Ryan: Hey, good morning and welcome to the Briggs and Veselka Podcast. My name is Ryan Gore and I am here today with Meresa Morgan, Briggs and Veselka. Meresa, thank you for joining us. Meresa is a graduate of Auburn University, don't hold it against her, and has years of experience providing audit and consulting services to clients and is the leader of the ERISA practice at Briggs and Veselka, which audits over 200 employee benefit plans. So quite a bit of experience to talk to us about today. But first, I'm going out on a limb, Meresa, and I'm guessing that is not a Houston accent, is it?
Meresa: That is definitely not a Houston accent. I was born and raised in Mississippi and I've lived all over, but spent the majority of my time in the south, for sure.
Ryan: Yeah. And how did you make it to Houston? How did you make it to Briggs?
Meresa: Yeah. Well, my husband and I were living in Knoxville, Tennessee, and he got the opportunity at the time to take a position in Texas and we looked at Dallas, San Antonio and Houston. And so I came out to Houston to interview with several firms to see what the profession was looking like. And Veselka was the smallest firm I interviewed with, and accepted a position there. At the time, the firm at about maybe 30 people.
Ryan: Wow. And just for reference to others, we're at over 300 now. So immense growth that you've seen. You said that it was the smallest firm. What drew you in there?
Meresa: Yeah. Well, really, it was talking to Johnny Veselka and John Flatowicz. At the time, john was the chair of the audit department and Johnny, of course, was the managing partner. And they were both just very down to earth, seemed to be excited about the growth opportunity for the firm and looking for someone to jump right in and work side by side in growing that. And to tell you a little funny story, I had come to Houston on a Thursday to interview Thursday and Friday, went back to Tennessee. I was working for a local CPA firm there. So I went in over the weekend to catch up on some work and answered the phone at the office on a Sunday afternoon, and it was John Flatowicz following up with me. And so he told me then, he said, "If you come to work with me, you won't have to be in there on a Sunday afternoon."
Ryan: So he read you like a book. He knew you were there.
Meresa: He did. That's right. That's right.
Ryan: No shame, John. No shame.
Meresa: So that was about 23 years ago.
Ryan: Wow. And if you don't mind me asking, what was sort of your, I guess, position or level at that local CPA firm in Tennessee at the time?
Meresa: Yeah. I was a director for audit and consulting in Knoxville, Tennessee. And then moving to Houston, you can't really bring any book of business basically from one state to the other in a local firm. So I came in as an audit manager to kind of get my feet on the ground, learn little more about the firm. And then I really piggybacked with John of getting connected in the city with referral sources so that I could build my network as well. And then it was about two years before I became a partner then in the firm.
Ryan: Yeah. And I'm not sure if this is correct, but I'm told you were the first woman to become partner at Briggs. Is that-
Meresa: I was. So the first female partner promoted within the firm. That same year, the firm acquired a smaller CPA firm Cantrell and Company, which was a husband and wife firm, so Carol Cantrell as well became a partner at the same time I did.
Ryan: Yeah. That's amazing, first of all, and second, I feel like during these big career moments like this, there's a lot that's bubbling up under the surface. Can you sort of paint the picture of what was leading up to that moment, how you saw yourself in the months leading before that position was attained?
Meresa: Yeah. I was just really excited about being a part of the firm that was growing, had a lot of opportunities. There were four partners at the time and I worked closely with all of them and it really was just one of things where it meshed. I mean, we worked close together in ideas of new service lines, new niche practices and things like that. And that's exactly how the ERISA practice came about. As we were hiring people to help during busy season to grow the firm so that we could add more clients, we found at the time there was a little lull in the summer work. So then we're carrying these individuals on the payroll with not as much work. And I had performed audits of just a handful of employee benefit plan clients, but those are summer type projects.
