Out of the Ashes: CPA Robert Keebler is Leading Keebler & Associates LLP to the Cutting Edge of Tax and Estate Planning

Reposted from Financial Advisor Magazine | By Eric L. Reiner | May 2012

The financial crisis has been blamed for a lot of things. Setting in motion the events that launched a topflight planning boutique isn’t usually one of them.

The Ponzi schemes exposed by the crisis affected clients at the firm CPA Robert S. Keebler was with at the time. As he delved into the tax issues surrounding clients’ losses, Keebler, a nationally known speaker and writer based in Green Bay, Wis., came to a realization. Few, if any, noted experts existed in the obscure world of theft-loss deductions. So he set out to become one.

“I just knew someone had to step up and figure it out,” Keebler says. He invested time in learning the ins and outs of this little-used itemized deduction, then produced seminars and articles on the subject for practitioners.

Keebler is perhaps best known for his work in retirement plans and advanced estate planning, as well as for making private letter ruling requests from the Internal Revenue Service. Certainly he handles plenty of other matters as well, but foraying into the deep recesses of theft losses turned out to be a confidence builder and springboard. “Once we did that, we weren’t afraid to do other things,” he says.

Given such conviction, plus a little career coaching and encouragement from industry icons Sid Kess and Steve Leimberg, he made the inevitable move. In late 2010, Keebler left Top 20 accounting firm Baker Tilly Virchow Krause, where he had been a partner for years, to found Keebler & Associates with key members of his long-standing team. Guess what?

“The phone continues to ring,” says Keebler, 51. Frankly, the 18-month-old firm is doing fine, thank you very much.

In addition to serving the firm’s clients’ needs, “we do a lot of work for financial advisors, CPAs and law firms,” says Keebler, who remains down-to-earth and approachable despite his professional stature. “Most of our referral work comes from people who have heard me speak.” But then that’s always been Keebler’s rainmaking methodology.

How To Find Work In Green Bay And Beyond

“When I came up to Green Bay from Milwaukee in 1990, the only way to bring in work was to go out and teach local professionals like the Green Bay Estate Planning Council. You hoped if you spoke to enough people and showed them you had expertise that they would send you work,” he says. And they did.

As a speaker, “Bob is exceptionally good at breaking down high-level planning so that everybody in the room can understand and apply the ideas in their practice,” says Las Vegas attorney Steve Oshins, a prominent asset protection and estate planning expert with whom Keebler recently conducted a full-day seminar for a national accounting firm.

Keebler claims he was “driven to teach” once he discovered he was good at it, and that propelled him to the next level. Workshops for large insurance and financial-services companies, along with seminars for financial advisors, accountants and attorneys, take Keebler coast to coast these days. He also expands his reach with technology—through podcasts, webinars and teleconferences accessible through www.keeblerandassociates.com. The result is a clientele more national than local.

Skill Set

Like his teaching, Keebler’s writing for CCH, Leimberg Information Services and the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants emphasizes clarity and usefulness.

“Bob is able to get ahead of the curve in how to use estate planning tools and techniques and explain what they look like when they are modeled. He is a visionary,” says one of his editors and mentors, estate planning legend Steve Leimberg, namesake and CEO of the tax news and analysis service.

Keebler also holds awards such as the “Distinguished Accredited Estate Planner” designation (there are only 66 such individuals), which bears further testament to his technical prowess. But that alone does not a firm build. The truth is, Keebler is a pretty sharp cookie when it comes to marketing, too.

Staying on the cutting edge is vital to his teaching and writing brand. “So we move very quickly,” Keebler says. For instance, when the IRS recently announced an extension of the deadline for certain estates to elect the spousal portability of the estate-tax exemption, within hours Keebler & Associates blasted an e-mail to practitioners spotlighting the affected clients and steps advisors should take.

“We try to be the first people on the block with the news and how it’s going to apply,” says one of Keebler’s three partners, Stephen J. Bigge.

