They said they would never make it. They would starve. Fall flat. But in 1993, three young Savannah “outsiders” defied the odds and founded a successful accounting firm, representing some of Savannah’s oldest families and their businesses, local small businesses, more than 70 nonprofits and a host of foreign-owned operations.
Like a perfect storm, they converged on Savannah from Atlanta, Greenville, S.C., and Berlin, Md., to work in a new Price Waterhouse Savannah office. There they forged relationships, honed their expertise and built a reputation for excellence that they took with them to the new firm of Holland, Henry & Bromley, LLP.
In January, the firm others said was doomed will celebrate its 20-year anniversary.
Three roads to Savannah
J. Richard Henry grew up in Statesboro and graduated from Georgia Southern University in 1980 with an MBA in business with an emphasis in accounting.
“At Georgia Southern, accounting was always known as the most difficult degree to get,” said Henry. “I like a good challenge. I wanted to do something business-wise, so I picked the hardest thing.”
He went to work for an accounting firm in Atlanta and fell in love with auditing.
“I got to go out to the client’s business. In auditing, you got to snoop around in their files and ask questions, look at the source documents, dig in and figure out how people make money. I became really intrigued in that.”
He later had an opportunity to work for Price Waterhouse in Atlanta.
“All they do is teach auditing,” said Henry. “I got all the training I ever wanted, and then some, and they paid me, too.”
Unlike others who come to Price Waterhouse to work, take advantage of the learning experience and move, Richard Henry stayed on.
“Coming out of college, I liked having the freedom to set my own schedule … and the fact that we got so much responsibility right out of college. After about six months, they turned us loose. We were meeting with clients, and as long as we didn’t do something wrong or ask dumb questions, we got to keep our jobs.”
In 1987, Price Waterhouse decided to open a Savannah office. They bought the oldest and largest accounting firm in Savannah and put out a call for volunteers to come in and convert the firm into their way of doing things.
“I got a call from one of the PW partners to take over the partner responsibilities here (Savannah), and I wanted to come,” said Henry. Being from Statesboro, I knew the lay of the land down here pretty well.”
He and his wife Jane live on the Isle of Hope with their three children.
Christopher H. Holland grew up in Dublin, Ga., and graduated from the University of Georgia with a B.S. in business administration and a master’s degree in accountancy with a specialization in tax.
“I really wanted to be an ophthalmologist,” said Holland, “but I didn’t feel I had the foundation I needed in chemistry or physics to do it. I was really good at math in high school and thought I’d be good at accounting. My brother was a CPA, and that had some influence on me.”
“Tax accounting is always different,” said Holland. “A lot of times it’s like putting a puzzle together. There is always something different going on. Things are always changing. It’s a challenge.”
After graduation in 1982, he worked for Ernst & Whinney for about six years in Greenville. Then he got a call from a headhunter to move to Raleigh, N.C., to work for Price Waterhouse. When that job went to a candidate from Raleigh, they offered Holland a job with PW’s new office in Savannah.
“Savannah was only two hours from Dublin, so I ended up coming down here, and started working for PW on Aug. 8, 1988 — 8/8/88. He and his wife, Beth, and two children live in Pooler.
S. Stewart Bromley grew up in a small town on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. He graduated from Duke University with a B.A. in accounting in 1982.
“I wanted to major in accounting and have stuck with it for 30 years,” said Bromley. “I like puzzles, and …it (tax accounting) can be like putting a puzzle together. If you solve it correctly, it’s a good feeling. I like working with numbers and people … the financial aspects of it.”
Bromley worked for Price Waterhouse in Atlanta for a year and a half. He moved to another accounting firm in Atlanta, then a real estate firm. He met his wife, Sharon, who is from Macon, and they were married in Atlanta.
“The real estate company I was working for was moving from Atlanta to Seattle, and I didn’t want to go there. So, I just showed up in Savannah and went back to work for PW here in Savannah in October 1988.”
Bromley and his wife, Sharon, have two children.
An opportunity arises
In 1987, Price Waterhouse opened the Savannah office with Richard Henry as the audit department’s senior manager. In 1988, Chris Holland was recruited as senior manager of the tax department. Stewart Bromley came on board in October 1988 and progressed to tax manager.
Price Waterhouse’s new Savannah office was growing, with more than 60 employees. Then, in 1993, PW changed its corporate strategy and closed its smaller offices. Savannah was part of the strategy.
“Rumors started flying,” said Henry. “Then the rumors became a reality.”
