With its recent merger with the Shealy Group, a Mansfield-based CPA firm, HW&Co has not only expanded its services and client base, but also has matched up with a company that has a similar client-based, personal culture.
Brandon Miller, president and CEO of HW&Co., a mid-size CPA and advisory firm with offices in Greater Cleveland and Columbus, remembers what it’s like to be a college intern. While earning his bachelor’s degree in business administration accountancy at John Carroll University, Miller interned at the firm he now leads.
“I did quite a few internship interviews my junior year,” he recalls. “But when I interviewed here, I really appreciated the personal interaction I experienced. Two of the partners who are John Carroll graduates — tax principals Don May and Mary Eileen Vitale — took the time to come and meet me. That meant a lot.”
When the internship ended and it came time to seek a full-time job, Miller knew where he wanted to be. After graduating in 1997, he joined HW& Co. In 2020, he took the reins.
Miller’s experiences with HW&Co. when he was a student strengthened his dedication to teamwork on all fronts. On Oct. 31, 2020, HW&Co. merged with the Shealy Group.
“The No. 1 factor we look for in a merger is to make sure the culture of the firm operates the same way we do, which means having the technical knowledge and expertise to service clients the right way. There are a number of firms out there that just pull up a tax return form or financial statement, complete it, talk to their clients once a year, then it’s out the door. Like us, the Shealy Group is a strong, reputable company that forms strong bonding relationships that last year-round.”
Miller is also impressed with the Shealy Group’s client base, which adds to HW&Co.’s storied reputation throughout the state.
“The Shealy Group’s top 10 accounts include manufacturing and distribution, medical practices and clients in the agricultural field,” he says.
HW&Co.’s burgeoning fields of expertise began when the firm was founded in 1990 as Howard, Wershbale & Co. Eleven years later, it established a Columbus presence by merging with Cummins, Krasik & Hohl before rebranding as HW&Co. two years later and merging with Mentor firm Deimling, Forbes & Associates, known for expertise in construction and real estate. Last year, HW&Co. added to its depth in manufacturing and distribution, construction, real estate and health care by merging with Finkler & Co. in Middleburg Heights.
“With our newest merger with the Shealy Group, we’re adding eight talented employees to our staff who will help us continue to attract new and young talent,” Miller says.
He cites communication as the key to his company’s success in that endeavor.
“If you think about it, it’s all of those conversations, relationships and constant contact with people who make a difference in any business because when you don’t communicate with people, they feel like they’re not important,” Miller says. “The company followed that philosophy when I was here as an intern, and we instill it in everyone working with us today.”
In addition to creating a mentoring program that pairs new hires with seasoned staffers and hosting lunch-and-learn sessions for the entire staff — interns included — Miller and his team also ensure a work-life balance is maintained. It’s a tenet the CEO admits can be a challenge, especially during tax season.
“It’s a concept that is both good and bad,” he says. “Although there’s so much work to get done, we’re very, very careful to make sure our employees don’t burn out.”
HW&Co. is proud that nearly 100% of the interns — represented by more than 30 colleges and universities — who are offered full-time positions accept them.
“Many larger firms are willing to churn and burn their people, and constantly flip them,” Miller says. “We want our employees to be here for the long term and grow within the company.”
Kim Zagar, HW&Co.’s director of entrepreneurial services, joined the firm in 2020 and exemplifies that mission.
“My department is the quarterback,” she says. “We help clients identify existing pain points or ones they haven’t thought of in their business, prioritize them and find solutions.”
After graduating from Lake Erie College with a bachelor’s degree in accounting, Zagar spent 24 years with a large firm in Cleveland. Throughout the years, as the company merged into a national firm, she explains, it became more about numbers and less about people.
“I was impressed by the fact that HW&Co. is people-driven,” Zagar says. “The firm doesn’t just grow for the sake of growth. They are doing it strategically. You know the old saying, ‘If you take care of your people, they’ll take care of their clients?’ That is definitely our motto here.”
Aseem Uppal, a manager of HW&Co.’s audit department, joined the company in 2015 after earning his bachelor’s degree in accounting from The Ohio State University. He appreciates the firm’s mentoring program and the guidance he receives from the CEO and other members of the staff.
“Straight out of college, I took an unconventional route by working in the auditing department for a publicly traded company,” Uppal says. “After I obtained my CPA certification, I realized I wanted to move into public accounting. I had heard both good and bad about it, but I knew I wanted to give it a shot.”
While researching firms that would be a good fit, Uppal focused on regional ones where he would be able to build relationships with a variety of clients. He quickly adds that HW&Co. was clearly the right choice.
“The Big Four companies are great, and great people work there,” Uppal says. “But a lot of them have a main client, which means they only have that one exposure. Yes, they’re getting great experience and learning the ins and outs of the industry with that client, but they’re almost like an employee. I got lucky with HW&Co.”
He’s grateful for the ease in which the staff communicates and answers questions.
“Brandon and the partners are very easy to talk to. They’re not old-school types who are intimidating. They guide you through your mistakes and make sure you’re not making them over and over. They want us to learn and be successful.”
HW&Co. principal Steve Anderson looks back on the internship he served there with fondness. During his junior year, while earning his bachelor’s degree in accounting at Case Western Reserve University, he attended a Meet the Accountants Breakfast that would change his life.
“I happened to sit with representatives from HW&Co., which, at that time was Howard, Wershbale & Co.,” he recalls. “It was the first time they’d recruited on campus at Case. I went through the interview process with them and once I completed it, I knew it was the place I wanted to be. I also interviewed with the Big Four, but they just didn’t appeal to me.”
Anderson joined the firm full-time in 2005 after earning his master’s degree in accounting from Case Western Reserve University. The following year, he received the prestigious Elijah Watt Sells Award from the American Institute of CPAs (AICPA) for having a top 10 score across the nation on the uniform CPA exam after completing it on the first try.
“I like the atmosphere of a mid-size firm,” Anderson says. “As the company did when I interned here, we continue to treat interns as staff. And I am still impressed with our open-door policy that applies to everyone. Whether it’s someone who’s been here for a while or an intern on their first assignment, they can walk into a principal’s office and ask questions. Every answer they receive is more than an answer — it includes a description of why. We want our staff and interns to be more than button pushers. We want them to be critical thinkers who are able to look at something and say, ‘That doesn’t quite make sense.’ Everyone, including our interns, makes our company successful.”