Tram Le took a unique path to becoming an accounting professional, passing up an opportunity to play tennis professionally and becoming an attorney along the way. On Episode 14 of CPA Life, she tells John Randolph more about TaxOps, where she serves as State and Local Tax Manager in a firm that takes a different approach to accounting services.

State and Local Tax (SALT) is an oft-forgotten practice area but, Tram Le, a state and local tax manager explains, one with enormous opportunity. At TaxOps, which has been recognized as a “Best Firm to Work for,” among many other accolades over the past decade, Tram has helped create a “firmily”—a portmanteau of “firm” and “family,” where people feel valued and have each other’s best interests at heart.

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Summary

Tram Le, a senior manager at TaxOps, describes her background as non-traditional, as she initially aspired to be a professional tennis player but eventually pursued accounting and law. She worked in the government sector to make an impact, and later pursued an LLM degree to gain a deeper understanding of policy and legislation. After leaving the government, she attended law school and developed expertise in state and local tax consulting, which she finds fulfilling due to its technical nature and problem-solving aspects.

Tram has been with TaxOps, a full-service tax advisory firm for four years and part of the state and local tax team. The state and local tax team assists clients in understanding their sales tax, income tax, franchise tax, and property tax obligations, and often overlooked areas of tax. The team helps clients mitigate risks, provides guidance on compliance, and acts as a trusted advisor.

In this episode of the CPA Life, Tram talks with host John Randolph about the challenges in recruiting professionals with multi-state tax experience and highlights the growth opportunities in the state and local tax field. Managing expectations and addressing factors like education costs, pay, hours, and the evolving work landscape are key to attracting students to the accounting field. In addition, a significant percentage of professionals are leaving public accounting and that exodus must be addressed as well to maintain a sustainable pipeline of accounting professionals. Remote work, billing models and client care round out the discussion.

Transcript:

Hey everybody, welcome to another episode of CPA Life, where we focus on conversations with firm leaders and industry insiders that are passionately going against the grain in an industry that has been seriously hesitant to change for way too long and it has been stuck in a rut.

Like today’s guest, Tram Le, who is a senior manager with Colorado-based TaxOp, a firm that’s been recognized a total of six times in the last 10 years, if my numbers are right, and three times in the last three years as a “best firm to work for” by Accounting Today. And if I’m not mistaken, Tram, the firm was recognized as the number one small firm to work for in the country for the last two years, is that correct? 

Definitely the last year and I think maybe the year before we were number one, but I’d have to double check as well. But yes, we have been definitely recognized as the best place to work from a small firm perspective.

You guys are doing a lot of things right. So we’ll talk about a lot of that stuff. So welcome to the show today.

Well, thank you. Thank you for having me.

We’re going to spend some time talking about those awards as well as a few others that you guys have been recognized for. But I also want to spend some time talking about you, your background and how you ended up on this route where you’re a part of the leadership team at TaxOps because your background is a little unique. It’s not the stereotypical, hey, go to college, graduate, get a master’s degree, go into a Big Four firm and then kind of chart a course from there. You you took a little bit of a different detour to end up where you are. Tell us a little bit about that. 

Yes, so I am very much the non-traditionalist in terms of a CPA. I’m actually an attorney as well. And I actually took a different path to get to, you know, licensure from the law side because when I decided to go to college, which I actually, that wasn’t a first option for me, I was a very ambitious young person and wanted to actually go play tennis and join the pro circuit.

Oh, wow.

Yes, my parents is very traditional Asian, you know, immigrants from Vietnam, you know, right after the war, very adamant about going to college. So therefore I did not pursue my pro tennis circuit, you know, career goals. 

So basically when I went to college and I was part of the orchestra at the University of Texas at Arlington, which I am also an adjunct professor there now, I thought, hey, I’m going to do music. I’m going to get a minor in business. I love business as well. I was going to have my own music business and that did not pan out the way I thought it would.

But I ended up going down the career of an accountant because I did very well in accounting. My, you know, first, you know, financial one, financial two, I made A’s and so my advisor was very adamant that I should pursue accounting. You know, long story short, I ended up, you know, majoring in accounting. I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do with it. 

