CAYUGA HEIGHTS, N.Y. — It’s been an uncertain economic time as a result of the global pandemic, but within uncertainty exists plenty of opportunity. For one local financial company, the opportunities have been so good, they’ve seen double-digit growth in business volume, a sizable boost in headcount, and now, plans for more office space in Cayuga Heights.

Sciarabba Walker & Co. LLP isn’t exactly an unfamiliar name in Tompkins County. The firm, founded in 1976 by financial professionals Ken Walker and Andy Sciarabba, was a presence in Downtown Ithaca for many years. Having started off with three staff with a focus on accounting, the company has since grown to employ 60, many of which work out of their Community Corners office at 410 East Upland Road in Cayuga Heights.

(Full disclosure: Sciarabba Walker is a commercial sponsor of the Voice, but our business office and reporting staff operate independently of each other.)

However, as company Partner Jeff Gorsky notes, “many” is not the same thing as “all”. In fact, Sciarabba Walker has allowed remote work for staff for over fifteen years. “We recognized many, many years ago that when we had talented people and they were moving out of the Ithaca area, we had to figure out ways to keep those people…(w)e have remote staff in the Florida Keys, Kentucky, Colorado, Virginia, we used to have one in Hawaii. For some reason I was never able to get out there to have a one-on-one employee meeting.”

“If you poll other accounting firms at our size, that 50-75 employee size, you’ll find that a lot of accounting firms have not embraced the remote worker, not as early as we had. We’re even finding that these days. We just recently hired seasoned professionals who had other opportunities at other accounting firms, and they were looking to downsize, they were working for larger accounting firms. Through the interview process they enjoyed our embrace of the remote work aspects, where they didn’t find that in other accounting firms that they were looking at, those 50-75 employee firms. We’ve embraced it, we’ve done it a long time, and I feel like we’ve gotten pretty good at it in terms of involving staff that are remote workers,” added Gorsky.

“We’ve been open to remote work for quite some time now. Largely it’s the result of us needing to do whatever we can to best satisfy our clients. If we have incredible talent in-house doing a great job currently, and their spouse takes a job in another state, we want to maintain that relationship because it’s going to provide the most benefits to our clients,” added Marketing Director Andrew Hart.

Since its inception over 45 years ago, the financial services firm has expanded beyond accounting. They handle tax obligations, reporting, and provide consulting for individuals, non-profits, and a number of for-profits that have outsourced their back-end financial management to Sciarabba Walker to handle. The business has a focus on high-tech firms, and while it has a number of clients outside the region (for instance, New York City, where hiring a firm in Tompkins County is cheaper because most things are cheaper up here and that’s reflected in their fees), its niche is the local market, serving businesspeople and “serial entrepreneurs” who have their hands in everything from restaurants to real estate and all things in-between. Someone has to keep tabs and offer advice on all of those financial obligations, and for that they often turn to Sciarabba Walker. Appropriately for a college town, they also do a large volume of financial management for fraternities and sororities across Upstate New York.

In the past couple of years specifically, Gorsky says that business has been very good, and that’s not all pandemic-driven. “Even before the pandemic hit, we were seeing that uptick in growth. With the pandemic, our business had increased significantly. A lot of the things that we provide to our clients as a result of the pandemic, the economic stimulus packages that affected clients, trying to find what worked best for them, we had to help them navigate that process. It has been an opportunity to assist our clients in a tough environment, and I feel like we’ve done a really good job.”

“The pandemic created a need for information across the board. Thanks to our in-house talent, we were able to do that for our clients, understanding stimulus packages, how our clients would be able to tap into them and use them to benefit their businesses. We stepped up as a team to provide that to our clients, we were in a great position to help out our clients during that time. With our business growing, we’re hiring at every level to be able to take care of our clients as best as possible,” added Hart.

Gorsky says that even during the worst of the pandemic impacts locally, Sciarabba Walker’s Cayuga Heights office always had at least 10-15 workers on site, rotating in and out between remote and in-office actions. He noted that there are certain tradeoffs between staff in hybrid settings and those fully remote. The younger staff, just learning the ropes and often ambitious to move up, are more likely to be interested in a physical office presence, where they can work alongside senior staff and get to learn the nuances of financial management and accounting. Those who are more established in their careers, reasonably comfortable with their role and savvy with both technology and their niche of expertise, tend to enjoy the flexibility in geography and work-life balance that fully remote work provides.

Now, time for a little bit of math. Gorsky says the firm has hired about ten new staff over the past year, most the result of new business rather than replacing departed staff. Seven are in-person/hybrid, three are fully remote. This growth has been happening for a few years now. Logic follows, even with the remote staff growth, the physical presence is also growing, and those workers need space for their desks and to meet clients and so forth.

This is the fortunate position Sciarabba Walker finds itself in. It’s expanded to fully occupy the 11,000 square-foot, three-story building at 410 East Upland Road that its partners bought a few years ago. They still need more space, especially if they continue to grow.

Plans submitted to the village of Cayuga Heights Planning Board earlier this month plan to address that issue. The senior partners of Sciarabba Walker bought the one-story office building next door at 408 Upland Road, and plan to replace it with a sustainability showpiece, a net-zero energy 5,500 square-foot office building designed by local firm HOLT Architects. Net-zero energy means that the building produces as much energy as it consumes, which greatly reduces its ecological impact.

“It’s going to have solar panels on top and geothermal as well. We’ve really embraced that and we anticipate that our utility costs will be next to nothing for this building. It’s going to be a wood-frame building, HOLT has really done a nice job designing a building that will fit within Cayuga Heights, and that the owners and tenants of the building will be really proud of,” said Gorsky.

Current plans call for Sciarabba Walker to occupy about 40% of the building, leaving about 3200 square feet to another office tenant, for which they are actively seeking interested renters. Trying to fill the remaining the 60% might be tricky, but Gorsky stated that Sciarabba Walker is “bursting at the seams” and that they needed the new building to move forward now.

So let’s play devil’s advocate. Net-zero energy is nice, but why take down an existing building rather than renovate? Gorsky said it was because they needed more space than the current building on-site had, and that the interior would need substantial renovation work even if it was big enough.

“The existing building, it’s from 1985 or 1986, it’s run its course. We considered renovating it, but the amount of square footage wasn’t quite what we wanted so we would have needed to expand it anyway. Also, I think the owners wanted to put something up that we could all be proud of, and say ‘wow, we did a nice job there’. That entailed tearing this down and going with the net-zero aspect. Renovating the existing building, in talking with our architects, it would have been too difficult to overcome, to incorporate all the modern amenities that we wanted in a building from 1986. We wanted a nice, attractive, net-zero building, and to do that we need to start from scratch.”

The initial meeting with the village planning board appears to have gone smoothly, and with any lucky the new building will be approved for construction this spring. Gorsky hopes that it’ll be ready for occupancy by October, though acknowledges they’re at the mercy of weather and supply chain worries. Regardless of whether it’s an October opening or later, business for Sciarabba Walker will continue to grow, and Gorsky is optimistic about the next few years.

“We’ve identified business services we want to focus on, high technology, serial entrepreneurs who continue to invest and exist and reinvest in new startups. Outsourcing goes hand in hand with high tech, but also with non-profits, we fill the gaps for non-profits without CFOs. It’s all been good to us over the last few years. With our new building, we’ll have a lot of runway to be able to continue to grow.”

Brian Crandall

Brian Crandall reports on housing and development for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached at bcrandall@ithacavoice.com.