From Growing Mindset to Growing Humans: How Baker Tilly Builds a Company That Lasts

Throughout its century-long growth trajectory with multiple M&A, Baker Tilly holds true to its culture that focuses on growing not just size but also values towards its employees and community.
Baker Tilly team celebrate at the head office
Courtesy: Baker Tilly
By | 12 min read

Baker Tilly is a full-service accounting and advisory business with a nationwide reputation. The firm was founded in 1931 by the name of Virchow Krause & Company and changed into its current name in 2009, becoming an independent member of Baker Tilly International, a global network of independent accounting and business advising firms with 37,000 experts in 148 countries. Headquartered in Chicago, Baker Tilly currently has 50 offices throughout 20 states with over 3,700 employees. The global expansion and sustainable growth through almost a century into the market has enabled the company to be one of the largest CPA and consulting firms in the country.

Baker Tilly became the fastest growing firm in Wisconsin from 1998 to 2008 and adopted the global brand in 2009. It helped the firm to secure clients that would not have considered the former Virchow Krause and allows them to bring a cohesive story to a client or prospect and enables them to compete in the global marketplace. They were also able to expand through mergers with other large firms, including one in Washington, D.C., in 2009 and again in 2014 with Parente Beard. However, despite being a global brand with multiple combinations, Baker Tilly holds true to its culture that cements its long withstanding. Let’s read on to understand how strong culture leads the firm to triumph.

A Culture of Growth

Baker Tilly CEO in a leadership seminar
Courtesy: Baker Tilly

Keep a Forward-Thinking Mindset 

Culture is the foundation of any businesses. Even though it is something one can’t touch, culture can definitely be felt. Without question, a strong culture propels an organization. A weak culture holds everyone back.

Baker Tilly’s core values – collaboration, integrity, passion and stewardship – are the cornerstone of its culture. These values constitute what its employees believe and expect from each other. “We keep these at the forefront in creative ways – desktop displays and other visual reminders throughout our offices, for example. But the best way is through our team members’ own experiences and personal expression.” – Baker Tilly’s CEO Alan Whitman shared. “As a firm we can profess what makes Baker Tilly special but it’s much more powerful and authentic to hear it from our team members – from their heart in their own words. We incorporate our core values into our everyday lexicon and actions. That’s how we bring it to life. That’s how we make it stick.”

The company takes “growth” as its overall strategy, not only in size or revenue but also in its impact towards others. “We grow to get better – not just bigger. And we grow to make a difference – not just make a profit.” – Whitman said.

To achieve that goal, Baker Tilly embraces a mindset of forward-thinking that takes opportunities from changes to elevate the firm. Whitman thinks of change as progress, something that is not done to but with his firm. He prepares for his employees to anticipate, not just simply react when progress arrives. “When change comes at us from the outside, we are forced into a position of reaction, of putting out fires. But when change comes from within – when we embrace and acknowledge the progress we’re making and when we look beyond our four walls at what’s possible – we can anticipate, not just react. This allows us to embrace change and take hold of opportunity.” To Alan, this is where growth occurs – both personal growth and organizational growth.

Baker Tilly also harnesses an entrepreneurial spirit that constantly adapts and innovates.

Innovation starts with an idea. While not every idea leads to innovation, one cannot have innovation without ideas. The firm created a movement called Ideas in Action to nurture ideas – big and small – with wrap-around support to get to implementation. It also has an online tool that smoothens the process of capturing ideas and seeing common themes. Besides, Baker Tilly builds a peer network called intrapreneurs to facilitate connection and communications among its members.

“Ideas are inspired by clients. Ideas come from our team member engagement survey. Connecting and accelerating ideas fosters a workplace where people express their views and feel confident that their opinions are heard – no matter where the idea starts. That’s how we’re cultivating innovation.” – Todd Stokes, a managing partner at Baker Tilly, said.

A Human-Centric Firm 

The collaborative, welcoming working environment that focuses on each employee’s personal development is another thing that makes Baker Tilly’s culture special. Starting at upper-level management and the partners, there is an open and welcoming environment in the offices. Everyone wants each other to succeed and is willing to go the extra mile to help a coworker. The firm strives to provide exceptional service and insights to its clients each and every day to assist their business. “It isn’t competitive or cut-throat, but a fun place where people enjoy their coworkers and work together as a team.” – Rachel Polson, CPA and partner at Baker Tilly, shared.