And so I was at a conference and I'm looking at some firms thinking, wow, they've sort of figured this out. They're taking their busy season people and then putting them on ERISA type clients in the summer. So I came back and talked to John and said, "We need to develop this practice and I'm willing to do it." And the great thing that everyone was so open about starting something new. As long as you were willing to hit the ground running and do the leg work, the firm was very receptive to trying new niche practices. And so we started that from scratch. And now, as you mentioned, we audit over 200 plans, more than any other firm in the Houston market. So it's been exciting to watch that takeoff and give opportunities to others in our firm to be leaders in that niche practice as well.
Ryan: Well, and it's exciting to see that, I think, that mindset still stays at the firm. 20 plus years later from then, we're still doing the same thing with different practices, like [inaudible 00:07:47] and SOC audits and things like that. So I think that spirit still remains, which is great.
Meresa: Yes. Definitely.
Ryan: I'm told that you tend to joke around that your goal was to perform maybe a 100 audits for the firm, and then you now we're at 200. How did you make that happen? That's a huge-
Meresa: Yeah. It really was amazing. Getting to the first 50 audits was definitely difficult. When you're only auditing or two plans, it's hard to put yourself out there as an expert in getting referral sources to send that work to you. So I spent lots and lots of time networking, building a team that could special lives in that area. When we first started that, our realization was very low and it took about five years for us really to gain traction in that area. Once we hit about 50 to 60 plans and had demonstrated our ability to service these type clients, provide quality work, have a team that was very interested in that type of work, then it really took off to expand from there. But at the time, we were still using staff just that had free time. And as we grew, we had to then make the decision to have a more dedicated team of people that actually specialized in employee benefit plans. But it took trying to get to that point for the firm to even want to give up a team to only work in this area. But that's what we did, and as I said, now we have the largest ERISA practice in the Houston area.
Ryan: And how large was your team back then, even those kind of temporary staff? Was it three, was it five?
Meresa: Oh yes. Probably three or four people. We all did everything.
Ryan: Yeah. And just touching on managerial skills as a team, what would you say are kind of the same skills for managing three people versus I think y'all have 20 now. And so what would you say is the same and what would you say are different skills that you need to manage a large team like you do now?
Meresa: Yeah. I think really, with this type of niche practice, and any that you are trying to grow and develop a specialized team, the biggest hurdle is having that team excited about that practice, that really has a passion for doing this type of work and wanting to see it grow, wanting to do quality work so that referral sources continue to send work to us. So it was getting a team very involved. Instead of it being just [inaudible 00:11:25] where maybe I was the one to dictate how we would do everything, it was more getting them very involved in brainstorming and let us coming up with best practices of how we want to grow, how we want to audit, how we can streamline our process, how we can get the best use from the limited resources that we had. So it really is managing together versus managing top down.
And I think if you were to interview or talk to most of that team, they will tell you they are very in involved in the decisions we make, very involved in the training. They lead the trainings with each other. It's a very close knit group. There's a lot of pride in that group. If we are having one of our plans looked at by the department of labor or we're going through peer review, they're anxious to get the results because they want to make sure that it comes across that we are quality, we did a great job, and they take a lot of pride in it.
Ryan: That's great. Thank you for sharing that.
Ryan: And I'd like to back up a little bit to when you first were coming on as a partner, as a woman leader at the time, did you view yourself as a trail blazer at the time given those circumstances?
Meresa: At the time, I really did not. I pretty much felt like I was part of the team from the onset, even though more than being the first woman, it was the first partner in a long time. The group of four had been together making decisions for a long time before I came into the mix. And definitely, there were some hurdles along the way, but I do give a lot of credit to the mindset of Johnny Veselka and John Flatowicz at the time of making sure that I felt part of the team. Very open to listening to other ideas or understanding that we can challenge each other. And so I think that's what made us a great team at the time, and like I said, the ability to start new practice areas.
I mean, Johnny set that tone from the get go that he was very open. And I think to some extent, even though we've grown tremendously and you have to put a lot more infrastructure and governance in place with growth, we still have some of those opportunities because at the time I became a partner, there was no HR department, no marketing department. We really kind of, just the five of us, sat around and made decisions and-
Ryan: Figured it out.
