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Tear Down the Walls

Faced with poor internal communications, accounting firm Lipschultz, Levin Gray created a whole new way of doing business by eliminating all walls, private offices and permanent desks.
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First, Steve Siegel got rid of his office wall. Countless design changes later, he's helped create an entirely new way of working

Anton Hendler, a certified public accountant, is deep into a phone conversation with a longtime client whose $10-million textile business unexpectedly found itself without a controller a couple of days ago. Hendler speedily dispatched a fellow accountant to fill in for a while, and now his client is going into raptures over the way the arrangement's working out. "That's wonderful news," Hendler booms into the telephone. "WON-DAH-FULL!" Half a dozen heads whirl around as his baritone reverberates like a sonic wave through the wide- open work environment (there are no private offices, no cubicles, no secrets) owned and occupied by Lipschultz, Levin & Gray, Certified Public Accountants, in Northbrook, Ill., just north of Chicago.

If LLG were your basic run-of-the-mill CPA practice, Hendler would be squirreled away in a sound-sucking windowless warren of bank-teller-size cubes near the elevators. Happy news straight from paying customers would never reach him or any other staff accountant unless it had been vetted by senior heavyweights and handed down the chain of command in dignified order. No, Hendler would be as far removed as possible from real live clients and unfiltered feedback, until the day he finally hit the big time and moved up into the lonely grandeur and complex networks of privileged communication that mark partnership territory.

Then again, Lipschultz, Levin & Gray (or "The Bean Counters," as the firm likes to be called) is way out of the range of what anyone who's halfway familiar with accounting firms is used to. Not one of the firm's 26 employees (called "team members") or five partners (called "members") has an office or a desk to call his or her own--or even a regular location. Instead, everyone who works there is part of a nomadic tribe of people who tote their gear (files, phones, laptops) to a new spot every day, a chore made easier than it sounds because each piece of furniture is mounted on casters and locomotes at a touch.

The foundation of LLG's novel approach is everywhere you look in this building: evidence of versatility, comfort, and eccentricity in a fizzy, constantly metamorphosing space that makes even a hot new concept like "flexible workplace" seem drab and worn-out. True, the top people had to give up some executive ego candy, like private offices and reserved parking and pinstriped suits, but in exchange for roughing it, they got this jaw dropper of an office, as beautiful as it is revolutionary.

The firm's nickname is really what started it. In the early 1990s, when LLG surveyed its clients to find out what they thought of accountants in general, the thing that kept turning up was the phrase bean counter, the rude but ubiquitous term that disses accountants as uncommunicative, shortsighted penny-pinchers who are obsessed with the smallest of financial details. Maybe these accountants couldn't do much to alter the negative perceptions that dogged their whole profession--which, as everybody kept telling them, is as boring as airline food--but that didn't stop them from poking fun at it. Why not liberate themselves from the confines of the green-eyeshade mentality to pursue a bigger, zippier way of working, where souped-up skills and distinctive service to clients are far more important than the size of partners' offices?

The Bean Counters have since unleashed a whole slew of changes that are wonderfully entrepreneurial and also sort of nuts. Every telltale remnant of dreary CPA-ness has been purged. Today the firm still delivers traditional accounting, audit, and tax services, but it also has just launched four new business-consulting offshoots. Income has tripled and client referrals have doubled over the past 10 years. More than anything else, LLG has paid careful attention to developing the creativity, talent, and diversity of its staffers so that new knowledge can be acquired and passed around without getting hung up on the thorns of reporting relationships or stuck in out-of-the-way corner offices. That is an accomplishment that could be brought about only by time, a deep and durable dissatisfaction with the way things were, accidental discoveries, and the kind of leader who is bold and funny and idealistic and a natural at figuring stuff out.

By the mid 1980s, LLG was already a mature firm, plodding along with the mixture of layered hierarchy and conservatism emblematic of the public accounting trade. From its founding, in 1947, the firm's special imprimatur had been that its CPA partners also held law degrees, an uncommon and unconventional combination (there were at the time only a handful of accountant-lawyers in the whole state of Illinois) that enriched its work in the accounting and tax areas. But it wouldn't be much of an advantage for the firm when the stately accounting profession turned its own bread and butter--the audit--into a commodity by giving the green light to unaudited financial statements. That meant that clients could forgo pricey, full-blown audits in favor of less stringent reviews that could be prepared at a small fraction of the cost. The results: frenzied competition and rampant price slashing. Meanwhile, in an industry that was dominated by the Big Eight firms, which together audited more than 95% of the Fortune 500, mergers and acquisitions began for the first time. Today the Big Eight have morphed into the Big Five, and accounting firms everywhere have diversified into management consulting, financial services, technology--you name it, they probably do it.

Last updated: Apr 1, 1999




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