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Carol O’Hara has been managing partner of BPM’s North Bay offices in Santa Rosa and St. Helena for nearly six years.

In January 2009, BPM merged with Andersen & Co., which had been the largest accounting firm headquartered in the North Bay. O’Hara joined the firm a few months after the merger. Now BPM has about 45 employees in the two North Bay offices, with five partners. Most North Bay employees work out of the Santa Rosa office.

One of the largest regional accounting firms in California, BPM, with 40 partners and some 350 total staff, also has offices in San Francisco, San Jose, Palo Alto, Walnut Creek and Hong Kong. The company was founded by Curtis Burr, Henry Pilger and Steve Mayer in 1986.

O’Hara talked with the Business Journal about joining BPM, greater emphasis in the North Bay on the wine industry, recruitment in an industry with very low unemployment and mentorship of women in the profession.

Your background was corporate accounting?

Carol O’Hara: After I graduated, I came to KPMG in San Francisco, now one of the Big Four firms [Deloitte, PricewaterhouseCoopers, Ernst & Young, KPMG]. I worked there for 18 years, two years in London. I specialized in financial services. I became senior manager and then partner on Wells Fargo Bank. I was a partner for my last seven years.

Then you came to Sonoma County?

O’Hara: We moved to Sebastopol in 1998 when my son was 2 years old. I was one of the first partners at KPMG to go part time, working three days a week. I commuted for about two years. Then I had my daughter. Wells Fargo was my only account, but it got to be too much. I took them through two mergers, the First Interstate merger and the merger with Norwest.

You left KPMG?

O’Hara: I left in 2000 and stayed home with my kids for nine years on my two-acre hobby farm, a little vineyard and orchard. I have been here 16 years. My husband saw a story about the Burr Pilger Mayer merger with Andersen and Company in the North Bay Business Journal. I met with Jim [Andersen] and Steve [Mayer]. It was a perfect mix.

What did you offer the newly merged company?

O’Hara: They didn’t have an audit side. My background is as an audit partner. I came on board to help bring in the full-service element to BPM: audit, tax and consulting. I became managing partner to help raise the brand BPM in the North Bay.

The company pursued wineries?

O’Hara: It made sense to go after wineries. [About a year ago, the company closed its Novato office and opened one in St. Helena.] There are about 800 wineries between Napa and Sonoma. It was consistent with my interests. We had a small pinot vineyard on our property. It’s a passion of mine.

How much BPM work is wine-related?

O’Hara: Of total revenue in the North Bay, wine or wine-related business is about 40 percent. Andersen legacy clients are owner-managed businesses in a variety of industries. Wine was the first industry we focused on.

Our second is craft beer. We work with Lagunitas Brewing Company in Petaluma. It was an Andersen client.

The third is food, especially natural food.

What is the fourth-largest focus?

O’Hara: Life science and medical devices.

Combine wine, craft beer and food industry clients. What part of total North Bay revenue is that for BPM?

O’Hara: I would say 60 percent. We still have a long legacy of tax clients. We have real estate clients, nonprofits. We do all the Hansel auto dealerships. It’s diverse.

You did audits for Wells Fargo?

O’Hara: Yes. I was the audit partner. Here we approach all clients as relationships, whether it’s an audit opinion or tax opinion, working with clients throughout the year to help them solve problems. You end up with an audit opinion or tax return. But throughout the year you discuss business, tax issues. That’s how we differentiate ourselves. We’re not transactional, but relationship-oriented, with year-round communication.

Tax preparation and audits are now commodities, so the firm needs to go further into consulting?

O’Hara: Audits and [tax] compliance are commodities. It can be painful for people. One scenario is you don’t have any client interaction. You meet in October to talk about year-end tax returns and the audit. You come in January and have had no communication. You find all kinds of errors in their financial statements, problems with tax information. That’s the worst case. We strive to interact with clients on a real-time basis so their internal information that they’re making business decisions on is as accurate as possible. At the end of the year, we validate those numbers, but we are not coming across huge issues where they have accounted for a sale-lease-back incorrectly or have been depreciating things wrong for tax purposes. Fixing things costs a lot more money and aggravation.

