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Staying pandemic positive

New Larson Gross CEO embraces growth, change

Cheryl Stritzel McCarthy

Kelli Visser became CEO of the accounting and consulting firm Larson Gross in January 2020, mere weeks before COVID-19 hit.

The Lynden native chose to remain upbeat. “If there’s a positive in a pandemic for a new CEO, it’s that there’s no rulebook,” she said. “I didn’t have to fill anybody’s shoes on how to cope with this.”

Visser highlights more positives: bringing on remote new hires, enabling existing staff to work remotely should they choose to, achieving a new outlook on expanding geographically, pivoting to serve clients under COVID-19 restrictions and quickly engaging with other leaders within Larson Gross.

“What better way for me to get to know these colleagues I hadn’t worked with in this capacity before?”

Visser said that as professionals in Whatcom County, in this time of COVID-19 we can either contract and protect or we can go on offense and continue to grow our businesses, expanding services and creating opportunities for employees to grow in their careers.

“Embrace a growth mindset in this time of uncertainty,” she said.

Visser grew up on a dairy farm in Lynden.

“I said I’d never marry a dairy farmer,” she said. “Well, never say never.”

Visser and her husband, who were high school sweethearts, have four children, aged 9 to 14.

Visser started her career in the Bellingham office of the Moss Adams accounting firm while still a student at Western Washington University. In 2008, she joined Larson Gross, a Bellingham firm with locations in Lynden and Burlington, $17 million in annual revenue and 120 employees. Most of the employees are in Whatcom County, and 80% of those are full-time workers.

Visser has always enjoyed consulting and strategy — for Larson Gross as well as for clients.

“When the opportunity for CEO came up,” she said, “it felt like a great fit.”

Larson Gross has several thousand clients in the United States and Canada, most of them local. Tax planning/consulting brings in the most revenue.

Hiring in the age of COVID-19
At the time of this interview, Larson Gross had hired eight new full-time employees since the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic began to be felt locally in March. With some of those new workers, the hiring and initial onboarding process was entirely remote. In 2019, Larson Gross had one remote employee, in Cowlitz County. Today, remote employees are in Cowlitz, Yakima and King counties — and even in Arizona.

“Our people are at the core of everything we do,” Visser said. “How do you do that in a virtual way? This has forced us to do it. It took down the geography barriers we’d mistakenly put up in our minds about where we could work.”

In the pandemic’s early days, Larson Gross was classified as essential and could open offices earlier than businesses in many other industries. Some employees chose to work remotely and are still doing so. But with pandemic protocols in place, the firm also can accommodate staff who prefer to work on-site, Visser said.

“Working from home, it’s not for everybody, though some embraced it,” she said. “It will be part of our work arrangements going forward.”

New geographic markets
A business entering a new geographic market can’t rely on its history in its home market, Visser said. Larson Gross celebrated its 70th anniversary last year.

“That’s a huge milestone,” she said. “But when you think about the network, the generations of family members (within client companies), the understanding of your business within a locale — you don’t have that when you enter a new marketplace.”

Outside your home area, business strategy takes on a different flavor. In those cases, the firm can highlight its specialization in a particular industry or topic (such as international, cross-border, or nonprofits) or hire talent with “those deep roots within the community where you desire to do business,” Visser said.

“We believed this needed to be part of our strategy, but COVID accelerated it. At one point, we thought we could never replace face-to-face, but we’ve shown you can have strong connections using technology. You have to be intentional and creative, but we’ve seen it work.”

Serving clients in this new age
Before COVID-19, all but one of Larson Gross’s 120 employees were on-site. “To move them all offsite in a matter of days, in an organized, panic-free way, that doesn’t happen from the efforts of just one person,” Visser said. “Also, we had to completely adapt how we interact with clients.”

In the professional-services field, serving clients is of utmost importance, Visser said. As for adapting that under COVID-19, “I won’t say it was seamless, but it was effective and not chaotic.”

For example, some clients were used to getting tax returns and financial statements on paper.

“We needed to migrate to electronic delivery for the vast majority of clients. But we can’t be one size fits all.”

Meeting client preferences included adding drop-off and pick-up delivery services for paper documents.

Maintaining protocol — such as masks, temperature checks and sign-ins — provides the flexibility to meet with clients in the office if needed.

Visser knows that masks can be politically divisive.

“We have folks on all ends of the spectrum,” she said. “Everyone has set that aside; it isn’t about me, it’s about us and serving our clients. It’s about respecting procedures the firm has put in place to help us do our best. That’s a mindset, a culture, and I’m proud of our team.”

The COVID-19 pandemic is highlighting how the firm can improve, Visser said. One example is that as the workforce became more mobile, it illuminated how much paper was still traveling between staff and clients.

“We want to revisit how we move closer to a true paperless model,” Visser said.

Visser spent her early days as a CEO working from home while helping teach her children, an experience that prompts her to comment, “I am forever grateful to our education system and our teachers.”

With so many folks now working from home, more common ground emerges, she said.

“We’re all professionals; we all have families. You get to see another side of your co-worker or client. We’re all looking for answers; we could help each other.”

Larson Gross is a member of RSM, a global network of independent accounting firms. RSM’s resources help Larson Gross quickly get information to clients about the changing tax landscape, economic stimuli and other situations. This was especially helpful at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, when changes were rolling out fast.

Getting such information to clients so they can make timely decisions is critical, Visser said. But it’s more than delivering technical information.

“Many of our conversations that started around tax law changes pivoted to challenges that business owners face. Business owners are people like you or me, with kids in school, bills to pay, futures to plan. That can get shaken up.

“When you’re in the midst of struggle, to have someone you trust come alongside and empathize, whether personal or professional … if we can be that partner, that is a privilege.”

One last positive
“There are always events in life out of our control. The only thing in our control is how we respond,” Visser said. “To navigate the unknown in a positive, proactive way, to be adaptable, to rely on each other … it truly brought the team together and allowed our leaders to lead.”


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