So, you know, after I graduated, I, you know, interviewed with accounting firms. I actually did a bunch of internships at, you know, small firms, medium sized firms. I had industry job offers, also in government. So I just had lots of options and I ended up choosing the government path.

Now, how do you, you know, you’re sitting in a class and I say class and I’m not talking individual one room, four walls, I’m talking about group of people that you’re, you’re spending time with, you’re breaking bread with, you’re hanging out with, you’re studying with, you’re living life together, you know, getting an accounting degree with all these people and, you know, yours was accounting, mine was marketing and journalism. Either way, they’re people that you create a bond with and somehow some way you kind of end up following similar paths.

Yeah.

Your path, I got to believe, there weren’t a lot of people in that group that went down the government path. What was it about that that attracted you versus, you know, the stereotypical Big Four or large national firm that probably was knocking on your door as well?

Well, I think it was that urge to really want to impact, you know, the work that I did, the time I spent doing what I was doing, I really wanted to make a big impact and not that, you know, going down the path of public accounting or even, you know, working for, you know, a company being in-house would not make an impact, but I felt like knowing what I knew, you know, how government needed, you know, improvements and our economy really depends on how well our government is running, you know, the books and records, right? Like that was really important. So that’s what lured me to that path.

Was it in that process that you started pursuing your LLM?

Yes. So I actually ended up sitting for the CPA exam during my time at the government and then thereafter, I ended up deciding that I wasn’t going to continue that governmental path because, you know, in the capacity that I was serving and I really wanted to impact policy in terms of really understanding, you know, the legal side of, hey, this is how the magic happens, right? Where, you know, you are really, you know, understanding, you know, the pros and cons of how legislation is written as opposed to, hey, this is already in existence and this is what we have to work with.

So you spent eight years there. What was the next step when you stepped away from the GAO?

So I went to law school and I mean, it was just a whole other world in terms of areas to practice in and things to learn. And so I really enjoyed a lot of my tax classes. Just with my background, I thought, hey, this is a good area that would help me be an expert and I could really make that impact. The LLM program I was in also was a joint Masters of Tax program at the university. And so that’s where I knew that this was my home. And here I am.

So over the course of your career on the consulting side, it’s pretty much all been the state and local tax side of the world. 

Yes, absolutely. And I guess, you know, I’m not your traditional state and local tax practitioner in a sense of, you know, if you’re on, you know, the CPA side, you grow up, you know, doing federal tax returns and learning, you know, the federal side and then also doing the compliance work on the state income side of it, right?

Whereas, I mean, I’ve done some tax preparation work and, you know, in my earlier years when I was, you know, looking at, you know, different job and career paths, but I really did not live in that world. So I kind of jumped over kind of that traditional CPA route and jumped into the consulting area. I really like the technical. I really like the nuances and kind of figuring out the puzzle. You know, it made total sense.

How did you evolve into your role that you’re in now at TaxOps? And you’ve been at TaxOps for how long now as a part of the leadership team?

Well, I joined TaxOps in 2019. So a little over four years now.

Okay.

And, you know, over the course of the four years, I mean, we’ve definitely been a trusted advisor, I guess, for a lot of companies from small, medium-sized businesses to, you know, like they’re privately held. We’re working with the owners. You know, it could be a publicly traded company and we’re working with, you know, the C-suite, chief of accounting, and helping them understand what their state and local tax obligations are.

So TaxOps is a full-service advisory consulting firm. There is a piece of that business that you sit within as well as others on your team that focus strictly on the state and local tax side of things, correct?

Yes. So our firm, TaxOps, we are a very—we’re small, but mighty. So we are a full-service tax specialty boutique kind of firm where we have a group that just focuses on federal tax compliance as well as state tax compliance. So, you know, your traditional CPA firm that helps prepare, you know, flow through corporate tax returns and we’re, I say, small because, you know, we’re at 26 now. So we’re not as small as we used to be but, you know, we provide that service and then with the state and local tax team, which, you know, that’s my group, we are 100% consultative and provide, you know, that trusted advisor kind of role for a lot of companies.

