Balance Balance Sheets

By now most of the world (outside of the occasional football coach) knows that a woman-friendly workplace is good business. But while many big companies have all sorts of programs to retain and promote women, one obscure accounting firm has been particularly successful at doing so. So what do they know?

As April 15 looms at accounting firm Plante & Moran, the lights are dimmed and the vertical blinds are drawn in the third-floor conference room outside the managing partner's office. But CPAs aren't huddled around the room's large oval table on this sunny Saturday afternoon in late February. Instead, two angelic tots sleep soundly on the floor and in a portable crib, their faces shadowed by the brass legs of boardroom chairs.

Next door, in a larger conference room, the scene is more chaotic, though it isn't filled with frantic accountants, either. More than a dozen children are pulling Fisher-Price toys out of wood-paneled closets, gluing dyed macaroni onto construction paper, and using paint-dipped cooked spaghetti to messily find their inner Jackson Pollock.

For accountants, working Saturdays is a tax-season tradition, a rite of spring as they slog through IRS forms and race to meet deadlines. For their kids, Saturday day care is common, too, a frequent perk to help ease the strain of the busy season. It's just one of the many family-friendly benefits--flexible work arrangements, generous maternity leaves--that Plante & Moran, like many professional services firms, has added over the last decade or so in hopes of retaining and advancing the women in their ranks.

Somehow, though, Plante & Moran, the 11th-largest accounting firm in the country, has been particularly successful at doing so. The Southfield, Michigan-based firm has the largest percentage of female partners (19%, and those are all equity partners, mind you) of any of the 15 largest accounting firms, including the Big Four. According to industry publication "CPA Personnel Report," of the Big Four, Deloitte & Touche comes closest with 16.3%, followed by KPMG (13%), PricewaterhouseCoopers (12.7%), and Ernst & Young (11.6%). And this is no one-off feat: Plante & Moran has been at the top of the heap since 1996 (Deloitte tied for first twice). The firm's turnover rate--just 14%--is also one of the lowest in the industry.

As most of the world--outside of, say, University of Colorado football coaches--knows by now, there's a strong business case for retaining and advancing women. A diverse workforce has diverse ideas, and replacing departing employees--who often have been women--is expensive. Bill Bufe, Plante & Moran's director of human resources, estimates that replacing a $75,000 employee costs the firm a year's salary.

And that's precisely why all of the major firms have some kind of work-life initiative in place, pushing mentoring and leadership training for women in addition to benefits like Saturday child care. "To pay attention to [women's advancement and retention] is to survive, and there is no getting away from that," says Barbara Vigilante, who leads the work-life committee at the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants. "It needs to be in your strategic plan."

But if these programs are so common--and so essential--then how do Plante & Moran's numbers keep coming out on top? After all, Big Four firms have greater resources to throw behind their initiatives. Plante & Moran started earlier, for one thing. The firm's Personal Tightrope Action (PTA) Committee was formed in 1986 to address women's and family issues, seven years before Deloitte's program began. Its size is a factor, too. The firm has 1,178 employees, compared to 35,000 at Deloitte. That may make it easier for women to have exposure to top management.

But the answer lies somewhere much deeper. Plante & Moran's women-friendly initiatives aren't just some belated graft onto an inhospitable host. Instead, they fit right in with the 80-year-old firm's long-standing people-focused culture. Since the 1960s, it has paired every new employee with a "buddy" who helps the newbie navigate the firm and sits in on sessions with the employee's "team partner," or mentor. One of the cofounders, Frank Moran, a philosophy major turned accountant, didn't believe in setting hours for professionals. Instead, employees work as required to serve clients and can come and go as needed. The title of a tribute book to Moran, Life on the Tightrope, refers to his frequent analogy about the constant personal and professional decisions employees face.

Stacey Reeves knows that tightrope all too well. Several years ago, when she'd been employed at the firm for six months and married for just three, her husband suffered a slipped disk and was flat on his back for six months. His accident happened in January, just in time for Reeves's first tax season, a time when working 70 hours per week can be the norm. "I went into my partner's office, started crying, and said, 'Here's the situation. I don't know what to do. I'm not going to meet my hours.' " His immediate response? "Stacey, family comes first." Reeves, now an associate, never worked more than 40 hours a week that season.

When it comes to work-life balance, "A lot of firms think it up and walk it and talk it, but Plante & Moran really lives it," says Julie Lindy, editor of industry publication "Bowman's Accounting Report." The Big Four have done a good job with their initiatives, she hastens to add--Deloitte, for example, has nearly closed the gender gap in its turnover rates. "But [the Big Four] had to do a lot of mind-set changing and culture changing that I don't think Plante & Moran ever had to do."

Mind-set isn't enough to achieve consistent results, and Plante & Moran puts its programs and policies where its mouth is. Employees get four weeks paid time off--five, after five years--and can buy two weeks more. Starting in 2002, all partners began getting a paid four-week sabbatical every seven years. Men and women can take a full six months off for unpaid parental leave. A handbook the firm gives new parents offers tips like "underschedule yourself," and "avoid taking work home."

Ah, but is there a professional price to be paid for following such advice? Apparently not. Plante & Moran promoted its first partner who'd worked a nontraditional schedule in 1994, and 13 of the 96 current partners promoted since then, or 13.5%, had worked reduced schedules. Compare that to Deloitte, which promoted its first employee who'd worked a flexible work arrangement to partner in 1999. Just 17 of the 1,450 current partners who advanced since then, or 1.2%, had flexible schedules. And Plante & Moran is thriving, too. Revenue grew 7.8% last year, when the top 100 firms saw declines on average.

One of Plante & Moran's most unusual programs pairs mothers-to-be with an experienced parent at the firm--a motherhood mentor, so to speak. But this is no girl gab where women bond over babies and birthing. In the months leading up to the birth of associate Tracey Ewing's son, partner Sue Perlin sat in on strategy sessions with Ewing and a team adviser, giving input on how Ewing could hand off her clients before she went on leave. After Ewing's son was born, Perlin gave advice on how to get him to sleep through the night. Perlin's daughter even babysat on occasion.

When the subject turned to how Ewing would return to work, Perlin helped her strategize how to present a part-time schedule to her boss. Ewing now works just 30 hours a week. Most assuring was Perlin's insistence that Ewing do what was best for herself. "It was like the firm was number two," she says.

The extra work doesn't bother Perlin. "My door is open. My job is to help our well-performing staff," she says. That's a good thing for Ewing--and her two younger sisters. Drawn by the firm's policies and culture, they both work at Plante & Moran.

Sidebar: Making Work Workable

Some of the people-friendly policies at Plante & Moran

Parenting "buddies" Every mother-to-be is paired with an experienced parent to ease the transition into leave and then back to work. The buddy helps new moms step back--and ensures the firm's clients are properly cared for.
Partner accountability Only half of a partner's evaluation rests on things like bringing in new clients. The remainder depends on how well managers develop employees on their team, with one factor being turnover.
Breakfast clubs The firm's five managing partners are in the process of breakfasting with all 1,178 employees, three at a time. New hires are quickly invited to breakfast to make clear that they're cared for at the top.
Sabbaticals In addition to a generous five-week vacation, Plante & Moran now gives partners a paid four-week sabbatical every seven years. They're encouraged to check out completely--no email or voice mail.

Jena McGregor is Fast Company's associate editor.

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