Doing it right costs less?

O’Hara: Certain transactions, if done right, can save taxes. Clients don’t always know when to call us.

You become a strategy partner?

O’Hara: Right. Exactly, 12-month client service. We meet with clients on a regular basis. We are very team-oriented. My expertise is accounting and auditing. My partner Tom Garigliano came from 30 years at KPMG. We started together there. He leads the North Bay corporate tax practice. I talked him into coming up here. He only retired for about two months (she laughs).

The firm needs sophistication?

O’Hara: Business matters here in the North Bay are pretty complex. People think they’re simple, but they’re not. Especially with tax code, no one person can have all that knowledge.

Tax issues can be challenging and engaging?

O’Hara: Some of our clients shipping to other countries have international tax issues, especially in wine, beer and food.

How much of your business relates to international issues?

O’Hara: That’s client by client. Take big wineries. Trinchero Family Estates is our client, and [its biggest brand] Sutter Home ships a good bit [internationally].

Coming from your background with Wells Fargo, what’s fun about working in the North Bay?

O’Hara: When I got out of college, the Big Eight, now the Big Four, was a very competitive, male-dominated environment. I tend to be a type-A person. I ran that way. Then I took 10 years off to develop the nurturing side of myself.

What has been fun for me coming back is that I as a person have blended my approach to work — I have very high standards — with my nurturing side. I want my employees and clients to be happy and have work-life balance. It’s intertwined. I’m a mom. I have kids. Yet I’m a professional. It’s fun for me to be a leader in making that happen.

You’re a nurturing leader?

O’Hara: I have been able to attract talent. Tom [Garigliano, leader of the North Bay BPM tax practice,] was tired of that grind at the Big Four in the big city. He wanted to keep practicing his profession. I said, “Come up here, it’s totally different.” Accounting is viewed as a soul-sucking profession — high turnover, high hours, burnout. How can I do this differently? That’s fun and exciting.

What do you do to bring warmth to your 45 people?

O’Hara: We interact with each other. We volunteer together in the community, such as at Sunrise Horse Rescue in St. Helena and Kid Street Learning Center. You have partners working beside administrative employees, scrubbing windows. We give people a lot of flexibility. It’s responsibility-driven, not hour-driven. One employee rides her horse every Wednesday. My son plays baseball. A lot of days, I go at 3:30. Certain things you need to accomplish. I don’t care where you are when you accomplish them. We give people respect. People at lower levels want the same flexibility that people at upper levels already have.

What else do you do to motivate people?

O’Hara: We gave them an extra day off for Memorial Day, Friday plus Monday. I have a treadmill in my office. Anyone who wants one can have a stand-sit desk, a treadmill. If you want something, ask for it. If we can make an environment better for people, we do.

At your desk, how often are you on the treadmill?

O’Hara: [Laughs.] I don’t really have a chair. I’m always at least standing. I have lots of meetings where I’m sitting, or in the car going to St. Helena. My goal is to get in 10,000 steps a day.

You volunteer on boards?

O’Hara: I’m on the board of the Santa Rosa Symphony, a founding member of the California Wine Museum and on the North Bay Leadership Council.

When you work with a client, and the client wants additional work, how do you handle that?

O’Hara: When we do an audit, we usually give a fixed fee, such as $70,000 to $75,000. There are assumptions about what the client will have ready — the state of their books and records. What causes us to go over is if they’re not ready or we find problems we didn’t anticipate that take extra time. We have to be independent, so the client has to do the preparation work.

For example, a hedging transaction that they have inappropriately treated as a hedge. It requires us to do a bunch of extra research. Depletions can be tricky in how they are accounted for. We try to uncover issues early so the client has time to fix them ahead of time and have communication throughout the year. With things that were unexpected, we ask the client, “What do you feel is fair?”

You let clients price it?