So in the space that you’re playing in, you’re doing more advisory, more consulting, taxability studies, nexus studies, voluntary disclosure type issues that you’re seeing and that you’re dealing with, with your clients.

Yes, absolutely. It’s, you know, when a client comes to us, they are either wanting to understand what their obligations are in terms of, you know, sales tax, income tax, franchise tax, even property taxes. I mean, any state tax types. So most of the time clients come to us and they are way down that road and either have gotten some bad advice or have gotten no advice and they have a lot of risk and exposure and they really don’t know where to start. So we really help hold their hands. We provide kind of that really holistic roadmap in terms of what are your problems? How are we going to solve them? We do help hold your hand and solve them, right?

We’re more of a stop gap kind of firm where even on the compliance side, we will help prepare. We can prepare those returns from a sales tax or even an income tax side. But we want to make sure you’re all caught up, your risk has been mitigated. And then, right, if you have your trusted advisor, your long time CPA, we will work with them and help you be where you need to be from a state and local tax perspective. 

So in your perspective, your opinion, why does state and local tax not have the glitz and glamor associated with it from a career track perspective that the federal tax side does? Because I think there’s, especially since Wayfair a few years ago, there’s more moving pieces and moving parts in that space than you could shake a stick at right now. 

I really believe that it’s because people just don’t understand. Lack of knowledge, right? So definitely state and local tax has always been the stepchild in what I’ve seen and definitely the word on the street in terms of who cares about state and local tax, who cares about sales tax? Well, it’s because you don’t understand, right? You don’t understand how complicated it is and what really the impact it has on a business in terms of risk.

It’s huge. State government budgets are, I think, a third sales tax, right? Easily. And on the income tax, it’s actually a quite smaller sliver, depending on the state, but people just don’t realize the ramifications of doing it wrong and understanding all complexities that you have to understand to do it right. 

I think that there was, from a recruiting perspective, there was always this mindset for years that state and local tax was kind of an afterthought in a lot of firms and in a lot of companies. It was, hey, who’s sitting at the front desk answering phones? And does that person have the mental bandwidth just to take our receipts and send all of that stuff to our accounting firm every year and just file our sales tax return?

And then somewhere in the process, that drastically changed. And it was probably after a bunch of audits. And then from our perspective, where we saw the growth in the SALT space was reverse audit work, which that was a huge boom for a lot of firms like Ryan and other companies that are in that space. But since that has evolved, it’s evolved into a much more consultative advisory, proactive piece of the business. But it still amazes me how many firms have no desire to play in that space outside of a large national firm that may have a state and local tax practice. Outside of that, there’s not a whole lot of, you know, what I would refer to as second, third or fourth tier firms that really have a focus in that space.

I think it’s hard, right? It’s really hard to manage, have the expertise and being proactive, right? It really takes a lot more effort than kind of the opposite of let’s just do recovery studies because they’re going to keep doing it wrong, right? The government is going to collect all day every day, but where businesses and taxpayers don’t take a second look at, hey, what am I doing wrong? I don’t want to keep paying another firm to file refund claims so that I’m not going to get in trouble or whatever the case may be. 

So it is amazing that there aren’t more firms building practices like ours because A, I think it is hard and B, recruiting. No one really understands what state and local tax advisors do per se. I think, you know, even from a student perspective, state and local tax is not a mandatory class and it’s only offered at the graduate level. There is no undergrad state and local tax, sales tax class, income tax class. 

Really?

Not that I’m aware of. And I’ve talked to a lot of people and they either haven’t ever taken a class ever and learn it through kind of the stages of, hey, I’m working at a CPA firm now. I’m doing the compliance work and I’m going to file in X state because they did that last year as opposed to really understanding why I file and, you know, what I need to be filing, what number really goes in there because they don’t understand sourcing because sourcing gets really complicated, especially if you’re providing a service, and the different rules, the different approaches that states are taking, how they did it, you know, 20 years ago is changing, you know, sourcing rules today. Like most states are going towards this market rule, which supposedly sounds easier, but is still really complicated to apply.

