Many accountants devote a significant amount of time to building a pipeline of prospects, but for Ying Sa, clients have always found her, helping her build and shape the accounting firm she founded — Des Moines, Iowa-based Community CPA.
The firm’s strategy and values were informed by these clients, local residents who sought out her services before she even had offices, a diverse population of immigrants and business owners who needed help understanding IRS communications or local regulations. Community CPA was created in 2003 as an inclusive refuge for clients ranging from those who don’t speak English to native Iowans, whose loyal business through the years has fueled the firm’s growth and recent expansion throughout the Midwest.
Back before Sa established the firm, clients found her in unusual places through the years, from the mall where she was once operating a jewelry kiosk, to the university where she later served as chief financial officer for an extension program. And many times, they found her by accident.
“I don’t decide what I do, other people decide what I’m good [at doing],” Sa explained, a unifying theme in her unique career history, and one that is critical to understanding the founding principles of Community CPA.
Sa’s family moved from China to Canada when she was young. She earned her bachelor’s degree in accounting at Toronto’s York University, a school with an esteemed business program that Sa chose because it let her study at night while holding down a day job at Bank of America.
While her coursework helped her balance a job, it also turned her off from a career in accounting. “I didn’t really want to be an accountant,” she recalled. “While studying, I told myself never to be an accountant, I hate it. I’ll get my degree and go on with my life. After graduating, I got into the craft business.”
Sa made earrings and necklaces out of clay and sold her wares from a mall cart. “I wanted to be an entrepreneur and do my own thing, something I love,” she explained.
Her customers had other plans. When it arose in conversation that Sa had graduated from York’s well-regarded business program, they started asking for financial help and advice, and eventually tax work.
“The mall manager said, ‘You’re in violation of the lease. You can do crafts, but not taxes for the people,’” Sa said. “I ended up closing my little cart and moved into an apartment.”
Not longer after, in 1996, Sa and her family made a bigger move when her husband was hired as a professor at Iowa State University. Sa had started building up an accounting practice in Canada during the previous year and a half, and when she moved, “I had about 400 clients. I told them, ‘I’m leaving, bye.’ I didn’t know I could sell my business, it never even crossed my mind — [that’s] how green I was.”
In Iowa, Sa started working as the chief financial officer for the Iowa Manufacturing Extension Partnership program for Iowa State University’s College of Business. Once again, new business found her before she had even hung out a shingle. This time, the appeal of her university pedigree was secondary to her heritage. “There was a need in the non-English speaking community for someone they all trust, who looks like them, to service them,” recalled Sa.
With an office in Des Moines, Sa found herself “sort of merged into the South Asian group of the community,” and part of a larger immigrant population.
“I was sort of lifted by the community,” she explained. “Community members were coming to me for help. I was the chief financial officer at the university — once [they] saw my [name] plate, they thought I knew everything about finance.”
Community demand was immediately apparent.
“Almost the first day I arrived in the United States [someone] came in with an IRS notice saying ‘[There’s] $650 on it, I really don’t have the money to pay. They say I owe them more, please help me.’ This was my first time seeing something from the IRS, I didn’t even know what the IRS was, I was so new to the United States. [I said], ‘I’ll look at this, and get back to you tomorrow.’”
Upon further inspection, Sa discovered the notice was actually a refund, and communicated that to the individual, who was first skeptical, then delighted when the IRS check Sa had assured him of arrived a week later.
More clients seeking tax help walked through her door during Sa’s six years working as a CFO. Wells Fargo then recruited her to be vice president of controllers, a role she held for another five years, though she took it on just as a client changed her trajectory yet again.
The man, a Vietnamese immigrant, was in legal trouble for selling fish, a commercialization of wildlife violation that could result in a one-year prison sentence. The wildlife in question were fish. The immigrant hadn’t caught them himself, but bought them from homeless people in an attempt to help them. According to Sa, his attorney was primarily interested in a quick result, and represented the immigrant poorly.
“There was anger in the community, and the case dragged on for four years,” she said. “I worked four years to turn it over, and the money was refunded and the sentence dropped.”
After Sa had been advising him on the case for a few years, the man said, “’Let me help you, I see you’re good for us, and that you care for us.’ He said, ‘If you come to Des Moines, more people will be helped.’ That was the only time I thought, ‘Maybe I do have a business.’”
The Vietnamese client offered Sa office space for a year in the city, which she moved into in 2003 while still working for Wells Fargo. Now operating out of Des Moines, Sa was in even closer contact with its immigrant community, featuring a strong Asian contingent, due to the refugee-friendly policies of Governor Robert Ray in the 1970s, toward countries like Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, which grew the city’s Southeast Asian population.
Asians as a whole make up a small percentage of Des Moines residents, and because of this, “everyone thinks everyone is the same community,” said Sa.
Of Community CPAs’ current 7,000 clients, about half are Caucasian Iowans, Sa explained, while the other half include various ethnicities — she estimates 30 percent are Latino and 20 percent Asian and African-American. “Even though we grow business from the Asian community, it’s not the majority here,” she says. Because of this, “If there is an Asian-owned business in town, they are guaranteed to be our client. If not, they choose not to work with us. If I ask [clients] the question, ‘Where did you hear about us?’ [they name] four to five sources.”
