Cornering the market Proforma brings in the big business while maintaining a small business feel
breaking down IRS Appeals
focus on Cloud Computing
get to know Lisa Haffer
going for gold Investing in people Everyone wants to know the solution to the ongoing
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economic challenges we all face. Is it in cutting
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government spending? Is it taxing the rich? Is it
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injecting another stimulus? No matter the government’s next move, progress will be made if we support entrepreneurial advancement. Do you have an innovative idea for a product or service that would fulfill a need for a core group of people? When you invest in your idea, you invest in people and help create jobs. Small businesses—considered by many to be the heart of the American economy—make up more than 99.7 percent of all employers in the United States. They create 75 percent of the net new jobs in our economy. New employees are essential for growing the economy, but you must be sure to invest in the right people to help you grow your business. In a recent Inc. Magazine survey, hiring was identified as CEOs’ biggest challenge, edging out the economy and government regulation as the top business concern. In a down economy where the pool of candidates may be large, it doesn’t mean hiring the best workers will be easy. Be strategic with each and every hire you make. How does the applicant fulfill your values, and how do your values fulfill your candidate? Be realistic about the qualifications you seek, and be sure to distinguish the skills you require from the ones that
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can be learned on the job. Ensuring you have the right team—one with diverse skills and personality traits that allow for productive, efficient collaboration and an enjoyable work environment—will save you the cost of hiring and training a rotation of people until you find the best fit. “When in doubt, don’t hire—keep looking,” said author Jim Collins. Hiring people to fill seats won’t help you achieve your goals. Remember, pace is the trick. Take your time, and trust your instincts. Just be sure to explain in detail up front what you expect and how the new hire’s role will fit with the team’s function. Even when you’re not hiring, network with people who could be a great fit later. Maintain a list of prospective hires, and stay in touch with them. If they’re not available when an opening comes up, they may refer you to another candidate who is a viable match.
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No matter what, don’t use a cookie-cutter approach. Each hire you make will be as unique as each candidate you interview. Ultimately, you should extend an offer to the person you’re most confident will deliver on his or her promise—to put his or her talent to use in helping your company achieve great things. Now that’s a great investment.
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Mark Goldfarb, CPA Managing Director IRS Treasury Regulations require us to inform you that any tax advice contained in the body of this communication was not intended or written to be used, and cannot be used, by the recipient for the purpose of avoiding penalties that may be imposed under the Internal Revenue Code or applicable state or local tax law provisions.
SS&G is a founding member of The Leading Edge Alliance, an international professional association of independently owned accounting and consulting firms.
first person Lisa Haffer Title: Director Education/degrees: Bachelor of Arts in art history from Vanderbilt University; Juris Doctor from University of Cincinnati College of Law Hometown: Raised in Cincinnati; lives in Columbus Year I joined SS&G: 1994
My first job: My first “real” job was in the tax department at Price Waterhouse in Washington, D.C. I had just graduated from law school, and I was 25 years old. My most vivid memories of that experience are sharing an office with three other tax staff and the fact that our tax preparation software required us to write tax data on forms, which were faxed to Texas. We would then have to wait for data inputters in Texas to key in the data and fax us back a tax return. The process would have to be repeated if there were changes to our returns. This was in the mid-1980s, and I remember how awestruck we were at the fact that a piece of paper could get turned into a tax return in a matter of hours. The word that best describes me: Tenacious The best part about my job is: client service. I get a kick out of finding tax-savings opportunities for my clients. The best advice I’ve received: One of my first managers at Price Waterhouse advised me that even if your calendar looks wide open for the next day, always try to clear off your desk before you go home because you never know what the next day will bring. This was probably the best advice I have received in my career. And I try not only to clean out emails and other small tasks before ending the day, but I try to impart this advice onto new staff as well. Books on my shelf: No one favorite, but I love a good thriller. My current favorite authors include Jeffrey Archer, James Grippando and James Patterson. If I could change anything in my career: I took about five years off when my children were little. In retrospect, I wish I would have worked part time during this period to stay current on tax law changes and to keep up career-wise with my peers.
