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November 26, 2018
On the record

Westbrook accounting startup finds niche in advising small to mid-sized Maine businesses

Photo / Jim Neuger
Photo / Jim Neuger
Tabitha Swanson, founder and CEO of The Swanson Group LLC, in her office in Westbrook.

Tabitha Swanson is the founder and CEO of The Swanson Group LLC, a full-service tax, accounting and consulting firm based in Westbrook that will be at 17 employees in January with projected annual revenue above $2 million.

Swanson, 40, launched the business in 2012 after experience as a principal at a Portland accounting firm, administrator of a South Portland medical practice and endoscopy center, and controller of a Portland law firm. She sat down with Mainebiz amid ongoing renovations at the firm's downtown Westbrook office. An edited transcript follows.

Mainebiz: What attracted you to accounting?

Tabitha Swanson: I liked puzzles and numbers. What keeps me with it is working with clients, especially at the level I'm at now. I spend most of my time working with clients and resolving their issues, helping them plan forward, and so I really enjoy that aspect of it.

MB: Who and where are your clients?

TS: They're primarily small to mid-sized Maine businesses and individuals. We also have some clients I've never met outside the state, and modern technology allows us to work that way. Usually I use Zoom [video conferencing].

MB: What type of businesses do you work with?

TS: I typically don't work with large businesses. We also refer clients that are more complex than what our focus is to the bigger firms, and we've been very fortunate they refer to us stuff they don't want. We want to focus on the small to mid-sized firms. They usually don't have strong in-house accounting help, so they need a lot more handholding, and that's something we enjoy doing.

MB: In advising startups, what's the biggest challenge they face?

TS: I would say it's getting the advice, because oftentimes when people are starting out, that's when they have no money but they need the most advice.

MB: How did things go for you in setting up your first business venture?

TS: I learned a lot running companies because I've run a law firm for a while as their controller, and I ran a medical practice as a practice manager. The aspect that was challenging for me, and still is, is managing growth.

MB: When you started was it just you on your own?

TS: I actually had two failed partnerships prior to this, where I learned an immense amount about human relationships. Maybe it's one of those paths I needed to go down in order to advise my clients.

MB: How much time do you spend working with clients versus running the business?

TB: It's a mix. I spend my day time typically working with clients and managing anything here at the office. And then I spend my night time dealing with everything else. Besides managing the growth of my company, the biggest challenge is juggling work and family.

MB: The Swanson Group recently made its third acquisition. Was that your growth strategy from the start?

TS: It wasn't thoroughly planned on the front end, but now it is more so. Now I'm much more methodical about who I'm acquiring. One of the main things I care about is the culture of our firm, so it's about finding the right fit and personality match. We want a fun environment for our employees to work in.

MB: Would you consider opening an office in northern Maine?

TS: I don't think people are going to be on board to move up there, but maybe. With the ability to work remotely — and the fact that we have so many clients up north already — I don't know that we necessarily need the bricks-and-mortar up there to be able to advise and help clients. But you never know.

MB: What's your advice to someone starting in the profession today?

TS: When you get out of school, and you have a lot of energy, getting your CPA exam is a top priority, and getting public accounting experience. The big firms give great experience if they're ones that work in multiple areas, like the majority of our staff who work in both audit and tax. If you can find a firm where you have that opportunity, then you can see what you like.

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