Stephen Chipman, Grant Thornton CEO

Stephen Chipman, Grant Thornton CEO for the United States operation, relaxes in the lobby of his office in the Loop. (Abel Uribe/Chicago Tribune / February 18, 2013)

He was born in England, spent a significant part of his career in Asia and cut his American corporate teeth in Dallas. But Stephen Chipman, now into his third year as chief executive of Grant Thornton LLP, is thinking a lot about Chicago.

   Specifically, he's on a mission to remind Chicagoans that his accounting and professional services firm, founded here by Alexander Grant in 1924, has global reach but strong local roots.

   "We're deeply embedded in Chicago," Chipman said during a recent interview in his Loop office. "It started with one guy who had a vision for a firm. And now, in the U.S., we're 6,000 people, 850 of them in the Chicago area. We have 33,000 people around the world, and it all started here. We're really, really proud of that.

   "One of my objectives, through my own civic involvement, is to make that better known," he said.

   Chipman serves on the board of the Ravinia Festival, as well as the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. He's also active in the Economic Club of Chicago.

   Edward Nusbaum (the name as published has been corrected here and in subsequent references in this text), now CEO of Grant Thornton International and Chipman's predecessor as U.S. CEO, admitted in an interview from his office in London that he "could have done a better job" building Grant Thornton's profile in Chicago, something he's happy to see Chipman doing.

   Just as Chicago will never be New York and, on its better days, doesn't want to, so Grant Thornton -- No. 6 in a US accounting market dominated by the Big Four of DeLoitte, KPMG, Ernst & Young and PricewaterhouseCoopers, along with fifth-ranked RSM McGladrey -- wants to grow but not change (this sentence as published has been corrected in this text).

   "We want to be the leading firm in very well-defined, chosen markets," Chipman told a group of Northern Illinois University accounting students at a recent event in DeKalb.

   He described that market as growing companies, often privately owned or part of private equity portfolios, as well as small to mid-size public companies.

   Chipman wants to double Grant Thornton's market share within five years, a goal he said can be reached both by attracting new clients and acquiring smaller firms. But he's not looking to become "the next No. 5 in the new Big Five. That's not our strategy. We want to become the best firm, the leading firm in a well-defined part of the marketplace. Think of us as BMW to the Big Three automakers."

   David Casper, executive vice president and head of commercial banking for BMO Harris Bank in Chicago, said Chipman has "jumped right into the Chicago civic community in a big way. I think that's important for him and for his firm, given the number of companies that compete in that next-level space."

   Indeed, not only does Grant Thornton need to make money in this charged environment, Chipman must also never forget the mantra of large partnerships: Grow or die.

   "We have to provide careers for people, and that means getting them into the partnership," he said. "And you can't get them into the partnership if you're not growing."

   Proclaiming a bold growth goal is meant to focus his team from top to bottom, he said.

   "We knew that we needed to stretch the thinking of our organization, to really get into a mode of building the brand, building a presence in the market, delivering on our promise to our clients," he said.

   All these tasks have to be accomplished while managing the fundamentals of the business, with cold eyes on accounting and professional business services firms after failures not foretold by auditors.

   Jonathan Weil, an outspoken critic of auditors, says accounting firms haven't been doing a good enough job and should face Securities and Exchange Commission lawsuits over failures in which they may be complicit.

   "The financial crisis was in large part about financial institutions' cooked books," Weil said in a Bloomberg column last week. "...The government didn't just bail out the big banks back in 2008 and 2009. It bailed out their accounting firms too."

   'Little quirks'