My business philosophy: Give 110 percent in everything you do. The greatest invention of the last 10 years: iPad I cannot live without: my iPad and my iPhone. I’m most proud of: my children. I hope I never: lose my memory. A little-known fact about me: I danced with Sting after a Police concert in Cincinnati in the mid-1980s. My next goal is to: cook healthy dinners for my family at least two nights a week. My favorite place in the world is: the One&Only resort in Los Cabos, Mexico. When I get discouraged, I: eat.
One piece of advice to executives: Take the time to mentor younger colleagues. It will pay off many times over. A great leader is: someone who effectively delegates to others and is a good team player and listener.
I’m inspired by: women executives who juggle career and family and make it seem much more effortless than it really is. Success is: what comes naturally if you just do what you love. j
industry Challenge the claims when IRS says additional taxes owed
he Internal Revenue Service contacts you and claims your company owes additional taxes. The IRS is ready to assess a penalty plus interest. After reviewing your financial books with your tax professional, you disagree. It’s time to dispute the findings, and it’s about to get a little complicated. But relax. Almost all IRS cases can avoid litigation, says Doug Klein, an associate director in the tax department at SS&G. “The IRS has many opportunities, including some not commonly known, to go to the appeals division if you don’t like the IRS’ initial determination,” he says. “A competent tax professional will give you a straight course of action, explain the costs and benefits of appealing and will tell you when or if litigation is needed. “Your tax representative will file appropriate and timely forms with the IRS to request the IRS appeals hearings.” Klein explains that some hearings are more formal than others, and nearly all allow the taxpayer to take court action if the issue cannot be resolved through the IRS internal appeals process. “Appealing a case is not a black-and-white, yes-or-no outcome,” he says. “Often, a compromise is required, where both the taxpayer and IRS give up a part of the tax.”
Consider your options Your tax adviser can discuss the protest options as well as explain why your company is in this situation. “When tax authorities claim that the taxpayer owes additional taxes, we find that more often than not the taxing authorities are in error,” says Annette Hoelzer, SS&G tax director. “Many times, they have entered something incorrectly in their system or are not considering all the facts. A tax professional can get to the bottom of the problem and determine the steps to correct it.” Klein says he believes the IRS finds discrepancies largely because of the work of eager agents. “Overzealous, no, but doing their job―definitely,” he says. “If taxpayers make a mistake on their tax return, it’s not likely to slide past the IRS radar anymore.”
“Appealing a case is not a black-and-white, yes-or-no outcome. Often, a compromise is required, where both the taxpayer and IRS give up a part of the tax.” — Doug Klein
Earlier this decade the IRS was somewhat lax in enforcing the tax laws, but that has changed,and more money has been spent to hire and train IRS agents. “Now they are getting a lot smarter and able to go out and get taxes due,” Klein says. By having your business practices in order, you can help avoid sending up red flags when the IRS looks over your returns. Take, for example, S corporations,
which elect to pass corporate income, losses, deductions and credits through to their shareholders for federal tax purposes. “The IRS is now running a matching program on S corporations that have very high distributions and very low wages to the officers,” Klein says. “They’ve actually programmed their computers to try to catch those and send them notices. We as practitioners have known for years that it’s been sort of an abused area.” In relation, Congress attempted to pass a bill that would subject all S corporations to self-employment taxes. That bill did not pass. “The S corporation tax laws are certainly used by some practitioners and some folks who are attempting to legally get the taxes down, but the question is how much of a wage should an officer take from the closely held S corporation,” Klein says. “Clearly they should pay at least what’s reasonable compensation for the work they do for their company. You know, zero is not the right answer if they are taking $1 million in distributions.” Distributions are nontaxable to the extent that the officers have basis in the company, whereas their wages are deductible by the company but taxable to the officer. Officer wages also are subject to FICA, Medicare and other withholding taxes. “It’s those employment taxes that people are trying to defeat by paying low compensation,” Klein says.