Inside The Engine Room

Each morning at the firm, another partner, estate-planning attorney Michelle Ward, begins her day with a visit to the Web sites of the IRS and a variety of subscription services. Her purpose is singular: to sift through the myriad news alerts and find the nuggets. “I’ll check to see whether anything relevant to our clients has come out and, if so, I’ll post it to our Twitter account and Facebook, and then pass it on to Bob,” says Ward, who has worked with Keebler since he hired her into the tax profession in 2000.

When Keebler deems a topic worthy of dissemination, he then turns to one of his partners. “We’ll figure out how the pronouncement applies to our client base and do a brief write-up on the rule,” explains Bigge, who Keebler hired right out of school from their shared alma mater, Lakeland College in Sheboygan, Wis., in 2001.

Backed By A Power Trio Of Experts

Keebler is the front man, enabled by his three partners’ strong, complementary backgrounds. Ward, an attorney with a master’s in law (LLM), tends to handle the research for private letter ruling requests while Bigge, a CPA, crunches the numbers for Roth conversions, sales to intentionally defective grantor trusts and other strategies clients are mulling.

The other principal, Peter J. Melcher, holds an LLM in tax plus an MBA from the University of Chicago. “Pete does the heavy tax research for white papers and opinion letters,” Bigge says. An executive assistant, Emily Rosenberg, rounds out the five-person operation.

Many accounting firms thrive on audits and tax-return preparation—dubbed “annuity work” by the CPA profession because of these services’ recurring nature—but that’s not the case at Keebler & Associates. There is no audit practice, and preparing returns accounts for only about 10% of total revenues. “Most of our revenues come from either Bob’s speeches or new tax-planning work from existing clients or referrals,” reports Bigge, who doubles as the firm’s chief financial officer.

An Eye On The Future

Despite the shop’s solid performance since inception, Bigge contemplates the future like a good CFO should. “The challenge is continuing to bring in work,” he says. “A lot of times we get called in as a specialist, and once we have resolved the client’s issue or helped him put a plan in place, he moves on and we have to look for our next planning client.”

A potential damper on the firm’s unique private letter ruling business is a recent hike in the fee the IRS charges for some ruling requests. That will make the requests feasible for fewer taxpayers, according to Ward.

In the firm’s estate planning business, a big question mark is what will happen to the federal estate tax exemption. Under current law, it will revert to $1 million per person at the end of the year. That would expand opportunities for estate planners. But if the exemption were maintained at its current $5 million, it would continue to constrain the market. In that case, says Bigge, “we’ll focus more on tax-sensitive retirement planning. That’s really at the intersection of finance and tax, where no one else wants to play.”

Developing drawdown strategies for retirees is one area Keebler has been putting time into lately. “If the client has Roth money, pretax money in an individual retirement account and after-tax money in a personal account, what does he spend first and how does he take it out in the most tax-efficient way? That’s where the action is,” Keebler says, adding, “Everyone is going to need a financial planner because this is so complex.”

Planners, for their part, will need to know more about taxes. “With the compression in tax season—because 1099s are going out later and later—having a 1040 prepared at a CPA firm is becoming more expensive” as accountants attempt to make a full year’s living in a shorter period, Keebler says. “The result is non-CPAs are preparing more income tax returns, and because of the seasonal nature of their businesses, often they are not equipped to do tax planning. So financial planners will have an opportunity to take a larger role in income-tax planning with more middle- and upper-middle-class families,” Keebler predicts.

Plans to grow Keebler & Associates stop at the point where the partners are managing the firm instead of bringing in lucrative speaking fees or national billing rates. From that perspective, an experienced practitioner, rather than a neophyte needing training, could be a more viable addition to the firm.

But no matter where the boutique winds up, it will have taken Keebler a long way from those local speaking gigs 20-plus years ago, even if ascending to the national stage and circulating with some of the biggest names in planning-dom were not his original goals.

“I was never shooting for the stars,” Keebler says. “It just kind of happened.”

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