A Publication of WTVP

Clifton Gunderson started in 1960 with four partners, one office and $256,000 in billings and has since grown to 226 partners, over 1,900 employees, 46 offices across 21 states, and a projected $275 million in revenue.

Neil Clifton, Merle Gunderson, Bob Coker and Joe DeBruyn were partners in an accounting firm by the name of Morgan, Clifton, Gunderson and Ellis when they decided to split off and form their own firm. “The other three partners wanted to stay small and local, and we had a vision of growing into a national firm,” recalled DeBruyn. “So we started what was then called Clifton, Gunderson, Coker and DeBruyn.” It was November 1, 1960.

“Our plan,” he continued, “was that if we wanted to grow the firm and get good people to come to work for us, we had to show opportunity, and the way to show opportunity was to expand.” And expand they have, consistently opening new offices and buying up other practices across the country over the last 50 years.

The Early Years
At first, the new firm had very little business and very little money. But with a full commitment to their new endeavor, the four partners raised capital by remortgaging their houses and getting a loan from Commercial Bank, now known as PNC.

Besides the four partners, there were eight accountants and a secretary on staff, and together, they worked to grow their firm. “The thing that set us apart was the close personal attention to our clients. Many of the bigger firms at that time…had very little partner contact with their clients,” said DeBruyn. “We tried to make sure that our partners were actively managing their clients.”

At the time, it was considered somewhat taboo for accounting firms to advertise their services, and so Clifton, Gunderson, Coker and DeBruyn grew by word of mouth. The partners joined as many community and business organizations as possible, which helped to cultivate business. “I think that paid off for us very well,” reported DeBruyn.

“The firm ‘targets the entrepreneurs,’ or independent businessman, offering more than just accounting services,” reported a 1987 Peoria Journal Star article. “Clifton Gunderson is in the consulting business rather than the accounting business…helping a client toward overall success. That strategy has sparked the growth of the accounting firm, which has doubled in size every three or four years.”

The firm began branching out just one year after its inception, opening an office in Sterling, Illinois, in 1961. They then created a presence in Danville, Illinois, in 1965. Throughout the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, the company’s mergers and acquisitions took them to suburban Chicago, Indiana, Ohio, Wisconsin, and as far away as Colorado and California. Consistently growing, the firm has acquired or merged with other firms just about year since the mid-‘70s.

In 1970, its name was shortened to Clifton, Gunderson and Company. It was shorter and easier to say, and nearly everyone called the firm “Clifton Gunderson” anyway. Just six months later, Merle Gunderson left to start his own firm, but by then, the firm had established offices outside of the Midwest, where the names didn’t matter as much, noted DeBruyn. Having just changed the name, the remaining partners decided not to make another change right away. In fact, it wasn’t until 2001 that the name was again shortened to its current moniker, Clifton Gunderson, LLP.

Joe Coker’s untimely death in the 1980s, and Neil Clifton’s retirement and eventual passing left Joe DeBruyn as the only surviving original partner of Clifton Gunderson.

Clients First
Clifton Gunderson’s original partners knew they wanted to put client needs above all else. The development of a solid foundation of core values—and the firm’s diligence in adhering to this foundation—has contributed significantly to its success over the last 50 years, said Kris McMasters, the firm’s current CEO. The corporate culture that was established early on emphasized taking care of people—both clients and employees—something the company’s Midwestern roots helped to cultivate.

Bill Mehlenbeck is chairman of Cast Technologies, Clifton Gunderson’s oldest business client, and attests to the firm’s dedication to its clients. “My grandfather and Neil Clifton were both young business professionals in 1960 and had mutual respect for each other,” he recalled. “Neil had a strong reputation within the Peoria business community, and my grandfather picked up on that. My grandfather had a unique ability to develop relationships with successful people and those who could bring our company to the next level. Neil stood out as someone who had all of the attributes my grandfather was looking for to build our business for the future.”

And Clifton Gunderson’s commitment to Cast Technologies has remained steadfast over the years, said Mehlenbeck, even as partners retired and new ones stepped in.

These days, clients are extremely price-conscious, “less attuned to the people involved and more concerned about what they can get the job done for,” noted DeBruyn, but it wasn’t always that way. At the firm’s outset, not only was advertising taboo, so was competitively bidding against another firm. It was considered uncouth to give prospective clients a figure of how much the job would cost. Instead, clients were supposed to trust that the firm had their best interests in mind. The four original partners hoped that their superior client service would outweigh the fact that they might have to charge a bit more than a smaller firm. If their growth is any indication, it seems as if they have succeeded.

Attracting and Retaining Talent
Not only has Clifton Gunderson taken good care of its clients, it has a clear focus on its employees as well. “The only way we can serve our clients in the way that we want to,” explained McMasters, “is to have really engaged, high-performing talent, and so our whole focus is based on recruiting those people and making sure that they have a very satisfying career at Clifton Gunderson.” The firm offers numerous career development programs and resources:

While many of these programs have been around for decades, McMasters noted that they were formalized in 1999 when its Priority One—Career Development the CG Way initiative was introduced. True to its mission—“Growth of our people. Growth of our clients. All else follows.”—Clifton Gunderson encourages all employees to take advantage of training, development and work-life balance opportunities. By enhancing their employees’ lives both inside and outside of the office, the firm believes that client service is also enhanced.

Jared Woiwode, a senior associate in the Peoria office, has been with the company for four and a half years. “I feel like the people I work with at CG are genuinely interested in helping me advance in my career, wherever that might take me,” he said. “That can be rare in a lot of companies today.”

Woiwode participates in the company’s Career Development Network (CDN), which facilitates discussions between managers and associates on topics such as the future of internal groups and individual careers, what managers and associates should expect from each other, and other general concerns—strategic topics that can be difficult to bring up on a day-to-day basis.

“I feel like Clifton Gunderson has created a ‘culture of mentorship,’” Woiwode explained. “In addition to the formal CDN mentorship, I’ve found that I’ve developed several other mentors as well.”

Flexible work arrangements enable employees to create a schedule that works for them. “As a firm, we value and work to enable our employees to balance all elements of their lives—work, family, community service, recreation,” said McMasters. “We believe creating an environment that ‘fits’ each of our employees’ lifestyles will result in a more productive workplace, happy and healthy employees, and enhance the commitment provided to our clients.”

Clifton Gunderson recently acquired a firm that specializes in international tax consulting and compliance services. The acquisition added 14 high-level specialists who have devoted their careers to international tax issues. “We wanted to make sure that we had the talent to help our clients who had expanded…or want to expand internationally,” said McMasters. “Even our smallest clients are looking at those opportunities.”

Administrative Stars
Over the past decade, CG’s major administrative functions had been consolidated into its Milwaukee location. McMasters had moved there from Danville, Illinois, about 15 years ago, and many of the firm’s key players were also located in the Milwaukee office. When McMasters was appointed CEO in 2009, the firm officially moved its headquarters from Peoria to Milwaukee.

Just the fourth CEO in Clifton Gunderson’s history, McMasters is also the first and only woman to be named CEO of one of the top 25 CPA firms in the country. “I’m grateful if my appointment makes other firms realize that both men and women are capable of leading large accounting firms,” she said. “I’m thrilled if achieving this position helps women realize they can be the champion of their own destiny and achieve senior management roles in firms.”

Clifton Gunderson’s humble Midwestern roots have taken the company far. Now a national firm with international expertise, offices in 21 states and nearly 2,000 professionals, CG’s global presence is bound to continue growing. iBi