Baker Tilly in an innovation trade show
Courtesy: Baker Tilly

The company goes extra miles to make sure its employees have the chance to meet people outside their teams and create non-work related friendships. Other than hosting socials, potlucks, games and other activities throughout the year that give its members an opportunity to meet and socialize, Baker Tilly creates many long-term programs that cultivates an inclusive, engaging working environment for its people. SOAR (Supporting Opportunity, Advancement and Recognition for all) is a program dedicated to encouraging and support the evolution of a diverse, inclusive workforce with opportunity for all members to maximize their potential, create value and deliver their promise of exceptional client service with focuses on race, ethnicity and LGBT groups.

With the goal of assisting women to achieve career and personal success at Baker Tilly, as well as bringing more female leadership positions to the firm, GROW (Growth and Retention Of Women) was designed to enhance the recruitment, retention, development and advancement of women by providing internal and external opportunities to network, share information, acquire skills and form rewarding professional relationships. The main point behind the activities is to connect people and have younger staff share career or personal struggles with people who have crossed those hurdles.

Baker Tilly team at the head office
Courtesy: Baker Tilly

“The impact of GROW has been positive for the firm, and we are truly beginning to see how our GROW Initiative has impacted employee satisfaction.” – Polson said. Baker Tilly constantly ranks as top workplaces to work, either in the state or in the country.

Give Back to the Community 

The last core value of Baker Tilly – stewardship – is also reflected through its culture. Being a part of the communities where its members live, and work is ingrained in the firm. Hence, it’s essential to make a difference in those communities – especially for young professionals just starting out in their career.

“We invest for the future with the intention of leaving everything better. We are intentional in giving back – and we do this with a blend of firm-wide initiatives and individual efforts. This keeps our community involvement personal and local. It keeps us connected.” – Whitman shared.

The company encourages community involvement through its Helping Enrich Relationships through Outreach (H.E.R.O.) program that provides paid time off for volunteer community service. Additionally, Baker Tilly brings the power of the firm together to make an even stronger impact in several different ways. One example is their annual Stewardship Day – a single day of service where team members across the firm come together to serve their communities. Since Stewardship Day’s inception in 2016, Baker Tilly team members across 32 cities have collectively given more than 21,000 hours of services, volunteering at more than 80 not-for-profit organizations.

Baker Tilly team in a volunteer event
Courtesy: Baker Tilly

Their community involvement isn’t just planed. When hurricanes pummeled the Gulf Coast and Puerto Rico, the firm’s response was swift. Baker Tilly donated $50,000 to the American Red Cross to support their life-saving work – and then matched another $50,000 raised by its team members in three days. The company also sent experts to help with professional business like working on the complexities of insurance and rebuilding efforts to mitigate the storm’s financial impact or helping government entities and not-for-profits get access to federal and state funding. “The work is complex and demanding – and extremely rewarding.” – Whitman recalled.

Opportunity during Crisis

The pandemic turned out to be a timely opportunity to cement accounting firm merger. 

The CEO of Baker Tilly US LLP and the managing partner of Squar Milner LLP traded phone calls and text messages every day while the coronavirus pandemic raged.

Between efforts to shore up cash and adapt to all-remote staff, they were laying the groundwork for merging the two fast-growing operations to create what is slated to be the 10th-largest accounting firm in the country with a workforce of 4,300 professionals.

The two firms decided to formally pursue a merger when the pandemic broke in March, Alan Whitman said in a phone interview. “We collaborated with Squar Milner from the get-go and it actually brought us much closer than we already thought we were,” he said.

Baker Tilly’s acquisition fits squarely within the Chicago-based firm’s growth strategy—targeting new regions, industries, and services. And the firm believed that Squar Milner’s own aggressive pace and focus on business transformation and leveraging new technology fit neatly into that plan.

“We have big aspirations for where we are going,” Whitman said.

The firm, already among the 15 or so biggest firms, had its sights set in California for some time, as many of its clients were there. But getting a foothold in the state would also open the door to new clients in the fifth-largest economy in the world. Squar, a fast-growing top-50 firm, operates offices in all of the state’s major markets.

The deal, which grew out of exploratory talks that started roughly three years ago, builds on Baker’s other recent acquisitions that opened up Texas, New York, and Pennsylvania and expanded services like municipal advisory and insurance forensics. Growing its consulting business and the types of services the firm offers are a key driver of such mergers.

