Alan Sobel is giving up Sobel brand name — but legacy of accounting excellence his father created will live on

Somewhere during the discussions and negotiations about Sobel & Co.’s future, Alan Sobel had a pleasant revelation: The same business philosophies that he had championed to his clients for decades suddenly applied to him.

That’s when he realized letting go of the brand his father had created 66 years ago was not only the right thing to do — but a good thing to do.

Wednesday, Sobel announced that Sobel & Co. has been acquired by CLA, a fast-growing national accounting firm that has resources and abilities that Sobel could never dream of having — assets that will help the partners at the firm and their clients to maintain the legacy of the brand and its high level of service.

“It is one of those watershed moments in the proud history of a company my father started in 1956,” he said. “What’s interesting is that it fits the old notion of practice what you preach.

“Over the years, I have been telling clients in the area of mergers & acquisitions that a business is an asset, not an heirloom — and that you should run the business in a way that creates the most value.

“An heirloom is something you will hold onto forever and treasure, because it has sentimental value. An asset is something you have to make the right move for the business itself. That’s the approach that I took.”

Sobel, the managing member of the firm, did not take the decision lightly. And he stressed that he understands the brand is far more than just him and his family.

Selling the brand

The four ideals Alan Sobel said he was looking for when it came time for Sobel & Co. to be acquired:

  • New to the market: A firm that may do work in the market, but one where Sobel would be the market leader for them.
  • Built to last: A firm strong enough to survive the current market — or one that was not going to merge into a larger firm or be acquired by private equity.
  • Progressive: A firm that treats its professional and support staff the right way.
  • Culture: A firm that had a family feel.

“We got lucky,” Sobel said. “CLA checked every one of those boxes for us. And, as we’ve gone through this integration process, they’ve proven every single one of them along the way.”

“While it carries my dad’s name, and I’m fortunate enough to have that name as well, this firm has been built on the backs of so many other people — whether they were partners of this firm or whether they were colleagues of ours that were doing our business every single day,” he said.

“This was an opportunity for us to basically sustain the legacy that they’ve all created, even without the name, and to create a future for young people and those that come behind us that can be something they can be incredibly proud of.”

One thing is for sure, while CLA will replace the Sobel name, it is determined to keep the legacy of the brand.

So said James Watson, the firm’s regional managing principal for the Northeast.

The reason is simple: CLA’s rapid rise in size has come through the acquisitions of so many firms with rich traditions of excellence.

“We talk about being 10 years old, but we have roots going back 100 years,” he said. “It’s important for us to understand that legacy.

“When we talk about the CLA family, we’ll say, ‘We’ve all been part of some kind of acquisition that helped build this firm.’

“So, we have to be very honorable to the legacy of those who have joined us. It means a lot to us.”

It means a lot to Sobel.

When it became clear that the firm couldn’t continue as is — that the war for talent, the rising costs of technology upgrades and the fear of being acquired by private equity was too much — Sobel put a premium on finding the right landing place.

“We had to take a hard look and say, ‘How do we maintain our independence and legacy?’” he said.

Sobel feels he’s found that with CLA.

“CLA has built their firm on the shoulders of other strong, independent firms,” he said. “And I know that they’re incredibly good stewards of the legacies that those firms have created.

“So, I’m really comfortable with this. I’m actually excited for it. It’s another chapter in our history, but one that we will write under the CLA-branded banner.”