O’Hara: Yes. Every relationship is about the long term. It’s important that the client and I have respect for each other. They want to be cost-effective, but respect that we deserve to be compensated fairly for our work. Clients can help us get the fee down. If a client feels that something is not fair, I’m not going to push it. If a client isn’t ready every year, and they’re always going over and don’t want to compensate us, it’s not a good fit.

You’ll drop the client?

O’Hara: Yes. It’s all about trust and respect. We’re not looking to have the most volume of clients at the lowest fee. We are very relationship-oriented. If someone’s goal is to have the absolute lowest fee, we might not be the right fit.

How many clients do you have in the two offices combined?

O’Hara: Around 300 corporate clients, plus about 700 individual tax returns a year.

Do you have a favorite area, such as wine, or do you like a range?

O’Hara: I like variety. But I believe in industry specialization. I am most valuable to clients if I understand their business, issues, best practices. It is a bit insular up here. Expertise I bring or Tom brings is that we haven’t spent our whole careers here. I get the wine business, but I have also seen a lot of other businesses. I did companies in London, real estate, nonprofits in 18 years at KPMG. We’re Big Four know-how, local firm know-you. Any industry we immerse ourselves in, such as the wine industry, we sponsor conferences, speak at conferences, get to know attorneys and bankers, insurance people. We join the community. We’ve done that very deeply with wine, and beer is taking off. We don’t want to dabble.

As a manager, do you give up individual contact with clients?

O’Hara: I have a lot of clients. I’m the managing partner, but I’m the only audit partner in this office. Any audit that goes out of this office gets signed by me. I’m very active.

Are you a numbers person?

O’Hara: I’m very good at numbers, but my skill set is that I’m good at understanding people, and what their needs are, and bringing resources to the client at the right time.Part of our service is that we’re helping with strategic issues.

Are strategic issues more interesting?

O’Hara: Yes. A way we differentiate is to add those services — consulting and strategic planning. The overall relationship becomes very valuable.

You become your client’s partner?

O’Hara: We have to be independent, but yes, we approach it in terms of what their problems are, their goals.

Do you miss having banking clients?

O’Hara: I loved my relationship with KPMG and Wells Fargo. I worked with companies that were very well run, an incredible training ground. Banking is incredibly regulated. You have to know your stuff — accounting rules, regulatory rules. Things are more like the Wild West here. My clients are entrepreneurs, interesting. People who founded wineries are passionate. This isn’t just their business; it’s their life. They live there [at the winery]. Their kids are involved. That speaks to me. I’m a very passionate person myself. I enjoy that level of commitment.

What is challenging about running this office?

O’Hara: It can be hard to get talent. Unemployment in the accounting profession is only 2 percent. We recruit entry-level people heavily at Sonoma State, and others out of the Big Four in the city. They’re ready, and our compensation is the same. We are growing rapidly, hiring. I spend as much time thinking about talent as about clients — how to attract and retain.

You’re at 45 employees now. In two years, you expect to be at 60?

O’Hara: Yes, easily. Growth is in consumer products, food and beverage. We train people in industry expertise. Accountants can have as interesting and challenging a work experience here as in the city. We did an IPO for a winery up here three years ago, Truett Hurst. We have large, sophisticated clients. We’re going to grow and make [new] partners.

What did this firm do during the recession?

O’Hara: I came in 2009. We doubled in the past five years. We filled a need, the middle ground between the Big Four in the city and local firms.

Are there opportunities for other women in leadership here?

O’Hara: Fifty percent of people in accounting are women. When I was a partner at KPMG, only 6 percent of partners were women, up now to 12 or 13 percent in the Big Four. It’s fairly slow for a profession that has a lot of women. Two of the Big Four just appointed women CEOs.

We need to put qualified women in CEO positions. I’m super-aware of this. I’m a woman leader. I can coach and mentor women to be as successful as men, whether they have kids or don’t have kids. More needs to be done. I think of employees the way I think of my kids. I want them to be happy and challenged. I push. I want them to be the best they can be. We have the power to transform people’s lives.