RSM’s new CEO at home in Midwest, serving mid-level firms

Brian Becker
Brian Becker is shown in his office in downtown Cedar Rapids. CREDIT RICHARD PRATT

Brian Becker is distinctly proud of his Eastern Iowa roots.

So when he was offered the opportunity to become CEO of RSM’s U.S. operations, he insisted that he continue working in Cedar Rapids, rather than relocating to a larger metro area.

“When I interviewed for this job, I said I was not going to move to Chicago or New York,” Mr. Becker told the Corridor Business Journal. “If that’s a problem, let me know. I have family here, and we said we’re staying here. That’s a bigger deal than you think, with a company our size. There was a lot of pressure to be in Chicago, which is where they wanted me.”

While traveling frequently to RSM offices in one of 82 U.S. cities, including Davenport, to meet with company leaders, Mr. Becker said he sees Cedar Rapids as his home base.

His roots with the company run deep.

A native of Elk Run Heights, near Waterloo, he graduated from the University of Northern Iowa in 1989 with a bachelor’s degree in accounting, and joined McGladrey & Pullen – the company now known as RSM – later that year as an auditor. He later started a technology infrastructure practice within McGladrey & Pullen.

“At the time, it was probably considered a very boring combination,” Mr. Becker said. “But as technology became so important, that combination really helped me. In accounting, you have to learn about the business and how businesses operate, and then you apply that technology to it. That’s what I think made me effective and our firm effective, because we apply technology to improve the business.”

Mr. Becker became RSM’s national consulting director in 2017, driving dramatic growth in that division, until being named managing partner and CEO last September.

RSM’s middle market focus

The fifth-largest accounting firm in the U.S. overall, RSM is also the nation’s largest firm focusing on middle-market clients.

It’s a niche that RSM has targeted aggressively since its founding, Mr. Becker said. 

“The big four (accounting firms) have the breadth of those types of services,” Mr. Becker said. “But if you look at firms focused on the middle market, we’re the dominant player, and we pick products (and) services for the middle market, which is the largest part of the economy, in the United States and in the world. So we focus on that, and that is our differentiator.”

With labor shortages continuing to hinder mid-market firms, RSM can help its customers remain updated on cybersecurity and other technology needs without having to find a separate firm, or hire their own employees, to stay up-to-date, he noted.

“As we became larger, a lot of people wanted us to be the next Big Four,” he said. “We saw a lot of providers in that area, with the Big Four and Accenture and all the other large consultancies, but we didn’t see the full-breadth firm for the middle market. So we laid out a strategy to say that’s our focus, and we want to be the best, the one that’s sought after and compelling to those types of clients.”

Those clients, he said, have needs and expectations that need to be addressed on a more personal level.

“We have worked for Google and Amazon, those kinds of firms, but predominantly, we’re built for that entrepreneurial, owner-managed company who’s trying to grow like we are,” he said.

For such firms, personal relationships can be a crucial differentiator, Mr. Becker noted.

“It’s part of the reason we have 80 offices versus 20, because they do want that relationship, that local touch,” he said. “They realize that they can’t get all the expertise locally, so we can bring the full power of the firm to them in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. When we do that, they have somebody local to be their relationship leader. So it’s always a team of somebody local along with the global strength of the firm.”

RSM’s philosophy and principles

Several guiding principles are embedded in RSM’s operations. 

“We grade every partner and owner on the five C’s,” Mr. Becker said. “Are you caring? Do you collaborate? Are you curious with your clients and the people you manage? Are you a critical thinker? And are you courageous?”

RSM encourages diversity and inclusion, actively seeking input from employees to solicit a variety of viewpoints, Mr. Becker said.

The RSM Foundation also had a record year in 2022, Mr. Becker said, raising over $10 million for charitable causes.

“I think people across the country refer to us as Midwest nice,” he added. “Our culture and our values emanate from (that) though our employees all over the world. I think what was started 100 years ago still resonates. And a lot of leaders that started in the Midwest and in Iowa have moved across all the different parts of the country… Nothing against the East Coast or the West Coast or anywhere, but it’s a great coaching tree, if you will, of people that have come from the state of Iowa.”

Industry trends and challenges

While the demand for financial services remains strong and continues to evolve, the industry as a whole hasn’t adapted as rapidly as needed to address modern needs, and RSM is moving aggressively to change that, Mr. Becker said.

“We want to be a digital accounting tax and consulting firm,” he said. “And that means not just technology, but aligning people, process and technology to deliver that digital experience. A lot of accounting firms have difficulty doing that.”

The advent of artificial intelligence, in particular, is challenging the financial services industry, he said.

“Accounting in a lot of ways is being done the same way it’s been done for 90 years. So as we go to the future, we have to become digital. We have to be found differently. It’s not just going to the Rotary meeting for lunch and meeting clients. A lot of our clients find us through our website, through digital webinars. And they want to be served through digital means, especially the younger buyers that are coming up. We have to become much more digital.”

RSM also needs to continue growing internationally, he said. “We’re primarily middle market, but 70% of our revenue is with companies that have global operations,” he said. 

Mr. Becker said that he continues to marvel at how his career has progressed.

“When I graduated college, or even 10 years ago, I would never have said I would be sitting here,” he said. “My dad was a meat packer at Rath in Waterloo. I owe my parents a lot, because I’m a first generation college student. My mom and dad said ‘you five kids are gonna go to college.’ They were intent on that. I just wanted a steady job. I got my accounting degree, which gave me the business background. I love computers, and I love developing people. Not at any point in my career did I say I wanted to be a partner, or an owner or head of consulting or CEO. It’s just that the opportunity was there and I felt like I was right for it. So it’s been the ride of a lifetime.” 

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