Before the rumors got too out of hand, Holland and Henry were putting together the idea of starting their own firm.
“It was a period of time that no one knew what was going to happen,” said Henry.
As part of the strategy, Chris Holland left Price Waterhouse at the end of 1992 and set up an office on Stephenson Avenue.
“I’m a tax guy,” said Holland, “and I wanted to get a tax season under my belt. PW was very good to me. I asked them for some clients, and they gave them to me. They even hired me to work about 20 hours a week after I’d left.”
When Henry left PW in 1993, the larger company helped the new firm get started. Holland and Henry picked up some of Price Waterhouse’s smaller clients, sublet office space from PW and even shared administrative staff.
“Several other firms approached us to work for them,” said Henry. “We didn’t care if we got hungry. We were going to do it our way. We entertained all the offers but politely told each one, ‘thanks, but no thanks.’ We wanted to see if we could make a go of it.
“We had a vision of a firm based on the firm that PW originally bought and others we had seen and worked for. We had an idea of putting the best experiences of each into one firm.”
In the beginning, they were told they would never make it because none of them were from Savannah, but some old Savannah families were part of their core business group.
“They have told us we want to go with you because you aren’t from Savannah,” said Henry. “Clients say they don’t have to worry about us having too much to drink at a cocktail party and going around talking about their business. We’ve been told that more than once, so it helps us.”
It took two years for PW to close its office in Savannah in 1995. Bromley stayed on at PW as part of the new firm’s start-up strategy.
“We thought it best for me to stay on full-time at PW instead of all three of us trying to make it on our own in a competitive marketplace,” said Bromley. “I was PW’s tax manager, and it gave me a chance to get to know more people.”
When Price Waterhouse closed the Savannah office in 1995, Bromley joined Holland and Henry and became a partner in 1996.
Today, the company has five partners and 20 employees at itws offices on the 14th floor of 2 E. Bryan St. on Johnson Square.
Ronnie A. Barnhill, Jr. joined the firm in 1996 and was named a partner in 2000. Barnhill has over 17 years of experience in tax planning and compliance for international, business and individual clients.
Shannon L. Brett joined the firm in 1996. She brought more than 14 years of audit experience in manufacturing, distribution, nonprofit, real estate, employee benefit plans and fraud investigations. She became their fifth partner is 2005.
While other firms downsized during the recession, Holland and Henry maintained their staffing level. Their approximately 1,500 clients range from individual tax returns to manufacturing clients with $1 billion in sales. Forty to 50 percent of clients are family-owned businesses.
“We have local clients and companies that are owned by parent companies in Japan, India, the UK, South Africa, France and Brazil,” said Henry. Some (clients) we inherited from PW and some we got on our own. They gave us the credentials to get more. Business has doubled since we started the firm.”
Vision for the future
Henry: “Growth is the plan for the future. For a while we were accustomed to growing 10 percent a year. Anything less was a bad year.”
Holland: “Twenty years in business is a milestone. I’d like to take it to the next level and experience some significant growth. We have a good group, a good client base and a good reputation.”
Bromley: “Expansion. We want to continue to grow so that our younger people can see their progression to being a partner and take over for us when we are ready to retire.”
“Most of our new clients are referrals,” said Henry. We see other firms seeing more growth from public relations, and we’ve hired a firm to help us with a real PR strategy.”
They also continue to look at the potential for buying up sole practitioner or small accounting firms.
Secrets of success
The personal attention that they give to clients is one thing that has made Holland, Henry & Bromley successful. “Speaking just from Chris’ (Holland) and my perspective on the tax side, we know what’s in the tax returns that we sign off on,” said Bromley. “My name is on it, so I know the details. We’re not so big that people cannot get to us.”
Henry gives the partners’ background with Price Waterhouse some of the credit.
“We came from PW where everything had to be perfect,” he said. You had to deliver an A-plus quality product. There were no B’s at PW. We are used to doing top-end, high-quality work. We took the same philosophy and give people what they think they are paying for — a good job, on time.”
Working as a team is another secret for success.
“A partnership is much like a marriage,” said Bromley. “You’re not always going to agree all the time, but have to come into it with an open mind, willing to compromise. We feel well positioned for the future, hoping for Savannah’s economy to pick back up. We’ll be here to help the folks that need accounting, tax and auditing services to move into the future economic good times.”
Holland Henry & Bromley, LLP
Address: 2 East Bryan St., Savannah, GA 31401
When Price Waterhouse’s Savannah office hit rocky ground, they fended off job offers and jumped into unfriendly waters.