Some people accept additional duties and responsibilities as part of the package of gainful employment. For Cheryl Jefferson Cooke, it was the motivation she needed to start her own Certified Public Accountant (CPA) business.
“I was working as an accountant for an IT [information technology] firm in Bethesda, and over time I found myself acquiring responsibilities for so many other things, including supervisory and even Human Resources functions,” she recalled. “I decided that if I was going to be doing everything a business owner does anyway, I might as well enjoy the benefit of actually being one.”
She launched Cheryl Jefferson & Associates as a part-time business in 2003, and went full-time a year later. She serves as principal of the firm, which will mark its 10th anniversary next year.
Cooke began following her entrepreneurial leanings in college, when she decided against completing her intended undergraduate degree in biology. “I wanted to become a pediatrician, but I began to realize that I’d never be able to be my own boss in that field, and that was important to me,” she said.
Instead, she followed the advice of her college accounting instructor, who told her she was more than prepared to sit for her CPA exam and move on.
Unlike typical CPA firms, Cheryl Jefferson & Associates has established itself as a boutique firm.
“We don’t do anything and everything,” Cooke said. “We’re very selective about our clients, and we only work in the service industry. We specialize in government contractors, who make up about 95% of our client base.”
At the moment, Cooke’s firm services approximately 40 clients. The majority of these clients average around $25 million in annual revenue, she said, small by government standards, but medium-sized in comparison with private sector businesses.
The government contractor focus came about as a result of Cooke’s career background, which includes working for a handful of government contractors. It also draws on her familiarity with the Federal Acquisition Regulation, Cost Accounting Standards and the Defense Contract Audit Agency’s requirements.
The firm is literally home grown, originally operating out of Cooke’s home and originally staffed “mostly with family employees,” she said.
Cooke recently added four new hires, bringing her current workforce to 10 employees. “We won’t be accepting any new clients until the new staff is up to speed for the next tax season,” she said.
Growth has been steady and stable despite the economic slowdown of recent years, thanks to the government niche. And even with the threat of looming federal budget cuts, Cooke said she’s not particularly concerned about the potential for fallout among her clients.
“Personally, I don’t believe that major cuts will happen in [these budget sectors],” she said. “When it comes to sequestration, I think [the government] will probably be able to figure out a solution before we see any real problems develop.”
Having government contractors as clients is both challenging and intriguing, Cooke said.
“The biggest challenge is trying to keep track of all the changes, because tax law changes every month, and it’s not just the Internal Revenue Service that comes up with regulations for [reporting],” she said.
Recruiting also can be difficult, Cooke added, because of the relatively small pool of talent that is versed in government contracting and can address her clients’ unique needs.
“We really do have rocket scientists for clients,” Cooke observed, and their questions tend to be a bit more strategic and specific compared to those that the average CPA firm deals with.
“In the private sector, companies just want to know how they can lower their tax obligation,” Cooke explained. “Our clients sometimes need help structuring their budgets, they need to know if they have enough money to grow when they need to, and they also ask for advice on how to bid on projects to make them more profitable.”
Unique Client Needs
To help address some of her clients’ unique needs, Cooke offers quarterly seminars and workshops on a range of topics.
“These are bag lunch sessions, and in any given year we try to offer two sessions geared more to bookkeepers and two that focus more on business owners,” she said. “We run Quickbooks training sessions as well to help clients get familiar with the records they’ll need to keep to satisfy their contracts.”
Her firm is now in the process of lining up a speaker to address mergers and acquisitions. “We’re getting a lot of questions about that at the moment,” Cooke said.
As difficult as dealing with convoluted and ever-increasing government requirements can be, there’s always a bit of excitement that comes from working with government contractors, she added.
“Hearing about some of the things they’re doing and the technologies they’re developing is interesting,” Cooke said. “It’s always something new, and I always learn something and gain more respect for what they’re doing to serve the nation.”