Extreme Makeover Corporate Edition

What You Can Learn from Nishihama & Kishida’s Transformation Into a Best Place to Work

April, 2006

Alton Miyashiro is under no illusions. The managing principal of the CPA firm Nishihama & Kishida doesn’t waste time trying to convince recruits that certified public accounting is a terribly sexy profession. It’s good work and Enron may have gotten it to the front pages of the nation’s newspapers, but, all in all, the pool of CPA recruits is shrinking — and holding onto good employees in today’s marketplace is itself a Herculean task.

For Miyashiro and the firm, the critical issue for their profession today is the workplace, not the work. “We had this revelation that we didn’t want to be this sweat shop that most CPA firms have a reputation for being,” Miyashiro says. “We wanted to be a place where our people would want to come to work. So we set out to build that environment.”

It worked. Take recruitment and retention. In the past six months, the firm has not lost one employee, after losing 17 percent of its staff in 2005. In February, three prospective employees who had interviewed and accepted jobs elsewhere came back and asked for jobs.

“It is the nature of the business environment today,” says Dennis Higashiguchi, manager of consulting services and spearhead for the corporate makeover. “To be productive, you really need to focus on the internal customer, the employee.” Miyashiro and Higashiguchi sat down with Hawaii Business to explain how they went from seeing the light to reaching No. 8 on our 2006 Best Places to Work list for small companies.

It’s a road map for success for any business.

HB: Transforming a company into a Best Place to Work is a big task. How did the firm get the ball rolling?
First, we formed what we call the WE Committee, the Work Environment Committee. That committee is made up of staff people from the different departments, and their responsibility is to be the eyes and ears out there. So if there are things that people are saying that the firm can address, that would be the vehicle to do it. The other responsibility would to be come up with functions that make the firm a better place to work. All of a sudden the staff had a voice and we got feedback that before we never got, because there was no mechanism for them to give it.

HB: What initiatives has the WE Committee produced?
Five years ago, we started things like casual Fridays, which back then was a very novel idea. During the busy season, we bring in a massage therapist and now we give everyone $100 just to cover the cost of things they might use for business, such as cell phones or PDAs. We also recently decided to cover $100 of parking. And we do a lot of fun company events as well.

HB: Was that the thrust of the makeover?
No, two years ago, we started ramping things up. We started with a shared visioning process, where we involved everyone in developing a vision of the firm. We felt in order for us to sustain this momentum, we needed to have these quick wins that Alton mentioned. The things that were small yet meaningful to help sustain the interest and momentum that we had created. The hard work for us is ahead.

HB: How do you get that deeper buy-in in the transformation?
The key is demonstrating how that shared vision translates into behavior. For example, the balance between work and home was important to people; so you offer flex time, and make sure people can work at home. Learning was also important; so we are creating the career plan and mentoring program. So people can see the results versus a nice phrase you put on the wall.

HB: What’s the next step in that process?
I think more importantly what we are trying to do now is match up the people part, the coaching and mentoring, what I think a lot of organizations fail to do. The younger people’s loyalty to a business or organization is lacking. But if there is a relationship within an organization with an individual, it is much more effective. That is kind of the model we are trying to create here. To help them grow, both professionally and personally, and if we are successful at that, we can hit the home run.

HB: How does the mentoring program work?
Each employee has a coach and each coach is tasked to help that employee develop a career plan. The focus is on what you want to be and what you want to do here and what we can do to help you get there. And the coaching is all the way up, principals coach senior management, and senior managers coach managers, and managers coach staff, and the process is all aligned with what we see ourselves as. And we see that not only as a vehicle to grow and develop but we see it as a vehicle to communicate our culture both up and down. We see it as a way of listening to the staff and getting that information pushed up so we can be responsive to what people need.

There are a lot of things we still need to work on, but it is very heartening to see that starting to take shape.

HB: What were some of the stumbling blocks?
Public accounting has a notorious reputation for providing its younger people with negative feedback. The only time you hear something is when you screwed up. We have changed that.

HB: How do you know if you are succeeding?
If it is not measured, it is not managed. So we have actually taken a chunk of our employee evaluation process and dedicated it to the cultural issues. So in our semiannual and annual evaluations, which address raises, bonuses and promotions, a part of the evaluation is geared toward the culture part.
DH: Setting up the indicators is also key. One of those indicators was our participation in this [Best Places to Work] survey and we have done our own internal surveys as well. Other indicators we track include employee retention and participation in employee events. We think down the road we will find a big difference in productivity, but right now, we want to first focus on activity.

HB: How important is leadership buying into the process as well?
I think one thing people will tell you again and again is how important it is for the president or CEO to be the vision keeper and the driver of the process. I think Alton is a good example of that, a constant force saying, “This is where we want to go and I want it tomorrow.” Without that, the process doesn’t sustain itself.

HB: We have talked a lot about corporate culture, how important are the benefits and pay parts of the equation?
We made certain adjustments last year to get our people up to a level that is competitive, if not higher than market. Everything you read says compensation is not the most important thing, but you need to be in the ballpark.

HB: Where would you say your firm is in its makeover?
I’d say we are 75 percent complete, but it’s a never-ending process. The bottom line is we are not afraid to invest in our employees.


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Scott Radway