Penalty abatement possible Once you analyze the IRS contention of additional taxes owed, consider its findings and plan a response. Keep in mind that you may be able to have the penalty abated even if you have to pay the taxes due. “Typically, our first step is to call the taxing authority and discuss it with them,” Hoelzer says. “We have found that often, particularly with local taxing authorities, the issue can be resolved simply with a phone call and perhaps a follow-up provision of paperwork.” In most cases, you must at least write a letter asking that the penalty be abated and outline the supporting reasonable cause. Sometimes you have to file a formal abatement request. “The most important thing that you must be able to show to get the abatement is that you had reasonable cause,” Hoelzer says. “It is also a good idea to illustrate to them the steps you have taken to avoid the problem in the future. Keep in mind that it is much more difficult to get a penalty abated after you have already had a penalty abatement for that same reason.” If arguing the case to the auditor—and often the auditor’s manager—isn’t successful and the IRS still
“When tax authorities claim that the taxpayer owes additional taxes, we find that more often than not the taxing authorities are in error.” — Annette Hoelzer
insists on assessing additional taxes (and often penalties and interest), the taxpayer can go to the IRS Appeals Division, Hoelzer says. “Taxpayers do not have to retain an attorney to do this—anyone authorized to practice before the IRS can represent them,” she says. “A formal appeal must be drafted, then after an appointment is granted, the case is argued before an impartial IRS appeals agent. It is best that this be done by an experienced tax professional. What often comes of this is a negotiated settlement. Litigation only occurs after this step if there is no meeting of the minds.” In one of Klein’s cases, which went to the IRS Appeals Division, the entire penalty was abated. “The taxpayer was able to obtain an affidavit from the employee who had made a mistake and proved that it was his own incompetence and that he hid it from his supervisors,” he says. “While clearly the employee was negligent, the taxpayer (a corporation) was not negligent because it did not know, and had no reason to know, that he was hiding this from his employer. The IRS agreed. “The best way to mount a successful abatement case is to get clear and convincing evidence to support the penalty occurred as an isolated event or was not due to gross neglect by the taxpayer.” If the case has merit, requesting an appeal often will result in some resolution because the IRS only takes cases to court it feels it can win, Klein says. “During the appeal stages, you need to show the IRS that if they take the case to court, they could lose on the merits of your facts, arguments and the tax or case law that’s in your favor,” he says. “Only a lawyer can take a case to court and litigate a matter, but reality is that most IRS disputes never need to be litigated. However, good advice may require that both a CPA and tax attorney be involved for more complex disputes.” j
Cornering the market Proforma brings in the big business while maintaining a small business feel
Photos: Marc Golub
sk Greg Muzzillo his secret to success and he won’t hesitate to tell you. “Marry well,” he says, with a booming laugh. “I married a genius.” Muzzillo has a lot to laugh about. Since founding Proforma in 1978, it has become one of the top five companies in the industry for promotional, print, e-commerce and multimedia products and services, taking home every award from Promo Marketing magazine’s Top Distributor to Print Solutions magazine’s PEAK Aware of Excellence. His wife, Vera, serves as CEO, overseeing technology, finances and operations, while he handles marketing and business development. “Really it’s Greg and Vera who are the visionaries looking out three to five years with a good sense of the industry and our place in the industry,” says Brian Smith, president and chief operating officer. “My role is to kind of keep us on track, and I’m always looking 12 to 18 months out to make sure that we’re doing what we need to be doing to keep our customers, which is really the franchise owners—to keep them happy.” As Greg Muzzillo explains, “I teach our franchise owners that you truly own a business when you can fly to Hawaii for three months and tell somebody where to send the check. If you can’t do that, then you probably own a job, not a business.” While he’s quick to call himself lucky to have a thriving business in a tough economy and a wife and family with whom he can share his success (two of his grown children are Proforma franchise owners), it’s evident that hard work and smart risk-taking had more to do with those achievements than luck. “With Greg and his vision of the industry, and with Vera and her financial leadership and conservative background, it’s an awesome combination,” Smith says. “I think that’s why we’ve grown like nobody else in our industry.”
Since Greg Muzzillo started Proforma out of his apartment in 1978, the company has grown to be one of the top five in the industry for promotional, print, e-commerce and multimedia products and services.
