He finds the right solution – Kolb Lauwasser’s Robert Kolb

Larry Lauwasser remembers his early days as a CPA at a small Milwaukee firm back in the 1950s. He was working full-time at the firm after a stint with the Army, when a college student joined the firm part-time.
That part-timer was Robert Kolb, a business/accounting student at Marquette University who intended to go to law school. Working at the CPA firm was a means of paying his way through school.
Lauwasser saw something in that young Kolb that impressed him – an impression that’s lasted to this day at the West Allis-based CPA and business advisory firm, Kolb Lauwasser & Co.
“I recognized his talents and abilities right at the outset,” Lauwasser said during a recent interview at the firm’s West Allis offices. “Even as a student in his 20s, he exhibited talents and intelligence that have carried him to this point.”
Kolb Lauwasser is the ninth largest accounting firm in the Milwaukee area, and the largest locally-owned firm. Established in 1960 with three people, including Kolb and Lauwasser, the firm now has 10 other partners and employs about 75 people.
Kolb and Lauwasser realized early on that they couldn’t do it all themselves, so they started to bring partners into the firm.
“We realized we couldn’t grow if we didn’t bring in specialists,” Lauwasser says. “To expand your firm, you have to be willing to let go of a lot of responsibilities and bring in people who can specialize in those areas. You can’t know everything. Our realization of that has been a big factor in our growth.”
Trust built on mutual respect
Lauwasser credits Kolb’s keen analytical sense and vision for helping build the firm.
“He’s able to very early assess a problem, determine the key elements of the situation, and focus on solutions,” said Lauwasser. “He is an outstanding diagnostician.”
That analytical side of Kolb, says Lauwasser, is complemented by honesty, high ideals and a strong moral character grounded in his religious faith.
Add up those attributes and you have not only an outstanding accountant, Lauwasser says, but also an outstanding business partner.
“There’s no one individual I would say I respect more than him,” Lauwasser says. “He’s had a
The executive will have to see change, analyze it and act quickly on it.
– Bob Kolb, Partner Kolb Lauwasser
tremendous influence on my life. Just the way he conducts himself is inspiring.”
Likewise, apparently, for Kolb.
“We came from such different backgrounds,” Kolb said. “But we’ve come to have complete faith in each other. I even told my wife that if anything ever happens to me, she should call Larry.”
What’s kept the two partners together all these years is a respect for each other, Lauwasser says. “At the outset, what got us established and what’s kept us going was a mutual respect for each other’s strengths and weaknesses.”
Kolb’s 40-year career is being recognized this month by the Southeast Wisconsin Chapter of the Wisconsin Institute of CPAs, which is bestowing its 1998 Distinguished Career award upon him. And in April, Marquette University honored him at its Alumni National Awards Dinner with the 1998 Service to Marquette Award.
He’s seen much in his 40 years in the business, including all the economic cycles. But through all that, Kolb says he’s kept a focus on three things that have led to the firm’s success. One is a focus on talent, even when that meant paying higher salaries to attract good people. Another is complete honesty and uncompromising ethics. And hard work backs it all up.
“We don’t apologize for that,” Kolb says of the work-ethic. “We know that hard work will lead us to success. We’re lucky to be where we are, but I know where that luck came from: hard work.”
He realizes, however, that it’s a different world today from when he started in the business, relying on his wife Gerri for tremendous support at home, allowing him to spend endless hours at the office.
Today, with more wives working outside the home, spouses see more demands to tend to family matters rather than spend every evening and weekend at work.
“We’re well aware of the changes that have occurred, of the terrible pressure on professionals; we didn’t have to deal with that in past years,” Kolb says, noting the many 70-hour-plus weeks he’d work.
[One thing that hasn’t changed over the years is the time-demands imposed on the entire staff at tax-time, when 40-hour weeks are far from the norm.]
Kolb grew up in what is now Milwaukee’s central city, and met his wife “and best friend of 37 years” while the two were students at Marquette University. The couple now has four grown children, two who also have attended Marquette, marking a third generation of the family to attend the university – Kolb’s mother was a 1921 MU grad.
When the firm was established in 1960, its motto was “We care,” handling clients’ accounts as though they were the firm’s own books, Kolb says.
Technological change
While that caring attitude and an outstanding integrity have remained constant through the years, Kolb has seen tremendous change in how business is handled, especially within the past five years.
“It didn’t used to be a capital-intensive business,” he recalls. “You basically needed pencils and erasers.” Now, computers are the tools of the trade. “I used to come into the office, take my handwritten messages, and turn on the adding machine. Now I flip on the computer, check for voice mail, check my schedule on the computer, and engage in video conferencing. It’s mind-boggling what’s happened in the last five years.”
He’s embraced that change, and says it’s incumbent for other business owners to do the same.
“The executive will have to see change, analyze it and act quickly on it,” he says, noting his definition of the acronym CEO as “change equals opportunity.”
Lauwasser notes that the firm embraced computerization early-on, using a system developed by Singer – the sewing machine manufacturer.
“Putting the practice on computers was a real hallmark for this firm,” Lauwasser says. “It gave us a lot of confidence to provide services that might not have been feasible to do by hand.”
The firm’s growth over the years has come solely from such moves and its marketing efforts. It never merged with or acquired another firm, nor has it ever bought another firm’s accounts. “We’ve always had the philosophy that we could expand the company on our own,” Kolb says.
The stature and reputation the firm enjoys today, he says, is a great satisfaction. “It shows we’ve done something right.”
And what is his secret to finding out what that “something right” is?
“All you have to do is talk to your clients,” Kolb says. “They start talking, and pretty soon they’re telling you what you should be doing.”
Position: Founding and managing partner in CPA and business advisory firm Kolb Lowausser & Co., 2400 S. 102nd St., West Allis.
Firm founded 1960.
First job: Milwaukee CPA firm
Most satisfying career-related accomplishment: Earning a reputation of trustworthiness, and seeing company grow from 3-person to 73-person firm.
Most admired persons: Wife Gerri and four children; college professors, particularly Charles Horngren; and business partner Larry Lauwasser.
Family: Wife Gerri and four children.
Education: Pius XI High School, Milwaukee; Marquette University (1958).
Currently reading: Los Alamos, a mystery novel by Joseph Kanon, published by Broadway Books.
Interests/hobbies: Golf, music
Supported organizations: Divine Savior Holy Angels High School Foundation, Marquette University, Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce/ Council of Small Business Executives (current chairman), Council of Growing Companies, International Group of Accounting Firms.
Words of wisdom: “Don’t be afraid of change; look at it, analyze it and act on your analysis. Opportunity awaits you if you apply hard work in responding to that change.”
May 1998 Small Business Times, Milwaukee

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