Community CPA’s referral network is strong, as is its ability to serve diverse clientele. The firm’s staff of 20, which moved into a larger Des Moines office in 2008 and then a branch in Iowa City in 2014, speaks nine languages. Like Sa, many can relate to the experiences of the firm’s minority clients — including the negative ones.
“When we were still at the old office, a lady in her 50s came in looking for a CPA,” Sa recalled. “The front desk lady said, ‘Ying, [she’s] looking for a CPA,’ then leads her into my office. She sits in my office, looks at me, and says, ‘I don’t think so, don’t think you can help me. It’s OK, you cannot help me.’ She is looking at me, doesn’t believe I’m a CPA, that I can help. The notice in her hand, I know it’s a CP2000, I can help her with my eyes closed. I didn’t get a chance. The way she left, left me in tears. I can’t believe she judged me.”
Though Sa has become a trusted leader in the community, the challenge remains of “overcoming the perception of minority people, that maybe you don’t know what you’re doing, from the government, literally from the government,” she shared. “From time to time I am heartbroken, but I always bounce back. I hope that people who had a stereotyping opinion of Community CPA learn that minority people are equally capable as others in business. People come in for a compliance review, leave the office, and can’t believe we’re so good. It makes you happy, and sad at the same time.”
Because of these experiences, Sa and her staff have built an open-minded practice.
“When people come to us, they can relax and be honest about what they’re doing — we tell them the right thing to do and [they don’t] worry about us being judges. We have that as an undertone in our firm. Everybody you see, we don’t judge people, we only help you to do better. People admit mistakes, we can make it better. We can file an amendment, do what you need. People come to us to fix 15-year tax problems. It’s a place for finance rehab.”
Many clients have asked for this kind for help and, according to Sa, “if they don’t understand business basics here, it can ruin their life.”
She shared the example of a man that came to the U.S. and bought a building to start an auto body business. “He came to me, excited and ready for a car repair shop. He gave me the address, [and I asked], ‘Do you know the zoning, is it zoned for a car repair shop?’ He said, ‘What do you mean?’”
Sa researched and discovered that the location wasn’t for that purpose, putting him out tens of thousands of dollars. “You don’t want people to go through that,” she said.
More recently, local businesses are facing immigration issues, such as one being without equipment when its operators from another country were denied a visa, or when the owner of a Des Moines Boba tea house couldn’t return to operate the business after their visa was terminated for an unknown reason.
Advising clients on this wide spectrum of business concerns, in addition to their tax, audit and payroll services, makes a good case for Sa’s “really clear goal for our firm.”
“We always set ourselves to become the minority-owned KPMG,” she said. “Internally, we talk like that. Our first step was to grow a branch – and we did that, it was really successful. For the first branch, we bought a building, and did a renovation. The next step, the extension is very simple: Follow the clients.”
That will mean opening a Minnesota branch in June 2019, and later in Wisconsin and Illinois. “Once we conquer Wisconsin, Illinois, then Nebraska, Kansas, [to be] a Midwest or regional firm in the next year or so. Our extensions — we don’t purchase or do mergers and acquisitions. Because the firm is so unique, it would be difficult for me to buy a firm. If I buy, I lose most of my clients anyway. [We will] just organically grow — purposefully go where we have clients already.”
The firm’s talent recruitment process is just as organic as its client acquisitions.
“In Minnesota, we haven’t gone there yet, but three people are already looking for a position,” Sa shared. “One of them is from the Big Four, and looking at coming over to play a bigger role. Another one, an Indian lady, had an Indian accounting degree, really believed in bringing an Indian population to our firm. People recognize the uniqueness of our firm. [It is] especially attractive to minorities — they really call the shots here. If you go to the Big Four as a minority, there is a lot of time to prove yourself. Our firm is relatively small, in growth percentage, we grow very fast. I don’t advertise, right now I just have that momentum of people knowing us.”
Community CPA might not advertise, but the firm is very active in the community, especially with the nonprofit organization it created, the Immigrant Entrepreneurs Summit, an annual event the firm has hosted locally since 2008.
The one-day event includes several classes aimed at sharing the best practices and experiences of being an immigrant business owner. The event has gathered a lot of momentum over the years, Sa reported, with more than 1,000 attendees and big-name sponsors, like Sa’s former employer and presenting sponsor Wells Fargo. Another sponsor? The man Sa advised in his legal case, who provided her first office in Des Moines, who contributes $10,000 annually.
The idea of paying it forward is also evident in Community CPA’s talent development. “From the standpoint of running the firm, we educate community members and people, bring them up in the firm so they become professional people — to bring them up, and sort of lose them too,” Sa said. “You bring them up, and someone else likes them. A lot of them start with my firm, don’t speak English, and if [we’re] lucky, we have them continually; if not, they are useful people for society, so overall I don’t feel bad.”
These professionals can benefit not only the community, but also Community CPA.
“One accountant in the firm now runs such a big operation, the company is already a public company,” Sa continued. “She learned here. For that reason, she always sponsors the Immigrant Entrepreneurs Summit. We see the success, after [staff] leave here, or come back after they have left. We already have employees of more than 10 years. I’ve learned from my practice, you just have to love people, even when they leave you — they bring good things to society.”