From broke to booming The early days of Proforma are straight out of the business start-up storybook. Muzzillo was working at an accounting firm, but his restlessness and ambition at the age of 23 wouldn’t allow him to climb the ladder in the traditional sense. “I remember having a casual conversation with someone where I said something like, ‘In three years, I want to be making $30,000,’” he says. “One of the managers said that it was an unrealistic expectation.” It was then Muzzillo decided he was fine with living on soup for a year or so if it meant being in control of his professional destiny. He and a college friend, who had been working for a print distributor, each put in $100, bought an answering machine, a used filing cabinet and some business cards, and became roommates to run Proforma from their Cleveland apartment. “By 1982, we had developed through just sheer hard work and determination because failure wasn’t an option,” he says. That year they started making Inc.’s list of the 500 fastest-growing companies. “I didn’t know it at the time, but the secret to making that list is to have a bad first year,” he says with another laugh. “So our growth—judged on how much you’ve grown from your first year—looked good.” The following year, Inc. did a story on the two entrepreneurs who had an unusual but effective collection method. Using an old college buddy’s name, Muzzillo would call non-paying customers. “I would call them up in a relatively broken Italian accent, and I would say, ‘Hello, my name is Elio DePaulo. Greg Muzzillo is a friend of mine. He tell me you no pay your bill.’ What else do you do? I couldn’t afford a collector!” The unusual story of two college buddies making good led to some inquiries about franchising, and, by 1986, the Proforma business model of today was born.
Feet on the street Today, Proforma has more than 750 franchise owners. “We don’t use the term ‘franchisee’ because they’re business owners,” Smith says. “We want them to think like business owners and act like business owners, and that infers a different level of professionalism.” When Smith began at Proforma 16 years ago as chief financial officer, there were 60 employees and $40 million in sales from 120 franchises. Today, there are 120 employees in the Northeast Ohio support center, and the company boasts nearly $400 million in sales. Through this growth, Smith credits much of Proforma’s success to its ability to maintain a small company feel and a focus on personalization. As Muzzillo says, “There are a lot of companies that I’ve watched over my years in the business flail away
“Where we really spend a lot of time here is making sure we’re putting the processes and the infrastructure in place so we’re always able to get to that next level.” — Brian Smith
because they get stinkin’ thinkin’, some of which is not understanding how important the salespeople—the feet on the street—are to the business. “At McDonald’s, it was a franchise owner in Cincinnati who came up with a fish sandwich because he was losing money on Fridays during Lent. And it was a franchise owner who came up with the drive-thru window. Today, drive-thru windows are responsible in some franchises for 80 percent or more of their sales. So if you listen to your franchise owners and hear what their successes and challenges are, you can find great opportunities to continue to grow.” It’s a companywide priority to help franchise owners meet their goals. Almost all employees at Proforma’s support center are focused on this objective while recruiting other potential owners. “It’s creating that flexible model for them where they can tap into what resources work for their goals for their individual offices’ business models,” Smith says. From any location, franchise owners can tap into Proforma’s Web-based order management and product procurement systems to manage key aspects of their business. The ability to obtain real-time information while on the road meeting with clients is just one way Proforma’s model supports its base. Since uniformity isn’t an issue as it might be for a retail or restaurant franchise, Proforma’s franchise owners are encouraged to succeed and grow business in their own way. The Million Dollar Club began almost from the beginning of Proforma’s franchising development, providing the tools and resources to get to $1 million in sales. That led to the Multi-Million Dollar Club for $5 million, $10 million, $20 million and so on in sales. Recently, Muzzillo realized Proforma needed better segmentation for less than $1 million in sales, leading to the start of Team Proforma 400 for franchise owners who need the extra push to get to the $400,000-a-year mark. “To a certain degree, everybody in every industry runs their business with on-the-job training,” Muzzillo
Proforma’s leadership works together to create and fulfill the company’s vision. They include (left to right): Bob Kimble, chief credit and administrative officer Angela Jolliffe, director of business services Brian Smith, president and COO Rick Hileman, director of finance Deanna Castello, chief marketing officer
says. “So, for the Team 400, we’re helping them earn while they learn the business, the products we sell, the suppliers that we represent, et cetera.” Smith says though it may sound trite, the business wouldn’t have anything to sell if it weren’t for their quality vendors. “We purposefully call our vendors ‘partners,’ and we want that resonated throughout the organization,” he says. “We have a vendor development department, and some of the best ideas for products and services come from our vendors because they’re out there in the industry each and every day. Sometimes they do great things for our owners, or even our competitors, and they’ll share it with us. And that gives us the opportunity to go deploy it among our customer base.”
