The Leadership Files: Richard Kopelman (2023)

The Leadership Files: Richard Kopelman (1)

It's not every day that you see an executive add their brand to their middle name — yet that's what Richard Barry Aprio Kopelman, the CEO of Top 50 Firm Aprio, did in 2017, to comply with a North Carolina law that requires a firm's name to incorporate at least one of the partners' names.

Previously called Habif, Arogeti & Wynne, Aprio started a significant rebranding effort in 2017 under Kopelman's leadership. He came up with this made-up name to leave a strong impression on partners and clients. After traveling to other states and interacting with prospective clients, he saw rebranding as something that could increase cultural awareness and expand the brand outside Atlanta, where the firm's headquarters are located.

While it later proved to be a strategic growth decision, Kopelman said the change was not understood by everyone, and Forbes notably published a skeptical article in 2017 wondering how the firm could truly benefit from a rebranding.

"Maybe it was intuition at the time, because I don't think there was data behind it, but I thought we needed a fresh look and to consider what would be appealing in the marketplace, especially as we're talking with other firms to join us," said Kopelman. "And everywhere I showed up, people wanted to know if we were going to call the company after us, but I've never got that question again since we've changed to Aprio, because it's just catchy."

And the results seem to speak for themselves: Between 2017 and 2022, the firm grew from a single-office CPA firm in Atlanta with 400 people generating approximately $70 million in revenue to over 1,500 staff members in 16 offices globally approaching $250 million on a run rate basis. According to Kopelman, Aprio grew 90% in 2022 alone while launching the Aprio Alliance, which works with more than 40 firms around the country. Since 2017, the firm has completed more than 16 mergers and acquisitions, which he said have brought a lot of opportunities to both Aprio and its partners.

Adam Venokur, who was named Northeast regional leader after his original firm, Tarlow & Co. CPAs, merged with Aprio in January 2021, told Kopelman that thanks to the firm's resources, he was able to offer many more services to his clients and take on more cases than before. Kopelman said that M&A allows partner firms to be in leadership roles and resolve more problems, which is essential in a profession of "servant leaders." As for Aprio, he said the expansion allows the firm to build its national practices and opened new doors for the creation of dynamic national programs.

"It's created an opportunity to grow, explore new things, and challenge ourselves by being part of a bigger business," said Kopelman. "It has given us the opportunity to greatly expand the learning and development aspect and create even more innovative programs for our people to continue to upskill and become better at what they're doing."

The Leadership Files: Richard Kopelman (2)

The expansion also allowed the firm to invest more in technology and achieve results Kopelman said wouldn't have been possible as a smaller organization. Through something called "the high beam process," Aprio has been pulling people from around the firm to improve its services and find out what's being done in new technologies. Kopelman said that special attention has been brought to virtual reality, artificial intelligence and machine learning because he considers technology a critical difference in talent attraction, especially for young professionals.

In fact, Kopelman believes technology is the most impactful change that the accounting field has ever known by allowing firms to adapt to changes in the regulatory and legislative landscape. But most of all, Kopelman said it taught people one of the most important skills a leader can have, which is to unlearn something to embrace a new business approach.

"Being open to learning a new way to react or do something is a critical skill set that I would recommend anyone to work on because it became even more true with new technologies," said Kopelman. "The best thing to do when making a decision is to always think about what could go wrong and talk with other members of your team to consider every option."

For this lesson, Kopelman gave credit to two of the firm's founding partners, James Arogeti and Merrill Wynne, with whom he worked for over a decade. Having them as mentors meant being pushed out of his comfort zone, as well as striving to improve his performance and connect with peers within the profession. From his first encounter with Kopelman, Wynne remembers an ambitious and confident young man who already had plans to change the firm from within and lead people toward success.

While he worries the size of the firm will make it difficult to adequately mentor new members and connect with partners and associates, Wynne said he has already shared his concerns with Kopelman and the latter was receptive to strengthening staff networks. Both share reservations about remote work as well, which they believe could inhibit the development of meaningful interpersonal relationships and applied knowledge if approached irresponsibly. Nonetheless, Wynne is still confident about Aprio's future.