It amazes me because, you know, again, the space that we work in is with what we refer to as locally owned CPA firms and consulting firms. So we work with, you know, more small to midsize firms, y’all size and maybe a little bit bigger, but we don’t work with any, you know, top hundred large firms on the recruiting side of our business. So it’s always interesting whenever we are working a search on the state and local tax side and someone’s looking for somebody with multi-state tax experience. 

Well, from my experience, from our experience, finding somebody with multi-state tax experience in a big four firm is not an easy task because that guy may be sitting or lady may be sitting in Dallas and they may be great with Texas and the contiguous states, but if they have a problem with a client in Ohio, they stereotypically pick the phone up, call somebody in the Ohio office from, you know, their firm they’re with and say, hey, I’ve got a problem. Can you help me with it? They’re not really versed in rolling their sleeves up, digging in and figuring out, hey, what’s going on in Ohio with the client that I’ve got in Texas? 

Yeah.

And there’s just so much opportunity there in that space for firms and it always astounds me that they just want to shy away from that and not deal with it.

Yeah, no, and I think it’s because of what you just said, like, depending on how you grew up, right? This is what you learn. This is the approach you take. But I think in terms of how we’re very unique is that it’s serving a group of clients that, you know, they’re doing business everywhere. They’re not just doing business regionally. So that is, I think, the big difference between how things were back in the days where, you know, you know, the sales tax world was created. And then, you know, today where businesses are very—I mean, with the internet, you’re doing business all across America and then across the world. So having that knowledge and helping a small medium sized business in this area is very important. You can’t just tell them, Well, hey, in your home state, these are the rules, because obviously they’re conducting activities outside of just their state lines. 

Yeah. So it’s a whole new frontier. And the business opportunity there to grow a firm like yours is tremendous. And I remember, you know, back in ’20, shortly after the Wayfair decision, I had a family member that ran a business and called me and said, knew that we worked in this space. And I had to quickly put the brakes on and say, hey, I placed those people. I’m not one of them. Let me refer you to somebody that can help you. Because he was concerned because prior to that, they were filing state taxes. They had physical presence in four states. That was it. They were filing taxes in four states. Wayfair changed all that. And he’s now filing taxes in, I think, 18 different states. But it was a drastic change. And again, the business opportunity that exists from that and then all the other things that have happened because of the internet really create a dynamic opportunity in that space. And I know that you guys are going to continue to grow that.

You brought something up a minute ago that I want to kind of change direction just for a minute. You were talking about how there’s no state and local tax class in an accounting program. You sit on staff as an adjunct professor at University of Texas at Arlington, correct? 

Yes.

And so you’ve got a unique perspective where you sit on the employer side of the desk and leadership side of the desk in a consulting firm—so you see the dynamics of people that have been in the industry for two, three, four, five, six years. Their ideals they came in with, kind of where they sit today, reality set in. But you’re also sitting in the classroom educating these people that are coming in from a pipeline perspective. What do you see as some of the challenges that we’re facing today within the accounting space on the pipeline side?

I think maybe a really big challenge is kind of managing expectations because I think, you know, throw in the cost of education, throw in the pay for the industry, throw in, you know, the demands of, you know, the hours if you are going down the path of public accounting, throw in the factors of we just, you know, came out of a pandemic and the world as we see it changes in terms of how people work, where they work, the opportunities, right?

So I think all of those different things have impacted, you know, our students today who are now upon graduation, they have different options. And they obviously know that the traditional accounting, public accounting career path that, you know, existed not too long ago, they can choose different, right? 

Yep.

And I think that’s the scary part where those who have gone down the path of I graduate, I get a master’s, I get a CPA, I go work for an accounting firm, a big firm, midsize firm, I’m going to have billable hour expectations, I’m going to work weekends, we’re going to have busy seasons. And I think the reality is you really have to have a passion to go into this career, to really be successful and stay with it.

Are you seeing, from your vantage point, and I know it’s one university, one classroom, yours, are you seeing a decrease in the number of students and the number of graduates from when you started teaching to today?

Yeah, so I started teaching back in the fall of 2017, and so not too long. But during the pandemic, that number decreased by, I don’t know, 30, 40% and now post pandemic, it’s almost half. So my class has decreased 50% since I started teaching. And it’s an elective. It’s a small class. I started out with maybe 18 to 20, and now I’m under 10. I think last semester I had eight students.

