Understanding how to create and grow a successful business is one thing. Owning and running a family business that’s been in operation for over 72 years is another. As I sat across from Alex Edwards and his team, he quipped, “Oh, you thought the business was named after me. In fact it’s named after my father: Alex Andrew Edwards.”
The senior Edwards was coaxed by his partner Ed Gilmore into moving from New York City’s financial district to the North Country in 1946. In doing so, he became Plattsburgh’s first CPA. From there, Alex Andrew Edwards and his partner grew their financial services and accounting business, which ended up taking several forms. Originally it was located in the Westelcom building on Margaret Street in down- town Plattsburgh.
Starting as the office cleaner, the current Alex Edwards had a variety of odd jobs in the family business but eventually moved away for school. In 1976, he returned to the firm and moved up through the ranks. With both Alex Edwards in the mix, the firm was branded as “Alexander Edwards & Company.” “My dad was Alexander Edwards, and I was ‘and company,’” explained Edwards, “since my Dad was somebody and at the time, I was 22 or 23, and just starting out.”
The senior Edwards died in 1990, “pretty much working up until the day he passed,” his son said. That was when Maurica Gilbert, longtime partner and coworker, and the younger Alex took over the firm.
With 41 tax seasons under his belt and plenty of community and name recognition, Alex Edwards, along with his team, considers the history of the firm’s success an indicator for how the future generation will play out. If Edwards and his team have any say in the matter, they’ve designed this business model to last for the next 100 years.
CREATING A TEAM THAT MAKES A DIFFERENCE
Gilbert and Edwards have known each other since they were kids. Attending the same church, their bond and understanding of each other transcends the confines of their work environment. Their connection is based on both the success of their firm and also an understanding that a strong friendship contributes to the culture that has created that success. They are business partners and friends.
Gilbert graduated from McGill University with a degree in anthropology. Without a clear direction in her career, she decided to go back to school for accounting. “There are no jobs in anthropology, so I asked myself, ‘What can I make money at?’” she explained. Hence the move towards accounting. However a love for history, the region’s historic roots, and volunteerism run strong with Gilbert. She serves on the City of Plattsburgh Planning Board and volunteers her time at several local museums and the historical association.
Alex Edwards’s path wasn’t too far off. With a degree in forestry, he serves on the ski patrol at Whiteface Mountain and “can grow a mean plant.” “Did you see all of those plants downstairs?” he asked with a laugh.
Speaking of origin stories, Alex’s son, Forrest Edwards, started his career in Florida in car sales. He was doing well, moving into a management role with his dealership, until 2009 when the economy crashed. At that time, Alex invited Forrest to move back to Plattsburgh to join his team. During the transition between his sales and accounting careers, Forrest found himself working full time at the firm and attending accounting classes at SUNY Plattsburgh. “I would work here all day and then head over to class in a suit and tie. The students would mistake me for the professor,” he added with a laugh.
For Jessica Langfield, being an accountant was clearly her future from the beginning. Graduating with a degree in accounting, she came to Alexander Edwards & Company through an unusual set of circumstances. She showed up with an application and was thrust into an informal interview on the spot. A day later she got a job offer from Alex.
“Treat everyone really well. This isn’t an employee/employer situation; it’s a family. When we bring people in, we intend to keep them forever,” Edwards said. “It works. That and a drawer full of chocolate,” Gilbert added.
“Treat everyone really well” goes far beyond the relationships they have with each other as employees. It spills over to the relationships they have with their clients. “We’ve seen the great grandkids of an original client come into our office for our service. Our oldest business client was incorporated in the ’20s. We had one client who was incorporated in the 1800s,” Edwards said. “Some clients leave, and others come back. They know the service they get here will match what they need. We’ve been serving them for generations.”
The culture this team has created and fostered goes beyond the typical “family business” dynamic. In fact, it’s not so much the traditional family business. The culture has been one that has contributed to the success of the firm and has made a profound difference with the staff and with the people it serves.
GROWTH AND CHANGE ALONG THE WAY
“We adapt to new changes and adapt to client demands. Then every once in a while we adopt new software, and that’s when I cry,” Gilbert lamented. With new technology changes coming out all of the time, the work it takes to service clients is reduced, but the learning curve of new tech is steep.
“I’ve seen a gigantic change from when I started. And we’ve been huge beneficiaries of technology,” Alex Edwards said. “Some returns and tasks that have taken us days and weeks now take us minutes or hours.” The unfortunate side effect this has had is that sometimes it means a reduction of staff. “We keep our staff small because we like to work reasonable hours. We like to be sure our clients are get- ting the best results,” Edwards explained. In the past, he has found himself working 24 hours in a row. “I don’t know many businesses who want their tax returns done by someone who has just worked 24 hours in a row,” he laughed.
As the next generation of leadership sits across the table from the company founders, the younger employees have a different perspective on what the future holds. “In terms of technology, we’re now looking at how machine learning and artificial intelligence will help shape the future of the accounting industry,” said Forrest Edwards. In fact, researchers are currently predicting that machines may take over large amounts of work such as data entry, analyzing big data sets, and even interpreting physical documents such as invoices and receipts. In the future, much as the firm has seen in the past, a three-week audit may end up taking just three days.
If the success of the first two generations of Alexander Edwards and Company is any indicator of its future, they predict this group will last for at least the next two generations. With the foundation that the senior Alexander Edwards built and with what Alex Edwards and Marissa Gilbert and their team have grown, team members like Forrest Edwards and Jessica Langfield have been set up with the skills and, more importantly, the culture to succeed.