners to maintain their book and record keeping efforts. It’s now essential for measuring the success of my company’s WHY, defines the types of clients I want to work with, and is the starting point for how we empower our clients. We no longer enable them.
You are a successful business leader. Which three-character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
Empathy. COVID-19 and the CARES Act legislation that ensued have plunged me neck deep in conversations I never thought I would have as a professional. Many of them were tearful. This time in our lives has taught me more about being empathic and given me hundreds upon hundreds of experiences to draw upon. More than a single professional should have to experience in several lifetimes. It has brought me much closer to my clients and challenged my ability to be present, mindful, and balanced in all facets of the work we do.
Humility. Two years ago, we were a staff of 15. I had a two-pronged approach to my own succession planning, an office space I owned, the recognition of my community and the beginning of a proud legacy. Today, we’re down seven full-time employees, mostly working from home. The office space I own is only half-full, and the community I serve is exhausted, anxious, and more challenged by the government tax structure than ever before. It is only by being humble that I can work with folks I trust and care about to pick ourselves up, take one step at a time together, build better relationships with each other, stronger businesses, and a greater sense of what is really valuable to us.
Accountability. Similar to being humble, I have made it clear to the folks I surround myself with that they must fearlessly hold me accountable. Thank goodness they all do. I have fostered and built a process-driven environment that gives my team the freedom and format to hold my feet to the fire. When I do it well, they feel as if they are being heard, trusted, and outfitted with the tools they need to be successful and valuable to our clients.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Get outside! It’s only my opinion, but the entire accounting industry should operate out of Colorado. This place pushes you out of your comfort zone, especially the outdoor-related activities. There has been no greater form of stress relief in what seems to be a perpetual tax season for so many years. From the Tax Cuts and Job Act of 2018 to the CARES Act, accountants, tax professionals and CPAs have been under direct assault and must find ways to bring balance into their lives. Colorado and the Front Range provide endless opportunities to do just that, but anyone is capable of stepping outside to draw fresh air into their lungs. One of our clients strongly believes the world is a better place when people go outside, and I couldn’t agree more.
What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?
Being undercapitalized and not committing the resources they should for book and record keeping. It all begins there and catching up is difficult and time-consuming. Countless dollars and resources are wasted on something people should pledge to do right from the beginning.
In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?
The impact that the people you surround yourself with will have on your life. I’m not the smartest person by any measure, but I was raised to run through brick walls. Well…that works for a little while, but eventually breaks you down. Especially when it lasts for years on end. There is no substitute for the value an empowered team brings to any organization. I’ve always believed this, but it wasn’t until the pandemic became deeply ingrained in our daily lives, over a period of years, that I saw my team do things that made my heart swell with pride. The support, faith, and optimism they bring to the table every day was sometimes all I had. Especially in the earlier, scarier days of the pandemic. I drew strength from them that I had seriously underestimated I would need.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company”? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Find your “WHY.” When I finally understood what it means for people to work with you because they understand why you do what you do — not what you sell — my view of myself and my practice’s purpose became crystal clear. The bottom line is this — work is hard. Accounting and taxes are extremely hard, and good people deserve dependable professionals to help them. Clients and prospects who share that same belief make up the good folks who believe they belong.
- Build your business around a process, not people. It’s the freedom everyone needs, and it positions you for success. Especially when adversity comes when you don’t expect it. Our staffing crisis began in March of 2021, the height of tax season. Our process driven approach saved us, and we were able to meaningfully launch our first offshoring of data entry in the middle of tax season. Our software provider was stunned at our ability to get it off the ground and thrive. Version two of any process has a high likelihood of success and breeds confidence among the team, because they’ve seen the value of a process.
- It’s okay to fail. I’m a mountain biker, and my greatest strengths have come through my hardest falls. Being a CPA is similar. When you’re process driven, the height you fall from is always managed — low to the ground and never life-threatening. When you trust all of that, you can push the limits that you know you can and must do. A skinned knee or bruised elbow simply becomes a rallying point for being better when you get back up off the ground.
- Time flies. Make more time for your family. This is always easier said than done, but the pandemic has shown a bright light on how possible it is, and how rewarding it can be. We only get one trip through this life. Don’t spend the majority of it at work. Create a work environment that is healthy for your finances and your heart. Simple things, like getting home for dinner, is essential for you and your family, and will keep you healthy and happy.
- Trust, but verify. There are a lot of well-meaning people and organizations out there, but most of the time that isn’t enough. Do your homework, read the fine print (twice), ask as many questions as you can, and demand accountability. The folks you’re working with can’t read your mind. Make it crystal clear what your expectations are and how you’ll measure what matters to you.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
I would build a tax system that isn’t designed to prevent people from getting the help they deserve. One that is not limited based on their ability to pay for professional services. Our federal tax system is deeply broken, and often sends frightening correspondence to folks who have no lines of defense against it. No budget to fight, or even the tools to make sure this deeply broken government entity is correct. They often have no choice but to comply — even if the government is wrong. That is no way for millions of Americans to live.
How can our readers further follow you online?
Facebook — https://www.facebook.com/bouldervalleycpas/
Instagram — @ErnieVillanyCPA; @BVCPAs_Tax
Twitter — https://twitter.com/BVCPAs_Tax