"Spending millions of dollars in marketing was something beyond my imagination because that was not something we would do when we started building the firm, but Richard knew that it was critical for his success," said Wynne, now retired. "He operated out of the box, he had a vision, he got the support of those in the firm, and the rest is basically history. What the firm has accomplished through Richard's leadership is truly remarkable and beyond my expectations, and I could not be more pleased."

Kopelman said Wynne and Arogeti gave him the key to creating a sustainable business and the opportunity to grow the firm beyond its original area of focus, which was manufacturing. That doesn't mean he lost his interest in this sector, which he said allows him to "touch and feel" what's being distributed. In fact, Kopelman even created a nonprofit forum called Next Generation Manufacturing in 2010, when he realized there seemed to be no communication between Georgia manufacturing companies. The business forum for southeastern manufacturers allows them to project themselves into the future and exchange best practices relating to innovation, recruitment and processes, and is still active today.

The Leadership Files: Richard Kopelman (3)

Ongoing exploration

Since becoming CEO in 2013, Kopelman's interest in exploring new areas hasn't faltered. Aprio notably gained a foothold in the Philippines, where its office grew from 86 to 200 people in less than a year, and Kopelman traveled to Pampanga in late March to celebrate its one-year anniversary. However, while Aprio serves numerous clients who do business around the globe and several partner firms have created subsidiaries in foreign countries, Kopelman specified that the Philippine office is just an extension of its U.S. operations, and the firm doesn't plan on serving clients abroad just yet.

"It takes a really good understanding of the cultural landscape of the business and regulatory environment, especially if it's not an English-speaking country," said Kopelman. "I think it helps if you have a client base that's already doing this, so who knows? There might be a base there and there could be a natural evolution."

Currently, 20% of Aprio's staff is foreign-born and speaks multiple languages, something that Kopelman said took 30 years to achieve. As a firm that conducts business in and out of 50 countries and represents many international businesses, Kopelman noted that increasing diversity became part of Aprio's purpose. Bringing in more people from diverse backgrounds means gaining unique insights and perspectives to integrate into the firm's operations and supporting the subsidiaries of foreign companies.

As a result, Kopelman said Aprio spent a significant amount of effort in growing the team that operates in the Philippines, but attracting and retaining new talent is an imperative across the entire firm. The firm compensates its staff for bringing new people to the team and offers programs called Citizen Data Science and Citizen Automation for employees to gain new skills. It has also been named to Glassdoor's Top 50 "Best Place to Work" list. One factor seems to be Aprio's strong culture.

"It all boils down to culture, which includes emotional intelligence and strategy, but more importantly, really good blocking and tackling," said Kopelman. "We need people who are engaged, which is why we changed the name of the firm six years ago to Aprio, which stands for head and heart."

Since then, Aprio's team has developed 31 fundamentals to support the brand change, and practices one of those 31 every week. Kopelman said he wanted these principles to become part of his employees' routine, and they have become the language of the firm's culture. Before each meeting, people spend one or two minutes talking about that week's fundamental and how they practice it, which Kopelman sees as an opportunity to hear thousands of stories from inside and outside the organization.

While the end of his career is nowhere in sight, he hopes to be remembered as someone who created opportunities for the future generations of employees in the organization. Kopelman wants to play a role in creating a cooperative and strong community, not only in Atlanta, but everywhere Aprio operations can have an impact. With that in mind, he said the firm would aim to increase its national footprint and possibly dip its toes in international waters.

"From a service lines standpoint, I want us to be known as the highest-quality firm on a national level, and I want to continue to create opportunities for the next generations," said Kopelman.

At A Glance: Richard Kopelman

Where did you go to college? University of South Florida.

Where did you grow up? North Miami Beach, Florida.

Where did you begin your career in accounting? In 1992 at HA&W (now Aprio) in Atlanta as a staff accountant.

Where and when did you first make partner? At HA&W in 2000, I became the partner-in-charge of the manufacturing and distribution practice.

Something people may not know about you: My middle name really is Aprio. I have a passion for sailing and recently sailed in the South China Sea off the coast of the Philippines.

Someone you admire: I admire our team for serving our clients and team members every single day with their heads and hearts.

Your favorite movie and book: Movie — "The Imitation Game;" music — classic rock.

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