Meresa: ... figured it out. And sometimes flew by the seat of our pants. But trial and [inaudible 00:15:09]. From a lot of hard work, determination and I'm sure lots of luck for the most part, we would land on our feet. [inaudible 00:15:21] to the leadership that was in place.
Ryan: Yeah. It sounds like Johnny and John were far ahead of their time. How do you think perspectives have changed broadly? Maybe people that weren't like-minded like that back in the day.
Meresa: Yeah. I mean, a lot of that has probably taken place because there are so many more women in this profession than there was back in the day when I started. Because of the hour requirements and with some firms, the travel restrictions, a lot of women just did not pursue working in a CPA firm. Public accounting was just grueling. And so that wasn't the path as much then. That has changed a lot. And even the work life balance, that was not even a term when I was making partner that I'd ever heard of.
Ryan: If Flatowicz is calling you at your other job.
Meresa: A lot has changed in our profession that has driven more and more women to pursue this as a career and has opened up a lot more opportunities, definitely. as you can tell, I mean, we have a female managing part now and lots of women partners in the firm. So things have definitely changed.
Ryan: Yeah. And what two pieces of advice would you give to women who want to lead like yourself?
Meresa: Yeah. I would just say, definitely take every opportunity that you can can find in the workplace and own it. Take ownership. And if you're waiting for a handout or to be put in a specific position, then you're probably not the best candidate. You've got to go out and demonstrate the initiative and take ownership and pride and determination to get ahead in this profession.
Ryan: Awesome. Sage advice. Thank you. And I have to ask. Any plans for retirement? Any passion projects you're waiting to dive into?
Meresa: Yeah. So I actually am going to be retiring in December after spending the past 23 and a half years at the firm, but over 30 years in the profession. And I'm looking forward to that and I'm going to use a completely different skillset. I'm going to kind of work a little in real estate as far as I love to flip houses. Yeah. So I'm going to spend some time using the more creative side of my brain versus all technical side and doing some things like that. We are going to be living on the Mississippi Gulf Coast [crosstalk 00:19:06], so I'll get to enjoy being on the water and different scenery and spend more time with my kids and my six grandkids.
Ryan: That's awesome. Have you flipped houses before?
Meresa: I've done two and really enjoyed it. I like the puzzle part of it, which I guess that's the accounting side of taking something, tearing it apart and putting it back together again. But it's fun and I can do that on my own schedule. So I'm finishing up the busy season for employee benefit plans, which is October 15th. I was just thinking that this is my last busy season. And so it's Kind of bittersweet, I guess.
Ryan: Yeah. Absolutely. Well, Kelvin and Mandy are leading on, I suppose.
Meresa: Absolutely. And I'm so proud of the team that I'm leaving behind because they are definitely set to probably take this practice even further than I could or I could have imagined. It's a great group and I have so much pride in that team and look forward to continuing to stay in touch with them and hear where we are and how they [inaudible 00:20:42] the practice.
Ryan: Yes. There will be very big shoes to fill. So last question, and I'm told that you know how to throw a party. So what is one thing every great party needs?
Meresa: I definitely love to entertain and enjoy party planning, which everyone thought for sure that's what I would do when I retired is party planning. I do like to spend someone else's money as well. That's kind of fun. But attention to small details make a difference in a party.
Ryan: Okay. All right. Well, thank you so much, Meresa. I appreciate all of your topics, all of your advice, and thank you so much for your time.
Meresa: Absolutely. Thank you.
Ryan: All right. Thank you all for enjoying the podcast. We'll see you on the next one.
Thank you for listening to the Briggs and Veselka Podcast. That's it for this episode. If you'd like to listen to past and future upcoming episodes, go to our website at BVCCPA.com. Thank you.
In this episode of the Briggs & Veselka podcast, we're joined by Meresa Morgan, who leads the ERISA practice here at Briggs & Veselka.
Joining the firm at just 30 employees, Meresa has seen tremendous growth at the company as well as growing her own department in that time.
She is a wealth of knowledge and shares some expert guidance from her experience of growing a department from scratch.