Time flies when you’re having fun. And, it seems, when you have the opportunity to consult with clients about their businesses and financial results.
Just ask Mark Cissell, who joined Maryland accounting firm KatzAbosch back in 1985. Over the next 37 years, the Certified Public Accountant (CPA) ascended the ranks to earn the titles of both CEO and President and has since watched an entire industry – and the connections, the technology, and the people that drive it – grow and change and thrive. And Cissell has been savvy enough to keep pace with that ever-forward motion.
Time, it would appear, is on his side. And perhaps for the best of reasons: passion.
When he’s not at the helm of what has been called the “accounting firm of choice” for high-net-worth individuals, as well as small and medium-sized businesses, Cissell collects antique clocks from the turn of the 20th century.
“I love antique clocks,” he says. “Older clocks circa, say, 1850 to 1930. I have several in my home and I continue to buy and trade.”
Cissell and his wife Marcie, who will celebrate 38 years together in December, are antiquing enthusiasts. With each excursion, a new clock. And a promise.
“One day, when I finish working, my goal is to learn how to repair them,” Cissell says.
But, for now, he’s still on KatzAbosch time.
Cissell was born in Washington, D.C. – where his mother was from – and raised in a row home right behind the Reisterstown Road Plaza on the Baltimore City/County line, home of his late father.
“I’ve been here almost forever,” Cissell says of his Maryland roots.
After graduating from Pikesville High School, he pursued an accounting degree hours away in Massachusetts at Western New England University.
His zeal for the industry was fortified during Cissell’s tenure at his first and only other public accounting job before joining KatzAbosch.
“What I realized was that I had a passion for working with privately owned businesses – not just on their debits and credits and their taxes but working toward being a trusted advisor and being more of a sounding board,” he says.
While he loved the work he was doing, he was hungry for an even bigger challenge. “I was looking for a firm that was a little bit more aggressive in terms of their technology and the clients they had and their culture.”
An acquaintance suggested Cissell speak to John Abosch, who with Alvin Katz, co-founded one of the largest public accounting and business consulting firms in the state. Since 1969, KatzAbosch had built its sizeable reputation on innovation and adaptation surrounding changing markets and environments.
Cissell was home.
“That’s how it started,” he says. “And that’s where I’ve been ever since.”
Function Over Form(s)
People hear the words “accountant” or “CPA” and immediately form a mental image of stacks of paperwork and a sharp-dressed number-cruncher hammering away on an adding machine. These are broad misconceptions, says Cissell, and the industry has grown beyond its underpinnings to become a much more pivotal influence on so many businesses today.
“We, as accountants, are generally much different today than, say, 15, 20, 25 years ago,” Cissell says. “We are consultants. We take data, we analyze it, and we discuss that data with our clients. We do our best to help our customers run their businesses efficiently and profitably, while retaining as much money after taxes within their company or their family, obviously within legal limits.”
Consulting is a huge, and critical, part of what Cissell and his team do daily. Together, they develop growth strategies and provide important counsel on business and succession planning, mergers, and acquisitions.
“Is it a good time to sell? Do you want to gift part of your business to your children? What other types of things do you want to do within the business?” Cissell explains. “Do you want to acquire another company? Do you want to buy a building? There are so many things that are not about debits and credits or just filling out a tax form. It is very, very much a consultative and trusted-advisor environment.”
For his part, Cissell is incredibly proud of KatzAbosch’s continued growth as a middle-market provider.
“What I mean by that is we provide tax and accounting and various other services, like consulting, to our middle market clients. These are privately-owned companies, whether they’re owned by a father and daughter, or a wife and a husband, or two sisters – whatever the case may be. It’s always fulfilling to watch the clients and the businesses that started from scratch and came to you when they were growing – and see them become even more successful. I enjoy that client interaction and, hopefully, being a small part of their success. It’s extremely gratifying.”
Dollars and Change
When Cissell joined KatzAbosch in ’85, computers were stationed in a huge room and manned by a team of two or three specialists who would process and disseminate important information. Today, that computing power can be carried around in our pockets.
“The biggest change in the accounting industry is probably the same as it is for most – and that’s technology,” he says. “Email, texting, phones, the applications of software – what technology does today versus what we used to do manually was and continues to be the biggest game-changer within our field.”
Like everyone else, KatzAbosch has needed to adapt to this ever-moving technological target, but also to the hiring practices that have been impacted as a result.
At least six of KatzAbosch’s 100-plus employees now work entirely off-site, not to mention out of state.
This sea change has been an adjustment for Cissell, who says he joined the KatzAbosch team so many years ago, in part, because of the family atmosphere.
Maintaining such a rare quality is a balancing act.
“To be perfectly honest, it’s a challenge,” he says. “Not so much because of the number of employees, but because all of our employees are working a reasonable amount of time remotely.”
Engagement, he says, is the answer.
“We have what we call monthly pulse check meetings and things of that nature to try and bring people together. We just finished a day and a half seminar on being a trusted advisor, where people from all levels of the firm were invited. One of our big events is our crab feast and picnic in the summertime, just for getting together and having fun.”
“We want to forge relationships so that even if people are working in different states, or they are working remotely, that they can have that one-on-one, face-to-face contact and become friends, as well as colleagues,” Cissell continues. “That makes it easier for them to work together and foster a culture.”
Facilitating Face Time
A personal connection with clients has always been paramount for leadership at KatzAbosch, dating back to its 1960s launch when networking was the key to building a business.
That sort of face time continues to be critical, says Cissell – even if it, too, has evolved, particularly in the wake of a lengthy pandemic. And working in a state known for heavy business regulations – good, bad, or in-between – can often mean that time normally spent on relationship-building is bogged down with compliance concerns.
Still, the CPAs have managed to find the right formula.
“What we try to do is make meetings as flexible as possible for the customer,” Cissell says; a measure that, once again, has been made much more achievable thanks to technology.
“We have clients in many, many, many states. Whereas before it was difficult to meet with them because we didn’t have the technology to communicate effectively, now you can have great meetings, share information, and go over things in a very timely and efficient manner,” says Cissell. “You don’t necessarily have to be in the same room.”
Some clients, he notes, prefer this setup, rather than traveling to and from offices.
“They feel it’s a much more efficient use of their time, and they’re getting the same feedback and same trusted advisor service they’d get anyway,” he says.
It doesn’t work with every scenario, Cissell says, and is largely determined on a client-by-client basis. But when face-to-face meetings are arranged, their purpose is the deepening of personal relationships, not just the shuffling and signing of papers.
“What we try to do when physically meeting is something that’s fun,” he says. “Can we go out to dinner and have a meeting? Can we play nine holes of golf and head to the clubhouse and have some lunch and a drink or two? We want to do things that aren’t necessarily business-related but allow us to still connect and reconnect with our clients.”
The Next Generation
For Cissell, the greatest reward of his almost 40 years at KatzAbosch has been watching new hires rise to the occasion.
“It’s seeing young people who start with you that are pretty new to the industry and pretty green and watching them evolve and take on more and more responsibility,” he says.
The time will come when Cissell turns leadership over to someone new and turns his attention to the clock collection he has amassed at home. When he does, he’s confident the future of the company is in good hands.
“Eventually, you see these young people become leaders within your organization, whether it’s a particular industry or a particular specialty like tax or audit or valuations and litigation support – whatever it happens to be,” he says. “It’s a very fulfilling and satisfying feeling when that happens.”