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Richard Kopelman, CEO of Aprio, Talks Pandemic, Diversity, Analytics at Conversation with a CEO

By Keith Morelli

Dean Moez Limayem and Richard Kopelman

TAMPA (June 4, 2021) -- Richard Kopelman has come a long way from when he was 13, helping his mother make cold sales calls in South Florida. For pre-paid funerals.

Now, Kopelman sits atop Aprio, serving as CEO and managing partner for a nationally recognized, CPA-led business advisory firm headquartered in Atlanta, but which counts clients in all 50 states and dozens of countries. With more than 25 years’ experience in public accounting and with clients that range from startups to billion-dollar enterprises. Kopelman was the guest of the USF Muma College of Business’ Conversation with a CEO series this week.

The event was presented on a virtual format for the fourth time since the pandemic settled over the nation last year, said Moez Limayem, the Lynn Pippenger Dean of the Muma College of Business who served as the conversation’s moderator.

Kopelman, who joined Aprio in 1992 and climbed the corporate ladder to the top rung in 2013. Prior to that, he served as a business adviser for clients doing business domestically and abroad in more than 40 countries and he built and led Aprio’s Manufacturing and Distribution group, increasing revenue by 800 percent in 14 years.

Like every CEO on the planet, Kopelman was forced to make sweeping adjustments over the past year during the pandemic, but unlike everyone else, those innovations not only kept the business afloat, but also resulted in substantial growth.

“It’s not been bad for us,” he said. “Planning proved to be very important.” Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, Aprio had experimented with employees working remotely. “We had tested out these systems and they worked great. So, we decided that if you’re more comfortable working from home, work from home.”

Innovations included weekly town hall meetings for increased communication, he said, along with a plan for executives to pick up the telephone and personally call about 80 partners at least once a week. In turn, those partners would call more than 700 staffers.

“That was a key part of the people strategy,” he said. The company also sent gift boxes to employees’ homes, with snacks, and Uber Eats cards and other things. The company hired mental health coaches and made them available two days a week. Company funded tutoring for employees’ children became a reality.

The innovations forced on Kopelman’s company by the pandemic opened his eyes to future possibilities. The town hall meetings will become a regular thing and the executive team now is looking to change the brick-and-mortar business model.

“Our major headquarters’ lease is up in a year,” he said, “and we’re in the midst of figuring out where we are going, what does it look like, how many square feet do we need and how will the office environment change. Our approach now is that we are going to reduce office space by half, create an environment where clients will not have to come into our space. We will be more flexible in time and our physical environment. People may come to work two or three days a week. Some may want to come in full time.

The importance of business socialization cannot be overlooked, he said.

“It is work from home versus the esprit de corps of working in the office,” he said. “How do we create that water cooler conversation, encourage creativity and ideation, not just for the business but for how we relate to our clients? We are starting with our teams.”

Executives pick at least two days a week where they come into the office and be there for some core hours, “Where we are able to walk into somebody’s office and have a conversation,” Kopelman said. “Not every conversation has to be on Zoom.”

Aprio is one of 45,000 CPA firms in the United States. It set itself apart over the past four years, he said.

“It is an ever-changing environment,” he said, referring to the accounting/auditing industry. “We’ve gone from one office in Atlanta to 10 offices along the Eastern Seaboard. We have added 10 specialty services over the past four years as well. We’ve gone from $100 million to $200 million in revenue in that time.”

Part of the recipe for success is giving back, he said.

“I am a big believer in repaying the world, giving back to the community and leaving the world better place.” The company has placed 50 employees on various community boards all across the spectrum through The Aprio Foundation, which raises and distributes charitable donations. “The foundation is led by employees of the company, who choose where the money goes and how to impact their communities. We shut our business down for several days each year just to go to various organizations and participate in community projects.”

Such workforce polices draws consummate professionals and the brightest graduates, said Kopelman, a USF graduate with a bachelor’s degree in accounting. What does he look for in new hires?

“Critical thinking and reasoning skills are very important,” he said. “People get hired for what they know. They get fired for who they are. We want people who care, who want to be successful, who create and execute on the vision we have, who follow our strategy. We always are looking for engaging people.”

Building a workforce that is diverse, equitable and inclusive has been and is an ongoing effort, he said.

“Twenty percent of our people are foreign born. They speak 30 languages,” he said. “For us, this is been the fabric of how we operate. We aim high in diversity, but we can do better.” The company hired a diversity auditor and developed a three-year strategic plan to improve diversity and inclusion in its workplace, he said.

Want proof Aprio is a big part of Kopelman? Look to his name.

The company expanded into North Carolina a few years ago, but found that, to get a state-issued license, the name of the company had to incorporate at least one of the names of the managing partners. None of the managing partners bore the name Aprio, Kopelman said. So, he returned to Georgia, where he legally added Aprio as a middle name.

“I think I’m the only CEO, ever,” he said, “who added the company into his own legal name.”

The next Conversation with a CEO is scheduled for noon on Sept. 9, and features Mike Sutton, CEO of Habitat for Humanity of Pinellas and West Pasco counties. The event, expected to be the last one offered on a virtual format, is free, but registration is required. To register, click here.