Value Added: Accounting is the language of business — just ask Alex Castelli

Thomas Heath
August 20, 2011

One of the smartest things I have done in my life — after marrying my wife — was to take a couple of accounting courses about 10 years ago.

It opened a new window on the world.

Thomas Heath is a local business reporter and columnist, writing about entrepreneurs and various companies big and small in the Washington Metropolitan area. Previously, he wrote about the business of sports for The Post’s sports section for most of a decade. He has also covered local news, including the Maryland General Assembly and investigative work in Fairfax county. He has served as a correspondent for Newsweek and The Post, participating in coverage of the Oklahoma City bombing, the Unabomber and the O.J. Simpson trial. Heath was born and raised in Syracuse, N.Y., where he attended Catholic schools. He is a graduate of Fordham University and was a 2001-2002 fellow at Columbia University’s Knight/Bagehot business fellowship program. View Archive

Accounting is the language of businesses. Understanding costs, inventory, assets and the importance of getting paid sooner rather than later not only changes how one looks at business; it also changes how one looks at life.

When I meet a businessperson now, the first words out of my mouth are “What’s your revenue? What’s your profit margin? How much debt on the books?”

I met accountant Alex Castelli, 46, over macaroni and cheese at Equinox restaurant in downtown Washington last week. Castelli, a graduate of Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va., heads the 50-person growth markets practice for Reznick Group’s Tysons Corner office.

Bethesda-based Reznick is one of the largest accounting firms in the Washington area, with 10 offices across the country employing 1,000. Castelli’s job is to find entrepreneurs and fast-growing companies and work with them to make them successful and long-term Reznick clients.

Such as? The Dallas Cowboys, he said.

If you can choke on macaroni, I choked.

The Evil Empire from the Lone Star State is one of Reznick’s clients?

I asked for the scoop on Cowboys owner Jerry Jones.

“An incredible businessperson and salesperson. He understands how to get people to attend games and spend money.”

We will leave that one alone.

Castelli is a former entrepreneur himself. With his brother and dad, he owned a chainlet of retail sports stores in the late 1980s called National Locker Room, which sold licensed sports apparel such as team-branded hats, jackets, shirts and the like.

It seemed like a good business until the big box stores such as Wal-Mart, Costco and Target wiped them out, and they closed down by the end of 1993.

“I got a big dose of entre­pre­neur­ship over four years,” Castelli said. “When I see a guy trying to raise capital and get a bank to finance his business, I know what he is going through.”

Those years have made him attuned to the needs and occasional wackiness of entrepreneurs and their ideas, whether it’s a flying car or grass that grows on concrete (true stories).

“It’s not a 9-to-5 job,” he said of entrepreneurs. “And not everybody hits a home run.”

It’s also 24-7 for the accountants who hold their hands. Castelli takes calls from clients such as Bob Giaimo, owner of Silver Diner, at all hours of the day and night. He once spent a day at a Maryland beach standing at a pay phone, coaching a client on his finances, while his family took in the sun and sand. At the request of one client, he spent a recent Saturday afternoon at a Rockville restaurant interviewing a person that the client was thinking of hiring.

Put away the Kleenex; partners at big accounting firms make healthy six-figure incomes and more. But he offered some free advice for budding entrepreneurs, based on his experiences with his clients.

Be proactive on financial matters.

During the downturn in the economy in 2008 and 2009, Silver Diner’s Giaimo saw tough times coming, so he contacted his lenders and landlords to restructure his loan payments and rent. It freed up cash so he could buy more advertising and improve his menu to attract more customers.

Don’t forget your accounting department.

A strong finance team can make or break a deal. Find accountants who share your vision of the company and keep good books and records.

The payoff will come when you get an offer to buy your company and your books are in order.

Stick to your idea.

Seth Goldman, co-founder of Bethesda-based Honest Tea, was consumed with getting the word out about his company. Even though the beverage market was saturated, Goldman stuck with it and grew a household brand that he sold to Coca-Cola.

Innovate.

Silver Diner repositioned its menu to attract more customers, adding meals made with ingredients from local farms. The “fresh-and-local” initiative has increased revenue by double digits.

Be good to your investors.

Every startup should have a solid strategy to keep investors engaged and aware of where their funds are going.

“We had a tech startup that developed an antagonistic relationship with its investors. The relationship deteriorated rapidly, and when the company needed more funding and support, the founders had to go elsewhere. As a result, they raised less money and it was more expensive.”

Borrow money while times are good.

Don’t wait until you are pinched to get a line of credit. Contacting a lender for a line of credit gives you leverage when negotiating the terms of the loan. Secondly, it gives you another source of cash to carry you through volatility.

Know when to delegate on the financial side.

Entrepreneurs need to know when to hire senior finance people. Don’t be afraid to bring in someone who can take the company to the next level, even if it’s going to cost some money. For example, Accelovance, a Rockville-based health research organization founded by Steve Trevisan, brought in a chief financial officer during the past year. That frees up Trevisan to focus on growing the company.

Interview accountants and lawyers as if you’re hiring employees.

Too many companies hire tax and legal consultants based on a first recommendation. Interview several firms to see how they’d handle your needs. Make sure they understand what they are getting into.

Know when to sell.

It’s difficult for an entrepreneur to bring an investor into the company he or she built. But many startups reach a point where they either need money to grow or they get an offer to sell part or all of the company.

“It’s a tough one. But you have to look at every serious offer that you get. If you understand the finances of your company, it makes it easier to evaluate the offer and even make a counteroffer.”

(I will be off the next couple of weeks. See you in September.)

Follow me on Twitter: @addedvalueth.

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