Howard central to plans for company


International financial services company Fiducial is on the verge of a major push to expand its presence in the United States, and key to the French company's development will be an office in the center of Columbia.

Fiducial's Technical and Administrative Support Center opened last year as a small bit of good news amid the slowing commercial real estate market and as a testament to Howard County's international drawing power. Now the center, which will provide support and information processing for all of Fiducial's branches nationwide, can become a power center for the French company's U.S. aspirations and for Howard County.

The 14,000-square-foot facility has brought about 60 jobs to the area, and if all goes well with the company's expansion plans, it could add another 40 jobs over the next 18 months, a Fiducial executive said.

Richard W. Story, executive director of the county's Economic Development Authority, said the presence of the international company could help Howard County draw more businesses.

"It's not unusual for an international company to come into this very big and intimidating marketplace with a small office with plans to grow, and that's Fiducial," Story said. "The fact that they're here would suggest that as they grow and prosper, that they grow here. [And] their being here kind of paves the way for other international companies to follow their example."

The center also will be vital in unifying the company's U.S. branches. It will be a central reference for branch managers looking to expand local marketing efforts, a service center for branches that want to pass along tax work, a place of support for franchisees struggling with lapses in their computer technology, and a centralized processing center to make sure customers nationwide are getting the same type of reports and service from the company.

Because Fiducial has grown in the United States by acquisition and its current efforts to grow will focus on more of the same, the support center is crucial because it helps integrate the various branches, said Yves Morard-Lacroix, executive vice president. "We have this very strong support center ... that's the difference between those who are acquiring firms and [those who are] integrating them," Morard-Lacroix said. "[The center] is central to the Fiducial concept. In the field, I want people who are close to our clients. But the processes, we turn to them being centralized."

Fiducial's tactic of adding services for clients is a popular one among small accounting firms, according to the National Association of Small Business Accountants. Many small firms are trying to add services such as estate planning, financial planning and payroll services in an effort to boost revenue and grow.

Nevertheless, having business processed somewhere else could be disturbing to some clients.

"With the small accountants, they're establishing a relationship with the people, not the process," said James F. Neils, executive director of the group.

"When I turn my stuff over to my accountant, I want to know that individual ... [will] look at my business and help me make good business decisions," Neils said. "To do that means I have to know that person on the other end is concerned about my business. That's really what some of these [accountants] sell."

Nevertheless, the tactic has provided a competitive edge for Fiducial.

The 13th-largest accounting firm in the world and ninth-largest in the United States, Fiducial offers an array of services, including accounting and tax preparation, payroll, investment advice and even recruiting services for small businesses and individuals.

Fiducial focuses on services to businesses with 10 or fewer employees, offering to take on tedious jobs that entrepreneurs often look to outsource.

It has 677 franchises and 20 company-owned branches nationwide, and its plans call for adding another 59 franchises this year and 100 a year for the next five years. It eventually wants to have about 1,000 franchises and 150 company-owned locations in the United States, Morard-Lacroix said.

The company has targeted the Baltimore-Washington market as an area where it would like to expand, along with Atlanta, Dallas, Chicago, Southern California, Portland, Ore., and Washington state. The company looks for firms with revenue of $750,000 to $1.5 million, he said.

Morard-Lacroix said the strength of the company lies in its ability to offer more services to its customers - many of them through the support center - than smaller accounting firms, while keeping a close relationship with business owners.

Fiducial provides "more technical support than what a stand-alone accounting firm could provide," he said. "[Clients] can see their books online, their statements online. I believe we have more clout and more means than the local firms."

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