What class do you teach?

State and local tax.

Okay. So it is an elective, but you’ve seen a pretty precipitous drop in number of students in the class.

Yes. And definitely during COVID, it was a pretty clear cut. This is half of what the enrollment used to be. And so I don’t have the wider view of, hey, these are the numbers in terms of enrollment. And as far as enrollment and then drilling down to, hey, these are the students who are considering accounting and business, that number is even smaller. So from a pipeline perspective, definitely we’re going to face some serious issues in the next 10, 20 years.

You know, there’s the dynamics within the space. Before the internet was as prevalent as it is, and before everybody had an opinion that was placed on the internet, the industry could treat people the way they wanted to treat people. And it’s kind of like pulling the curtain back on the Wizard of Oz. Nobody ever pulled the curtain back. Nobody really talked about it. It was just kind of a given. It was kind of a known.

But when you look at the fact today that you’ve got platforms like Going Concern, Reddit, you’ve got different platforms where people can voice their concerns, voice their frustrations, voice their issues, can hop on Glassdoor, can hop on Indeed and talk about the work life or lack thereof that exists with a bunch of large firms, and I think that drives, not only does it drive the smaller pipeline, but I think the last stat that I saw about a year ago was that 60 to 65 percent of three to five year public accounting professionals leave the industry in that three to five year window. So we’ve got a decreased pipeline coming in, and then we’re losing 60 to 65 percent of them at the three to five year window, and there’s got to be something done to address that.

I know that you’re also actively involved with the Texas State Chapter of Certified Public Accountants. What are some of the things that you’ve seen and heard that have been discussed from a macro level of, hey, here’s some things that we have got to start looking at doing?

There’s a lot. And I guess there are some things in terms of being strategic, in terms of figuring out what some of the pain points are, including like flexibility, right? Flexibility in terms of allowing students and candidates to even sit for the CPA exam. So the barriers, right? Where recently we have proposed in legislation to reduce the requirements of 150 hour to 120 hours to sit so that it allows students who aren’t necessarily going to do a fifth year, but they may have enough credits to sit at 120 and then work and then continue to take the exam.

And the exam is changing, right? In terms of its format. Allowing some flexibility for students to have the opportunity to become licensed professionals is one thing, but the other thing is awareness, right? Bringing the awareness around this career at a younger age. So you see all the other STEM programs where in high school or middle school, the kids are learning about the sciences or engineering and math, but no one really teaches them what accounting is. There are some programs in some schools, school districts that do provide kind of the CTE path where you do learn some accounting and finance, but really it’s the awareness of, hey, this is a career that could be very fitting for a lot of students and kids. So those are kind of two things that as part of the society we have focused on.

If I remember correctly, the legislation passed in Texas, passed the Senate and the House. So it’s now going to the governor to sign for the reduction of hours to get to 120 to at least sit for the exam.

Yes.

And then the discussed change of moving the 18-month window for passing all parts to, was it 30? Is it 30 months now?

I think it was 30. I can’t remember. It was 30 or 32. But yes, so AICPA pretty much is pushing for that expanded window, especially given that some of the things I’ve learned is that the testing centers, the numbers of centers are not as readily available for students to go and sign up to get a spot to even test. So that barrier in itself is super difficult. You can’t really control that, but where you are expanding that window, you are giving students more opportunities to even go down this path, to even apply.

You talk about flexibility. You guys at TaxOps have done a lot of things around the whole concept of flexibility. Let’s talk about TaxOps a little bit. We haven’t spent too much time on that. I want to spend some time talking about what have you guys done that has put you in a position to consistently be rated as one of the best firms in the industry to work for? 

And I want to make sure that people understand. When I say one of the best firms to work for in the industry, that’s not an outside organization that someone pays to get that award. This is your internal team being surveyed over and over and over and over again and done so in a manner that it’s highly confidential. So there’s a lot of honesty that’s laid on the table. So the good thing is you find out what you’re not doing well, you can course-correct, get better at it. You find out what you’re doing well, you continue to replicate that and grow. What are some things that you guys have done as a leadership team to create an environment where people say, hey, we want to be here?

