Boulay, an accounting and consulting firm founded in 1934, is using its experience gained through generations of ownership transitions to help business owners develop their own succession plans.

The need for an exit strategy is gaining urgency as the baby boomers who own 40 percent of Minnesota's private companies approach retirement, according to Richard Burrock, Boulay's lead partner for business succession services.

More than half of the privately owned companies in the country face an ownership change in the next 10 years, yet an estimated 75 percent have no transition plan in place, Burrock said. Those who don't are unprepared for life after retirement, with successor owners unidentified, tax strategies unaddressed and business responsibilities that largely have defined them soon out of their hands.

"To do nothing is a disaster in the making," Burrock said. "It really takes away their flexibility. What I always say to clients is, if we plan it properly, you can have it both ways. You can have a nice soft landing and yet you can accomplish your financial goals at the same time."

The issue is particularly relevant to Burrock, who is in a transition after 36 years at Boulay. As a prelude to his retirement, last year he began passing his tax and accounting engagements to other partners to focus on helping clients plan their exits.

Burrock's planned move is only the latest at the firm, known as Boulay Heutmaker Zibell & Co. before a rebranding last year shortened the name to Boulay. Burrock served 12 years as managing partner beginning in the early 1990s, succeeding highly regarded managing partner and Boulay veteran Lee Heutmaker, who passed away in 2012. Mark DeNucci, who got his start at Boulay as an intern in 1977, took the reins as managing partner from Burrock seven years ago.

The accounting, tax and bookkeeping firm that Joseph Boulay founded 80 years ago continues to pursue the slow, controlled growth Heutmaker advocated, DeNucci said. The firm has 160 employees, including 29 partners. Revenue last year was $24 million.

Boulay's broad range of services is one of its differentiators, De­Nucci said. Those include assurance, business consulting, employee benefits, estates and trusts and mergers and acquisitions. An emerging service is helping clients fill accounting and finance vacancies. Boulay works with private and public companies and with more than 45 companies that have employee stock ownership plans.

Culture is another distinguishing element, DeNucci said. Putting the culture into words and practice is the purpose of the "Boulay eight," a list of terms — including respectful, ethical, personable and precise — describing how the firm works with clients and employees.

"Firms can copy our services but they can't copy our culture," said DeNucci, describing it as a "mind-set or an attitude throughout the firm of 'What more can I do?' ''

To raise awareness of its succession planning services, Boulay hosts "succession summits" each fall, drawing 150 clients and prospects to presentations from Boulay and outside experts.

Burrock suggests that owners begin planning early, at least five years before retirement. Identifying successors, whether family members, management, employees through a stock ownership plan or outsiders, is a critical step.

Longtime client Jerry Hagen of HCM Architects in Minneapolis said Burrock has been discussing succession with him for 16 years, since the inception of the firm, which specializes in corporate, institutional, retail and hospitality projects. Based on Burrock's advice, Hagen said the firm finalized a succession plan that added two partners and set up a framework for future partners.

"Rick kept stressing, you've got to think about the future of the firm and what you want it to do," Hagen said. "You want the people working here to have a place to go after we retire.''

Expert Ritch Sorenson, professor of entrepreneurship and academic director of the Family Business Center at the University of St. Thomas' Opus College of Business, said Boulay's focus on culture aligns with his recently published summary of succession research.

"It really emphasizes the importance of developing a common culture that can sustain and be sustained across generations," Sorenson said of the research included, which is in the 2013 textbook, "The Landscape of Family Business," for which he served as lead editor.

Sorenson also endorsed the advice to begin business planning early. "Some consultants say you need at least 10 years to plan and execute a succession, while many people would argue it's more like 20 years."

Todd Nelson is a freelance writer in Woodbury. His e-mail address is