Growing strong Proforma’s leaders have created an equation that the Muzzillos and Smith hope will guide the organization to its next big goal: $1 billion in sales. “Greg and Vera have a very good vision of our industry and our role in it,” Smith says. “Where we really spend a lot of time here is making sure we’re putting the processes and the infrastructure in place so we’re always able to get to that next level. It’s kind of our challenge and our most fun at the same time. There’s also our focus on our belief that we are not the most important piece of the puzzle. There are three pieces: our owners who are in front of the end customers, great vendor partners and a support team of 120-plus people here helping them.” In an industry where a large corporation can easily lose touch with what it takes to make franchise owners successful, the leaders at Proforma insist that keeping their edge comes from always being tapped into each owner’s potential for growth. A big part of reaching that potential is keeping up with an ever-changing market. Technology has brought Proforma’s products and services to a place that would be nearly unrecognizable to the Muzzillo of 1978. But he’s
never missed a beat. He encourages franchise owners by explaining that businesses spend roughly $200 billion a year on the kinds of products Proforma sells. So within an hour’s drive of most franchise owners, there is up to $1 billion in business—and no law that says they can’t get it all. As e-commerce explodes and advances at a cost point that attracts the middle and upper-middle market, Proforma’s owners are set to take advantage of a whole new segment of potential customers. “There used to be large manufacturers that would dominate certain aspects of the industry,” Smith says. “As technology is driving some of this, we’re a little more fleet of foot and can bring like or better quality at price points that people hadn’t seen before. We’re getting RFPs from organizations that five years ago wouldn’t even talk to us.” With its ever-broadening product and service offerings and more prospective franchise owners learning about the business model every week, the outlook at Proforma is decidedly bright. The Muzzillos’ philosophy for creating wealth is not only the driving force in taking Proforma where it’s going, it’s a word to the wise for business owners everywhere. “I’ve learned that there are three steps in creating real wealth in owning your own business,” Muzzillo says. “No. 1 is fear. I remember being afraid when starting Proforma, especially since I wasn’t starting it with my parents’ money. No. 2 is comfort. Many business owners get stuck in comfortable because they can, and they never get wealthy. If you don’t have a big board and advisers, how do you find the internal drive to get past comfortable and get to No. 3, which is wealthy? It’s being in touch with those dreams that motivate you and compel you to continue to stay focused on wealth-creating activities and to not settle for being comfortable.” That philosophy—and a little luck—has made all the difference for Muzzillo. As he’ll tell you more than once, “I’m just a lucky guy. I’ve got a beautiful wife, a beautiful family and a beautiful business.” j
focus on Due diligence makes the difference between cloud disappointment and success
any people get cloud computing backward, says SS&G Information Technology Director Jerry Justice. “It’s really about business targets, not just the tool you are going to use. Cloud computing is a tool, not a destination,” he says. Ongoing evaluation helps businesses make solid decisions when it comes to cloud computing, which delivers information technology applications, tools and storage through the Internet rather than through local servers. “It’s the same approach with any technology—look at the cost benefits and weigh them, then set targets,” Justice says. “I see it as a very valuable tool and part of a transitional path in technology delivery. But you just don’t do it because it’s there.” In other words, don’t opt for cloud computing because it’s talked about as the latest and greatest solution to IT problems. Analyze cloud computing for its value to the specific business. Consider the speed and flexibility the cloud may offer along with costs, shifts in usage patterns, and security concerns. On the flip side, don’t shy away because you think your business isn’t right for cloud computing. Do your homework. Look at your industry leaders. “Any size business can use cloud computing,” Justice says. Businesses will follow different approaches to cloud computing depending on their size, number of staff it will affect, services offered and what those services are tied to, he explains. As businesses grow in size, cloud computing’s complexity increases, expanding impact and risk, Justice says. “That just leads you to naturally think those things through a little deeper. “I know personally for our firm, we are using some great cloud-based tools. But we’ve also tried to use some cloud-based tools that we felt initially would work well, and found they’re just not mature yet. I think what’s beneficial at the small business level is that a business can take advantage of cloud-based services and not even have to understand all the complexity/scaling issues and may not necessarily require a high level of service maturity. “It has a really good fit for small businesses, but some small businesses aren’t looking at it. I think that is a misalignment because there is value,” Justice says. “As you get into a medium or larger business, you have to do your diligence like you normally do.”