I think the biggest thing we’re doing, I mean, when people talk about culture, we really do build that culture of we’re here to support each other. It’s that firm family. “Firmily” is the word that we use here at TaxOps. So we’re a real firmily, we work together. We spend a lot of time together. We are here to support each other. And that doesn’t mean just like, support each other in terms of, oh, yeah, you need to take off. But it is really, you have certain personal and work goals in terms of maybe it’s pay, or maybe it’s challenging work, or it’s the ability to work when you can work or need to work. 

Really, we are, I don’t know percentage-wise, but it’s a big percentage of women, women partners. I think that’s a big deal. We have families, we have children, and that is all supported. I know a lot of firms also tout that as well, but I think we really live it because in reality where someone needs to take off, it really is okay. You really do have somebody that has your back. I think because we’re small, maybe that’s why it does work very well, but it’s very much encouraged. 

I think by saying maybe it’s because we’re small, it works—I think that’s discounting the work that you guys put into it because I’ve been a part of a couple of organizations that were large, scalable organizations that had a lot of what you’re talking about, and it’s not easy. It’s hard work. Whether you’ve got 30 people or you’ve got 300 people or 3,000, it’s a lot of work. There’s a lot of moving parts. The ship gets bigger and it takes a little bit more to run the ship, 30 versus 3,000. I get that. But the reality is that it’s not a situation that you just flip a switch and it happens. 

So I think that saying that discounts the work and the effort that you guys put into that because another accolade that you guys have received, another recognition that you’ve received, is “best firm to work for, for women.” That recognition is regardless of firm size. When Accounting Today hands that out, it’s not an issue of here’s small firms, mid-sized firms, large firms, here are the best firms in the country to work for for women regardless of size. I think that that checks a lot of the boxes of what you’re talking about.

There’s a couple of quotes that I want to read off y’all’s website and I want you to talk about them because I really, really like the way that you guys approach this. When you click on the career site for TaxOps, you see things like this: “We have no minimum charge hours. The ability to work remotely, and a casual but passionate team of highly experienced and specialized professionals. We’re focused on results. No time is wasted or energy burned on anything but results. There are no time sheets, no office hours, no dress code, a refreshing change for people used to a big firm environment. Imagine the relief of no billable hours.”

Now, in the industry, there is a large number of people—it may even be the majority—51% or 88%, who knows? But there’s a large number of people that say no time sheets, no billable hours? That’s inconceivable. How do you guys do that and what’s your answer to the people that say can’t be done?

Well, definitely building that culture of be accountable. You have to be accountable. So our results may not necessarily be a number of billable hours, but it is what result did you produce? Are your clients happy with the service they were provided? Do they find value in what you do? How do you show up? That’s really what we’re trying to build here. It’s like we want to show up well for our clients and for each other.

And in terms of how you measure, it’s really how you measure things.I think the traditional billable hours and timesheet perspective is because you’ve got to be accountable somehow and that’s how these other firms are tracking it. But in terms of how we try to manage what success looks like, and what results are important, it is truly at the end of the day, each and everybody in our firm is getting what they need from a professional, from a personal—as well as our clients. So it’s almost like that secret sauce of take care of each other and take care of your clients.

I will contend until somebody tells me different that the billable hour is the easy way to manage it. The billable hour is the easy way to quantify right, wrong, or indifferent. It’s real easy to look and say, okay, Sally, I need X amount of billable hours from you every single week, period, the end. That’s a very easy quantifiable piece of the equation. But if you’re going to embrace a culture like you guys have that Sally may not be a full-time 40, 45, 50, 60-hour week person. But she is a rock star. And Bill, on the other hand, may be in that same situation. Maybe he can’t put in those hours. But then you’ve got Tom over here that Tom may be the kind of guy that says, you know what, throw more work at me than I can handle. I got it. I can do it.

That takes a little bit more work and a little bit more effort as a leader to manage that kind of process. And I think that more people, if they would embrace that, that gap between workload and employee that we call capacity, I think that gap would shrink quite a bit.