Baker Tilly team in a workshop and training
Courtesy: Baker Tilly

The deal is probably the biggest expansion since Baker Tilly Virchow Krause combined with another Top 100 Firm, Parente Beard, in 2014. “We are creating a new organization with substantial scale — a true combination of two leading advisory CPA firms that are forward-thinking and future-leaning,” Baker Tilly CEO Alan Whitman said. “Together we are driving progress for a new world, combining our knowledge and expertise to guide our clients through anything.”

Ready for the Next Shift

Upon the arrival of Covid-19, the idea of a “new normal” has permeated the conversation among business leaders as a way to discuss life and business during and after the pandemic. However, Alan Whitman deems that “new normal” is not only a tired cliché, but it also fails to represent the current business environment, which is anything but normal. The CEO believes that it’s time to enter “the current—and future—state of doing business” which requires an unwavering readiness for the next major shift.

“’Normal’ suggests complacency and comfort. However, to succeed in our rapidly advancing environment, businesses need to be extraordinary—which is anything but normal.” – he suggested.

In order to move forward in such a changing time, business leaders need to start with having a strategy that enables them to shift intensity as their companies requires. Baker Tilly’s ability to react to external forces is by design, not accident.

The firm knows its success depends on team’s ability to pivot and flex to the situation—riding the wave instead of fighting the current. “But it’s not a passive journey. It requires a proactive approach to leadership, and that proactivity must penetrate throughout any company, starting from the top.” – Whitman shared.

Baker Tilly team in a training at the headquarter office
Courtesy: Baker Tilly

To move beyond the “new normal”, Baker Tilly provides coast-to-coast presence with borderless service. The firm has the local expertise and relationships to serve clients in any location which gives them innate freedom to truly consider what’s possible.

Another way Baker Tilly smoothens its workflow during the crisis time is to create a hybrid work experience—not just space. Work is much more about the what and why as opposed to the where and when. The firm redefines the office experience and finds new ways to connect with one another. The team member networks, designed for and by Baker Tilly’s team members around shared interests and attributes ranging from parenthood to Pride to Peloton, are at an all-time high.

Alan Whitman also emphasizes the importance of providing team members with the resources they need to manage their work lives and personal lives, from back-up childcare and virtual educational programs for kids to enhanced health and wellness activities. While the lines have been blurred for quite some time, they are now completely erased, and we need to acknowledge and support that. “Our unlimited time off keeps the focus on outcomes rather than hours. We also introduced “disconnect days” to encourage team members to log off, relax and enjoy a day without calendar alerts – and that includes me.” – he shared.

Radical change is the only constant business leaders can rely on. Whitman bristles at the word “normal” because it conveys a sense of complacency, of slowly slipping back to the old way of doing business instead of taking the future into his own hands. “It’s my job to ensure that doesn’t happen at Baker Tilly. As a leader, it’s your job to ensure that doesn’t happen in your own business.” – he emphasized. Below are a few things he has adopted and encouraged his team:

#1 Think about change as progress:

It is a subtle yet important nuance. Progress implies forward motion, forward-thinking. “Change happens to us. Progress happens because of us” – Whitman shared.

#2 Be relentless in your pursuit of what’s next:

Start tackling the foundational challenges in your business now instead of leaving problems for the next generation. Start laying the groundwork for your long-term vision today so you can identify new ways to drive growth tomorrow. Always keep an eye to the future; if you’re only focused on the now, you’ll fall behind.

#3 Foster a culture of curiosity and collaboration to deliver differentiated solutions quicker and more effectively:

Embed diversity, inclusion and belonging into all aspects of business—from recruiting to client service. Make decisions with a diverse group of voices at the table to avoid blind spots.

#4 Never lose sight of your core values:

While the goalposts have moved in terms of people’s expectations, motivations and options, your core values provide the ultimate playbook. They should guide every decision, inspire action and gauge how you do business.

Final words

Baker Tilly is not waiting for the next transformative event, whether it’s a major shift in technology or another global crisis. Instead, the firm is operating in a constant state of readiness. It is taking leaps into the future, moving in time with the acceleration that was spurred by the pandemic.

  • About: Lina Tran
    Joining EnvZone with a focus on performance analysis, Lina is thrilled to explore the business world by covering the ups and downs of hundreds of companies from which her clients…