Going to the cloud Gmail and Facebook often are cited as the most popular examples of personal cloud computing. On the business side, customer relationship management programs are the most popular, in part because they have been in the game so long, Justice says. Although cloud computing is in use on a widespread basis, switching to it may evoke some concerns about change. Self-awareness can help alleviate that. “I think the fears need to be realigned to the reality of what the new technology or the new technology path is doing,” Justice says. “At the end of the day, what are you trying to do? Well, if you may have perceived that your internal resources have limited your abilities and it really didn’t, moving to the cloud may not address what you anticipated.” Fear of IT staff elimination also is not necessarily warranted. “IT roles are changing, not going away. Cloud computing is a great tool, but you can’t just hand the keys of the kingdom off to somebody and expect that you will get what you want,” Justice says. “Be aware that it still takes planning and forethought. “Whether cloud computing happens through one provider or many, somebody has to put all those pieces together with people and process. Awareness of that leads to successful delivery.” j
the last word with Gary Shamis
robably because of my age, I find myself addressing the succession concerns of our clients on a regular basis. I have learned in my many years of working through client life-cycle events that succession planning should be a process and not a single undertaking. You just don’t wake up one day and decide you are heading to Florida to retire and your son Billy or your daughter Sue is going to take over the business. And you don’t wake up and decide to sell the business that day. While you could just close up shop, it is the unwanted and certainly unprofitable default way to retire. If you want to succeed your business the right way, there are three realistic options: pass the business to the family, sell it to your key employees or sell to an outsider. These decisions don’t just happen. They need to be well-planned and evolve. If you pass the business to your family, you must ask: Are the kids ready? Do they need mentoring, and do they have the right training and experience? You must be sure the business has the right people surrounding them—the right advisers—to work the business, and it must utilize the correct infrastructure and the most appropriate technology. To have all of this in place can take years. In a family transfer, you have to consider your estate plan and your needs going forward.
“If you want to succeed your business the right way, there are three realistic options: pass the business to the family, sell it to your key employees or sell to an outsider.”
If you sell to your current employee base, you will encounter some of the same concerns. Consider the correct value, the most advantageous technique and structure and whether you will remain involved. If you sell to an outsider, be sure of the likely candidates, whether you will use an investment banker and a realistic sale price. Beyond this, you must be pragmatic about the complexities of the deal. Prepare your business for sale by auditing or reviewing your financial statements to maximize profitability. For each of the three options, there are clearly many questions and lots of planning involved. To do it right, it must be treated as an evolution and not an event. j
SS&G opens River North office in Chicago One year after entering market, firm expands Chicagoland footprint
CHICAGO – SS&G has opened a downtown office to complement its presence in nearby Des Plaines. The new location comes one year after SS&G entered the Chicagoland marketplace through its merger with Ahlbeck & Co. Fifteen staff members, including directors Richard Hanson, Robb Zerfass, and Barry Jay Epstein, join the firm’s more than 425 professionals, strengthening SS&G’s position as one of the region’s preeminent certified public accounting and business advisory firms. “A year ago, we determined we could achieve growth in areas of specialization, including restaurants, health care, contractors, manufacturers, and nonprofit organizations. Our bet paid off,” said Gary Shamis, managing director of SS&G. “Our business is growing, and the decision to add the downtown location was made to foster increasing opportunities. We are very pleased to welcome this group of outstanding professionals to the SS&G family and to continue to grow roots in the Chicagoland market.” Shamis continues to oversee the firm’s presence in Illinois. Des Plaines office managing directors, Thomas Ahlbeck and Dirk Ahlbeck, assume the roles of co-managing directors of SS&G Chicago. SS&G is the 42nd largest CPA firm in the United States, according to Accounting Today. j
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we’ve made it simple. We dropped “Financial Services” from our name. While our name has changed, our commitment to client satisfaction has not. The change better reflects the depth of our combined public accounting, business advisory, and management consulting services. Our professionals continue to provide the services that bring solutions.
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