Opsahl Dawson forging new image for accounting firms

Local CPA firm combines traditional values with cutting-edge technology

Aaron Jen Dawson Matt Lee

The accounting industry is often associated with words like “dry,” “bean counter” and “stick in the mud.” Local CPA firm Opsahl Dawson couldn’t be further from that stereotype. Tagging themselves as “Accounting for a New Age,” company president Aaron Dawson said the firm combines traditional values and cutting-edge technology to create a “new era” of CPAs.

Over the last six years, since Dawson and his wife bought the firm from founder George Opsahl (a long-time family friend and mentor), revenue has grown 50 percent – 15 percent in just the last year. Dawson attributes that steady growth to several factors, including a positive work environment, commitment to hiring the cream of the crop from top educational institutions, an ability to take advantage of new technology and a passion for community involvement.

The company went paperless in 2010. This enables Opsahl Dawson employees to have flexible work schedules. They can remotely log in from home and work when they need to.

“CPA firms have a history of overworking staff during the grueling tax season,” said Dawson. “Our employees can work a full day in the office, go home to see their families and take a break, and then work a few hours in the evening to break up the day.”

Employees respond positively to this work environment and Dawson’s “servant leadership” style of management.

“My goal is to provide my employees with the best tools and support them in the positions so they can be as efficient as possible in their jobs,” Dawson said. “I also believe that ‘Tone at the Top’ plays a huge factor in organizations. If the president of the firm keeps a positive attitude and treats employees with respect, that tone will resonate as the norm throughout the organization.”

The firm has very little turnover, and Dawson said one of the most enjoyable parts of his job is to promote from within. He said several of the management staff “started from day one in accounting” with the firm. The lack of turnover benefits clients because they are able to work with the same team year after year.

Staffing, said Dawson, is the firm’s biggest challenge. He looks for candidates that can best fulfill the “very personal role” of being a CPA. He said he feels fortunate to have WSU Vancouver right here in our community, with an “award winning accounting program.” He added that being based close to Portland is another advantage, because some CPAs get trained at large Portland firms and then realize they can work for great local Vancouver firms with cutting edge technology without a long commute or income tax. Once he finds the right candidate, Dawson said it takes about six months of one-on-one training and mentoring from experienced associates to bring the new hire up to speed on the company’s processes and technology.

Technology is probably the most unique aspect of Opsahl Dawson. Besides going paperless a few years ago, the firm bought new workstations when they moved into their new 4,700 square-foot digs near the Mall in 2013. These workstations feature desks that raise and lower mechanically, giving employees flexibility to stand or sit throughout the day.

“It helps keep the body active,” explained Dawson.

Each workstation also includes three monitor screens and a desktop scanner to help with efficiency.

Dawson said the firm has an annual community service day, where the firm’s 24 employees (16 full-time and 8 seasonal) spend a day at a nonprofit, helping make the organization better.

“Often CPAs keep themselves so busy they don’t get an opportunity to attend community events and socialize,” said Dawson. “We have enjoyed the community interaction and have met some really neat people and attracted new clients from this involvement.”

Last year, the community project was to remodel and clean the food storage room for the Woodland Food Bank; the year before they spent a day with the Clark County Food Bank. Other projects include significant donations to the WSU Vancouver Business School and participation in the university’s Business Growth Mentor & Analysis Program (MAP).

By leaning down processes and taking advantage of new technology, Dawson said his firm has been able to grow revenue without adding a lot of new staff. Currently, the employees are split about 50/50 between Longview and Vancouver offices.

“We are working smarter than we ever have,” said Dawson. “After building our reputation in the industry for over three decades, we consider ourselves to be true ‘evolutionaries.’ We strive always to innovate, exploring new computer technologies and sustainable business practices to expand our services and client base.”

The key to an efficient office, he added, is to be constantly evaluating procedures.

“We make changes almost every week at our office,” Dawson stated. “I hate to hear ‘if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it.’ I like to say ‘If it isn’t broke, then break it, there must be a better way to do it.’”

Editor’s note: Opsahl Dawson is a member of the Vancouver Business Journal’s Strategic Partners Program. To learn more about the program, contact Irene Pettengill at 360.448.6013.