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Aprio's Tommy Lee on The Keys to Growth: Strategic Partnerships and Innovation

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Aprio's Tommy Lee on The Keys to Growth: Strategic Partnerships and Innovation
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In a recent conversation, David Toth, Chief Growth Officer of Winding River Consulting, sat down with Tommy Lee, CPA and Partner-in-Charge, Restaurant, Franchise & Hospitality at Aprio. Below is a summary of their conversation. 

Tommy Lee is a member of one of the first MPB | Leadership Accelerated cohorts. He’s a CPA and Partner-in-Charge at Aprio, one of Inside Public Accounting’s fastest-growing firms. This year, Aprio is on track to reach a revenue milestone of $450 million. 

Tommy works with executives and owners of restaurant and hospitality businesses and franchise operations across the United States. During the pandemic, Tommy led Aprio’s efforts to support its clients with PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) and ERC (Employee Retention Credit) services, activities that have received national recognition.

Aprio is a very different firm from when Tommy joined the company 20 years ago. Today, Aprio has grown to more than 1,800 employees across 25 locations across within the United States. Ten years ago, Tommy was selected to start Aprio’s restaurant hospitality practice, which today brings in over $30 million in revenues and employs more than 100 people. 

“We’re helping our restaurant clients with just about everything, from a data perspective and a back-office perspective, running tax audits and transaction advisories. It’s been amazing to watch it grow and evolve to what it is today,” he said. “It’s one of our fastest-growing segments here at Aprio, and we’re going to keep the pedal to the metal and continue to grow it.”

 

How a Merger Influenced Hospitality Practice Growth

Aprio’s reputation and relationships played a huge role in the growth of their restaurant hospitality practice. Antares Group, a CPA firm with a significant hospitality client roster, came to Aprio and proposed a partnership. In 2023, Antares merged with Aprio, bringing a long list of restaurant clients from more than 40 states. Aprio’s resources and Antares’ client base came together to become a leader in accounting services for the restaurant hospitality industry.

 “That's what allowed us to double in size. Antares had it together, and they focused on a small number of restaurant brands, one of which was McDonald's. It made a lot of sense and allowed us to grow significantly and enhance what they were doing with Aprio services,” Tommy said.

 

Challenges Faced During Growth

Every business aims for growth, but growth comes with challenges. After the merger with Antares, Aprio faced many challenges that were familiar to fast-growing firms, such as not having enough resources and staffing. 

“A lot of the challenges are needs arising and then having to build the capability subsequent of the needs arising. I think anybody in our space understands that challenge,” Tommy said. 

“I always tell people, especially when I talk about Aprio growth, it's about talent. As you move upstream, everything gets complicated. So finding the talent to service that increasing level of complexity is always the biggest challenge.”

Tommy also balances the demands of a growing segment with his passion for consulting and working with clients. It’s important to him to connect with his professional roots while leading the team on restaurant hospitality initiatives.

“I’m still working with clients. That’s a large portion of my passion. I love consulting. I love providing value in that way,” he said. “In order to know and understand the capabilities that you have to build out in the practice, you need to be in the middle of that client space.”

 

Being Willing to Step Outside of Your Comfort Zone

Tommy credits his success with Aprio’s hospitality practice to his willingness to step outside his comfort zone. He was asked to take the project on when he was a new partner at the firm. He was encouraged by Aprio’s culture, where CEO Richard Kopelman and the leadership team are not afraid to pursue big ideas. They want their team to take risks and learn from successes and failures. 

“You know, at Aprio, I've had a lot of crazy ideas, and some of them have been successful, and some of them haven't. And I really have to give kudos to Richard. He has set up an environment in which failure isn't punished. We’re encouraged to learn from the mistakes,” Tommy said. 

Having the right environment is essential if you want to innovate and expand your career. Aprio’s support and belief in Tommy made it possible to pivot from working with real estate clients to launching the restaurant hospitality segment for the firm. 

 “This is certainly something I had a passion for. I had grown up in the restaurant business, and I understood the business; I understood the needs,” Tommy said. “You have to have the drive and the passion for what you want to pivot to, but you also have to be in the right environment. You can grow and follow those passions if you’re in the right environment.”

 

Building an Intentional Growth Culture

Tommy also credits much of his success to Aprio's intentional growth culture. This culture is deliberate and focused, allowing the firm to build new segments and concentrate on efforts to foster the proper growth and business results to push Aprio forward.

“If there were a word that I would use around Aprio as a growth story that really makes it work, I think that you will find intentionality in just about everything that we do. Being intentional is critical. It’s how we can build segments and practices,” Tommy said. 

 

What’s Next for Tommy & the Restaurant Practice at Aprio

Aprio is focused on the future growth of its restaurant hospitality business. One priority is to form deeper relationships with clients, learn more about their specific challenges, and tailor their offerings to add value.

“We want to understand how we can provide value to them and for generations to come. We have many multiple generational families in franchising or the restaurant business. We’re focusing on how we can be a bigger part of that overall consultancy,” Tommy said.

Franchising is another priority. The franchise market has typically been a small business to mid-market part of the business. It’s become a significant growth area in the restaurant industry as franchising groups continue to develop. Aprio is uniquely well-positioned to guide franchisees and franchise groups through this growth. 

Aprio also leverages technology to provide better client experiences, which means adopting AI tools to work smarter and faster. 

“We certainly are experimenting in several different ways with AI. Within our back office practice, our client accounting services practice, we're starting to figure out ways to reconcile quicker, to reconcile better, and to compare data better,” Tommy said. “If you're not figuring out how to utilize AI in your practice and putting significant resources into it, you're going to fall behind.”

 

How MPB | Leadership Accelerated Influenced Tommy

Participating in MPB | Leadership Accelerated came at the right time for Tommy. He started the program during the pandemic when many professionals worked remotely and sought connections with other industry professionals.

“It certainly gave me a forum to go in, get perspective, and continue with the programming you have for alumni. It’s also given me relationships with colleagues in the industry. It's funny; there are some colleagues that we compete with that I’m good friends with now because of MPB,” he said.

The relationships Tommy built from MPB | Leadership Accelerated have been essential to growing his skills and his career. He relies on his peer group for continuing advice in the CPA industry.

“Because of this relationship, we feel very comfortable sharing and talking about business and how things are going — and we’re direct competitors,” he said. “ It’s certainly a place to get that education and to continue that education. It's a great resource,” he said. 

For Tommy, the network he’s surrounded himself with has been crucial to his career success. The support at Aprio and the relationships built through MPB | Leadership Accelerated have helped Tommy advance to the next level in his career.

Find your path to success today — applications for the next MPB | Leadership Accelerated cohort are now open. Join us in Chicago in October 2024 for a rigorous boot camp focused on building the next generation of accounting industry leaders. 

Register today

 

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