Photos special to Fargo INC! Magazine
It was time for a change. Toby Kommer knew it, even if he wasn’t exactly sure what shape the change would take.
After more than 20 years working for financial services companies, in 2014, Kommer left his executive position with a local bank in search of something different.
“When I left, I wish I could say I had this clear vision of what I was going to do next, but the truth is I had no idea,” says Kommer, who has a background in mergers and acquisitions. “And it was a very scary time, but things started to fall into place quickly.”
The venture Kommer settled on was a kind of one-stop shop for small- to mid-size businesses—a physical space an owner could come to and have almost any conceivable resource at their fingertips. Earlier this summer, the idea finally came to fruition, as he and his team of more than 50 cut the ribbon on a new 16,000-square foot building at the corner of 52nd Avenue and 45th Street in one of the fastest-growing parts of Fargo.
The property houses not just Haga Kommer, the CPA firm that bears his name, it’s also home to a full-service bank, Aspire Financial; an insurance agency, Far North Insurance; and an investment firm, Red River Financial.
While Kommer concedes the concept is not a new one, he says he believes their unique approach and drawing from different sources of inspiration will allow them to stand out in the financial services crowd.
Here are five ways they’re doing it.
1. A Vertically Integrated Hybrid
In the genre of “young” companies, there are typically two categories:
- Venture capital
“I’d gone the startup route before and knew the timing for me wasn’t right for a startup,” Kommer says, “but I also knew I didn’t want outside investors who emphasized profits over people.”
Instead, Kommer says he decided to found a kind of hybrid startup that acts like a venture capital company but without the pressure from outside investors.
“Basically, we took the old concept of vertical integration and applied it to the financial services world,” Kommer explains, “but instead of doing it for the benefit of the company, we’ve done it for the benefit of the client.”
Vertical integration in manufacturing firms, Kommer explains, is usually used to integrate suppliers. For example, instead of a computer company buying its chips from another company, they buy the raw material and make the part themselves, giving themselves a competitive advantage.
“Each one of our components is the best at what they do,” he says. “This is a best-of-breed model. The difference is the true team integration. To see your CPA sitting in the office right next to your banker or your insurance professional and connecting the dots is when it all comes together.
“We really look at this as one team, even though there are four different entities here. We’re looking at this being one team for the client.”
2. One Voice
Kommer says the operating model of having one voice at the top is key to their integration. He explains that while most CPA firms similar in size will have anywhere from five to 10 partners, Kommer is the sole owner of Haga Kommer, which he says gives him a unique advantage.
“I can’t imagine trying to get five or 10 people with strong personalities to agree on strategy, incentive plans or the key components of their culture,” he says.
This same nimble philosophy also applies to Aspire Financial, where Kommer likes to use the analogy of a cruise ship versus a jet ski, explaining that maneuvering in a large organization is like turning a large cruise ship.
“We’re the jet ski,” he says. “If our clients want to turn left to quickly take advantage of a business opportunity, we can move quickly with them. We’re not waiting for loan committees, and we don’t need to send things up the channel.”
3. Walk Like Me, Talk Like Me
One of the reasons Kommer thinks they’ve developed such a niche in the small- to mid-size business world is that they’re attractive to business owners who are looking for professionals who think like business owners. This extends beyond just the provision of financial services, too, as he explains that they often (gladly) function as sounding boards.
“I have clients who will call me to get my opinion about how to structure incentive plans or with questions on personnel-related matters,” Kommer says. “They want to talk to another business owner who can relate.”
That’s also one of the reasons they’ve started developing all-encompassing small business packages that include outsourced CFO/controller services such as budgeting and financial analysis, coupled with the traditional payroll, accounting and tax services. Kommer says he believes this is their largest opportunity for future growth.
4. Looking Outside the Bubble
“We’re in an industry that isn’t typically known for innovation,” Kommer says. “We aren’t building machinery or patenting technology, and we all typically try to differentiate ourselves through our client service. If everyone is doing that, though, is there really a differentiation?”
With that in mind, Kommer says he set out to study different industries from technology to manufacturing to real estate.
“I wanted to know what made companies successful, not just in our industry but in all industries,” he says.
His theory was that most financial services companies focus only on other financial services companies to see what they are doing and to look for ideas. Kommer wanted to explore other industries with no agenda, rather just for inspiration, something he says he found in myriad ways.
5. With Culture, Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is
Kommer says he understands there’s a need right now for his team to digest what they have bitten off over the last few years, and part of that is using what he has learned in his study of other industries.
“When it comes to company culture, our biggest challenge is patience,” he says. “My passion is company culture. I love to surround myself with culture-makers. I’m still a part of every single interview myself, from the temporary receptionist to the most senior staff member.
“I truly believe it all starts with getting the right people. If you can attract the best, train the best, and retain the best, the client service will follow.”
Kommer says that, in addition to unique hiring practices, he’s also implemented employee perks typically seen by more creative companies in the technology sector such as free personal training sessions for all employees, a relaxation room complete with a professional massage chair and a flat-screen tv, and an in-house gym and locker room. He’s also ready to implement new incentive and profit-sharing programs typically not seen in the conservative world of CPA firms.
“We want everyone here to have a variable incentive package in addition to the retirement plan,” he explains. “If the company does well, we’re all going to do well.”
5195 45th St. S, Fargo