Yeah, 100% in terms of how that looks like and how you manage, how you shift the work. Really, it does take a lot of effort in terms of, well, is somebody taking on too much? Well, if they are, who can help? We have those conversations. And I think maybe it’s like the team that we have. They’re all very much pitch in and help. Not that we’re not competitive, but it is more collegial in terms of like, no one’s going to be raising their hands for the most interesting client or the biggest revenue. We’re not revenue managed either, honestly. 

So it’s kind of interesting, right? It’s like kind of what you said. It’s how you perceive what the measurements are and how you determine if someone’s doing well or not doing well. But it’s definitely kind of what you said. We do have some part-time. My friend Connie, she’s an amazing practitioner. She works part-time. She’s a part-time counselor, which is a whole other career. But she is super smart and she can be super efficient in what she does. And so, I mean, kind of that, we know what Connie can handle in terms of, she’s part-time. She’s an excellent practitioner. She’s an expert in a lot of different things that we throw her way. And so it’s just one of those things where you connect the right people with the right skill sets. It’s making sure everybody’s 100% responsible. I feel like that’s where the success comes in. 

I was talking to another guest in the podcast a couple of weeks ago by the name of Marcus Dillon. And the way Marcus put it, he runs a shop very similar in the Houston area to y’all’s mindset. And Marcus said, you know, John, I can’t sit here and tell you how many people I have on our team that are not full-time equivalents. They don’t work 40 hours a week. He said, but here’s what I will tell you. I would much rather have three or four or five people that can give me some of the most amazing quality work for 15 to 30 hours a week because of the dynamics going on in their life, because they’re grateful and they’re thankful because they want to do this. 

They enjoy the clients they work with. They enjoy the team that we’ve put around them. I would rather have three, four or five of them that are passionate about what they do than the one person that someone is beating 60 to 70 hours a week out of and is miserable and is probably not putting forth the work quality that I’m getting over here from three or four or five people.

And I think that, again, it’s just a mindset shift I think, again, it goes back to an issue of, hey, the easy thing is let me hire three people that I’m going to work 50 to 70 hours a week and it’s measurable. I’ll have them fill out a timesheet. I got their billable hours. I can measure utilization. I can measure realization and we’re all good versus, you know, I’ve got these moving parts. I’ve got three, four or five people that aren’t working full-time. I got to juggle some hours here. I’ve got to measure things differently. It’s more work on me as a leader, but if it creates that better space for people to succeed in, and that what we’re called to do as leaders.

And definitely it is a lot of work. It’s a lot of work in checking in to make sure we all as a team are on the same page. We all feel fulfilled in what we do, how we do it, who we do it with. It’s a never-ending process. It’s not just we set it up and we’re done. You always are having to nurture and take care of it.

Right. How many of the personnel with the firm, again, talking about flexibility, the firm is based in Colorado, but not everybody sits in Colorado, correct?

Correct. Yeah, we actually have two offices in Colorado, one in Lakewood and then another one in the Denver Tech Center area. Our team, the SALT team, we are nine—eight and a half maybe. We do have four senior managers, three senior managers, our partner and our director who wears many hats. But we do have a part-time and a contractor and two admins. 

So just with our SALT team here, one team member is in Oregon. We have a member in North Carolina, a part-timer in Florida. I’m in Texas and then everyone else falls in Colorado. So we’re pretty much spread across the US.

So you guys have not only proven that, hey, we don’t need a timesheet every week, but we don’t need you sitting in the office and in traffic two hours a day every day. We can figure out a way to make this work.

Yeah, no. I think the whole pandemic, we had been remote before pandemic. I think we’ve been nurturing this process, making sure everybody is fulfilled and doing what they need to do, even before remote work really was a thing and we continue on with it. But the in-person, I think, is really important. 

We just had our all-firm meeting last week in Colorado and it was so good to see everyone. We connected. We did a lot of the team building, the talking, the brainstorming in terms of where we’re at, where we want to go, how we want to continue on and build this “firmily.” Definitely the in-person is important, but we don’t have it every day, but it just seems to work. 

