Accounting for a pandemic: Tualatin firm had virtual connections down pat
Before Michelle Löpez decided to leave her job as a chief financial officer for a Tigard firm one year ago — both to have more time for her family and create a more flexible schedule for herself — she conducted a poll of her three children.
She asked them how they felt about buckling down for the few months and dealing with a mom whose salary wouldn't be the same for six months to a year.
All three were supportive and cheered her on.
"I was raised by an entrepreneurial father so I've got that high-risk tolerance blood in me," recalled Löpez, who lives in Wilsonville. "I don't have babies anymore. I have time to take the risk. So, I went for it."
What she and a leadership team of five founding advisors — chief executive officer Kristen Keats of Sherwood, Martin Moll of Lake Oswego, Shauna Zobrist of Tualatin, Sabrina Snow of Portland and Shea Keats of Wilsonville — created together was Breakaway Bookkeeping & Advising, a network that includes accountants, bookkeepers and financial advisors who act as "virtual" chief financial officers for clients running small businesses.
"We're not just pencil pushers," said Löpez. "We're activists, and we are all about helping people get to where they want to take their business."
Their motto, she said, is "bring joy."
Löpez formerly worked at Synergo, a Tigard-based company that installs challenge courses, zip line tours and aerial adventures.
"My passion is … helping people get to wherever they want their business to be," said Löpez, an alumna of Wilsonville High School.
And while Breakaway has a bricks and mortar location in Tualatin — next to Hayden's Lakefront Grill at the Lake at the Commons — advisors work remotely with clients. It so happened that work concept ended up coinciding with a pandemic that has forced many people to work remotely and participate in videoconference calls.
Still, that idea was somewhat novel when Breakaway was just getting started, said Löpez. The trick was to sell clients via virtual solutions, because Breakaway's virtual CFOs don't actually show up at people's offices.
"Then COVID hit, and then it was the only way," Löpez said.
The pandemic made it so she and others in the company didn't "have to justify that aspect of our business model," because the model is now mainstream, she added.
At the moment, Löpez's "office" is a fifth-wheel trailer parked along the side of her house.
Löpez said she believes the virtual model of contact between businesses is likely to stay long after COVID-19 is over "just because it really allows individuals the freedom of schedule, which so many people need right now, and the employers don't have the burden of overhead and the liability."
She observed, "It's really a win-win (situation) that for a long time was frowned upon."
At the same time, a virtual model of doing business has helped Löpez when it comes to helping her children navigate virtual classes as well.
"I don't think anyone anticipated the level of parental involvement that was going to be required for online learning," she said. "I have three kids in school, and that's been great to be able to maneuver my own schedule instead of the employee model."
While it took Löpez about six months to get back to roughly what she was making in salary at her former company, she said, "The freedom is incredible."
"I have such a huge passion for people's success, and that can look many different ways," Löpez said. "Sometimes it's money. Sometimes it's financial freedom. Time off. I just really wanted to allow more (than) just one company, that level of success."
Löpez said if clients have a question she's not an expert on, she contacts people who do and gets an answer within an hour.
"They are not just hiring me," she pointed out. "They are hiring a 'hive' of sophisticated accounting professionals."
And Löpez has found that Breakaway Bookkeeping & Advising is unique in the way it provides its services.
"We really pioneered this," she said. "This is really a new model."
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