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March 24, 2015

Growth at global multidisciplinary model

Ana Gyorkos speaks to the chief executive of fast-growing global multidisciplinary association GGI (Geneva Group International), Michael Reiss von Filski

Two decades since its inception by current chairman Claudio Cocca, GGI is the third-largest international accounting association with $2.1bn in annual fee income (not including pure law firm member contribution).

The Swiss-based association with offices in Zurich and Geneva not only joins-up accounting firms, but has a multidisciplinary aspect, originally adopted in 1997 at the request of its founding member firms, who saw potential in linking law firms with accounting practices.

Current chief executive officer Michael Reiss von Filski joined the organisation in 2003 when the association had just 45 offices and a limited international footprint. Today, the association counts 700 offices and more that 450 firms across 120 countries.

The alliance has a balanced split of accounting and law firms, with about 60% of its membership consisting of accounting firms. Reiss says the rapid growth was mainly achieved "by living the vision and looking for member firms with a strong entrepreneurial spirit as well as high quality".

He also emphasises they eschew potential members that are only looking for a brand, "Another thing we’re very mindful of when accepting new members is that they already have a strong pre-existing international outbound business, as we’re not looking for firms which only operate in their local area and only service local clients," he explains. "There are also many firms out there which are just looking for referrals and we’re not after such firms."

Reiss believes this strategy has facilitated the rapid success of the association. When asked about a breakthrough moment in the association’s growth, Reiss believes it took place in 2005 when GGI took over an association of 28 independent law firms, Lawspan International. Reiss believes the move signalled a breakthrough in membership numbers and enabled faster progression.

Nevertheless, another big challenge remained for the organisation as its North America coverage consisted of just one accounting firm in Canada and one law firm in the US as recently as five years ago. Now, the association has more than a 100 offices across the US and Canada. Reiss says the key was detailed research and the personal touch as the organisation’s chairman and founder Claudio Cocca travelled stateside to build relationships with the profession and potential members.

Overall the association still remains the strongest in Europe according to Reiss. "We’re weakest in Africa, especially outside South Africa and North Africa and we find the region increasingly challenging for securing members. We also need to strengthen our presence in certain countries such as Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan."

Reiss adds the association receives daily emails from potential member firms. "While some of those requests are not what we’re looking for, we’ve received several credible inbound requests which have resulted in some of largest additions to the alliance."

Asked about the future Reiss says he want to continue building a leading global multidisciplinary alliance as he’s strongly convinced this is the business model for the organisation.

"To us the concept of multidisciplinary is not alien at all, as even the Big Four are in many ways multidisciplinary with their extensive legal departments. We’re lucky as the need to be multidisciplinary came from our own initial members and we see the need for accounting firms to work with law firms and vice versa. However, I do believe that as an organisation you do need to have the right culture to be multidisciplinary and that’s sometimes hard to achieve."

While it’s not uncommon for leaders of accounting organisations not to be accountants, Reiss’s background is particularly colourful as he initially made good use of his knowledge of five languages by starting a career in the diplomatic service. After finishing his studies he worked as a diplomat in Rome, New York and Buenos Aires. Prior to joining GGI he served as chief executive of the Spanish Chamber of Commerce in Switzerland.

"Diplomacy is fundamentally working with people, bringing people together to deal with difficult issues. And this is exactly what is needed in large organisations like GGI," he says. "When you are involved in negotiations in the US, Latin America, Europe and Asia, you learn as a diplomat to deal with the varieties of different cultures, the patterns and the traditions. This was certainly helpful to better understand our members who come from literally all over the world."

As an outsider Reiss believes accountancy to be an "exceptional profession, which at times doesn’t get the press it deserves. However, it’s important to remember the role of the profession in business and in the stability of our financial markets," he says.

He also takes an active role in the broader profession as one of the three members of the European Group of International Accounting Networks and Associations (EGIAN) advisory committee. EGIAN, despite initially being set-up as a mid-tier interest group when EU audit reform was first being discussed, has evolved in scope according to Reiss and now links 24 mid-tier organisations earning a combined $45bn in annual fee income.

"It’s an excellent platform for global chief executive of these organisations to meet and engage in dialogue about ideas, challenges and how to serve the public interest better. It is clearly the institutionalised voice of the mid-tier profession"

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