[Image ©Kathryn Gamble]
When people in Iowa ask Ying Sa where she’s from, they’re surprised to hear her say, “Canada.”
Then again, Sa likes to be unexpected.
Although she was born in China, she came to the U.S. after getting her degree in accounting from Toronto’s York University. “When I graduated, I made up my mind that I would never be an accountant,” she says. So, a younger Sa might be surprised at the unexpected twists that led her to become CEO of Community CPA & Associates Inc., a firm with offices in Des Moines and Iowa City, Iowa, and one that has been growing by 20 percent for the past decade to almost 7,000 clients worldwide.
She found that success by serving a niche near to her heart: immigrant entrepreneurs. It’s a role she fell into after college. Having decided against an accounting job, Sa instead pursued her love of crafts and rented a cart in the mall to sell her goods. While there, people would approach her, find out about her accounting background and ask for help.
“In Canada, it’s a very diverse community,” she says. “Looking like an Asian is naturally attractive to Asians. I actually didn’t have a concept of serving immigrants when I was in Canada. They seemed like just Canadians.”
When her husband’s job took them to Iowa, she was prepared to say goodbye to the 400 or so clients she had built up in her budding accounting business. But some weren’t having it. “About 50 of them refused to go, so I brought them over and continued working with them long distance while I looked for a job,” she says.
Basics: Community CPA & Associates Inc. is a full-service accounting firm founded in 1998 with offices in Des Moines and Iowa City, Iowa. The multilingual firm has six CPAs and one attorney and provides tax, audit, payroll and business consultation to approximately 7,000 clients.
Website: The site communitycpa.com is available in English, Spanish, Chinese and Vietnamese. You’ll find personal bios of all of the staff, client testimonials and a client portal.
Sa found that job — first as chief financial officer of the Iowa Manufacturing Extension Partnership at Iowa State University and then as vice president of controllers at Wells Fargo Financial Inc. But after 11 years in the corporate world, she still had her base of immigrant accounting clients.
Community CPA officially started in 1998, but it wasn’t until 2003 that she realized, “I have to have some sort of a system in order to grow. I was just using Microsoft® Excel,® and I would spend weeks and weeks going through emails trying to find out what work I did for which client so that I could figure out how to bill them. That’s when I started looking for software.”
Thanks to efficiencies created by using Thomson Reuters software including Practice CS, UltraTax CS and FileCabinet CS, Community CPA has grown aggressively over the past 14 years.
She credits the software for creating continuity. “It brought a flow into the firm — whether we’re flowing between client sites and office locations, or we’re flowing between our homes and our desks at the office.”
That flow is carrying Community CPA to its next big move: becoming a regional firm with offices in Chicago and Minneapolis in the next two years.
One way for Sa and her firm to get there is through growth of their audit service. This year alone, Community CPA has won several school district requests for proposals and 15 city examinations, adding to its governmental and nonprofit audit service. The firm uses AdvanceFlow for audit, which is a perfect fit for the auditors in the field, who can work on their laptops and access all of the information they need through a portal.
“We want to make our firm a multimillion-dollar business,” Sa says. “We believe that our firm has the ability to become a regional firm if we stay on our business growth plan for the next decade.”
The multilingual team at Community CPA is made up of many immigrants. Because of their diverse backgrounds, they felt the imperative to help other immigrants succeed. To that end, they launched the Immigrant Entrepreneurs Summit (IES, iesusa.org) in 2008. During a full-day workshop, immigrant entrepreneurs share their success stories and attend seminars filled with tips on starting and growing businesses.
Wells Fargo has been instrumental to the success of the event; in 2017, the financial giant awarded the IES with $50,000 — $5,000 of which was earmarked for the winner of a competition among immigrant small-business owners.
The IES puts business starters and dreamers on overdrive, and, like Sa’s early days at the mall cart, word is getting around. Attendance has grown from 238 the first year to an expected 1,000 for the 10th summit, in November 2017.
What’s more, immigrant entrepreneurs who go to these summits are making a striking impact. In the first nine years, 1,026 companies were born after the annual event. Those companies have hired 6,285 people and generated more than $337 million in revenue in Iowa alone.
And that doesn’t surprise Sa one bit.
Community CPA & Associates Inc. uses AdvanceFlow to support its growing audit business. You can, too! Learn more at tax.tr.com/advanceflow.
The staff of 16 at Community CPA & Associates Inc. speaks nine languages. Though that helps them serve a diverse group of clients — about one-third Latino; one-third Asian, African or African-American; and one-third Caucasian — CEO Ying Sa doesn’t believe that is the secret to the firm’s success. Rather, she pins prosperity on three characteristics of Community CPA’s culture:
- Tech savviness. Sa’s team has no reservations about deploying technology. “We have a high utilization rate on the features of Thomson Reuters software,” she says. “We also are sensitive to the security of technology, which is one of the reasons we want a large firm like Thomson Reuters to be our backup.” Technological advancement also fits with the firm’s client profile, many of whom are in another state or country.
- Broad mindedness. “We do not practice judgment in our firm,” Sa says. “A client could come in wearing shabby clothes, but they could be a millionaire, and that’s not a surprise to us.” The restraint from judgment extends beyond appearance. “We trust our clients. For instance, if a client gives us a number that does not look right, we help make sense of it. We don’t assume they’re cheating the government. Maybe they’re just not understanding how to calculate it or don’t understand the regulations.”
- Hard work. “We have a quality of many first-generation immigrants, which is working hard,” she says. “We don’t cut corners. We are thorough.”