Well, again, I think it goes back to it’s a little bit more work from a leadership standpoint. It’s a little bit more work. It’s a little bit more proactive communication with people. And again, it’s a call for leaders in the industry, whether they’re sitting at a firm your size or a top 50 national firm. It’s a call that says, hey, if we’re going to attack this problem, one of the ways we’re going to have to address it is we’ve got to figure out how do we get that solid individual that can bring value to our team who’s sitting in Raleigh, North Carolina, but we have a need in Dallas, Texas, how do we make this work? It’s not an easy answer, but the technology is there. It just calls for leadership to get uncomfortable and figure it out.

Yeah. Think about it differently. I think kind of think outside the box definitely comes into play here, in terms of meeting those needs and creating just a different kind of work environment that people want to be part of.

One of the questions I have about the firm itself that’s been a topic of conversation with several other firm leaders in the similar space that you guys are in or size of firm that you guys are in with you not looking at time and billing is the billing structure that you guys work with clients on more of a subscription or value-based pricing model versus a time and billing model.

Yeah. So we actually do a little bit of a mix. A lot of our projects and things that we help clients with are based on like a fixed fee model where it is more of a value add where we go in and we kind of assess the situation and then we make some recommendations. So with that assessment, we do try to put a fee around it so that clients feel like they understand what they’re paying for, how much it’s going to cost. But on our side, based on our experience, based on the team that we have, we value bill in terms of what’s incorporated into that fixed fee.

Where we’re not able to like bucketize it in that way, we do hourly ad hoc work where after we’ve worked on a particular project like a nexus study for a client and then we’ve decided, hey, these are the areas of risk. We would propose other things in terms of moving forward to remediate. We generally try to put a fixed fee around that as well, but sometimes you don’t anticipate everything. So sometimes a one-off question might come along and so we will help a client on an hourly basis. It’s more of the exception.

Got it. It seems like that again is a path that more leading edge firms are embracing. From my standpoint as a consumer of services from a CPA firm, I love the fact that I no longer get a phone call in April that says, hey, John, here’s how much you owe the IRS and here’s how much you owe us. I absolutely—how I even thought that that was okay is beyond me. I guess because we didn’t really understand what the difference in the options were, but over the last four years since we moved to a firm, the guy that I worked with for years sold his firm to somebody that was a subscription-based model and I love life that way. Absolutely love it that way.

Yeah, no, and it gives people and especially I think our clients like to be able to call us anytime and say, hey, I have this question and it’s not really like we’re tracking that time because what we’ve incorporated enough in our fee structure that we can be just an ear if they have a question to bounce off of us. 

Yeah. The simplicity of knowing that again from a consumer perspective, knowing that I can send an email, pick the phone up, make a phone call and not have to worry about somebody flipping a button because time is now being tracked for this conversation is priceless to me.

I was talking to a client that we’ve worked with for a while and he’s trying to decide whether he wants to transition this year to a more subscription-based model and I told him, I said, look, let me tell you the question I’ve never asked my CPA firm in the last four years. How long did it take you to do my return? I’ve never asked him that. I don’t care how long it takes them to do my return. It doesn’t matter. It’s a service I pay for and it really doesn’t matter. I just want it done and I want it done right and I want it done to the best of the ability of the person that’s working with me and then give me some direction, advice, consultation to make sure the path that we’re on is a successful path for our business and for me personally.

I think that when you do that, again, it’s a little bit of a tougher model, calls for you as a leader to step out of that comfort zone, but it absolutely works. I know you guys have seen that.

Yes, definitely does take a lot more time on the front end, but at the end of the day, it’s making sure the client is served and we’ve done it well and that we also are supporting the model that we need in terms of the effort. 

Yep. Tram, you’ve given us a lot to chew on and think about and look at from not only from a firm perspective, but from a professor’s perspective that’s interacting with the next generation of accounting leaders. If there’s someone that’s listening and they’re interested in learning more about opportunities at tax ops, or they want to talk to you about the services that you guys provide on a state and local tax basis, or even a speaking opportunity, because I know that you do some speaking for the firm at different events, what is the best way for someone to find you and get a hold of you?

Definitely our website, all of our contact information is on there. LinkedIn, connect with me on LinkedIn, you send me a message. Any of those avenues would be great.

The website is TaxOps.com?

Yes, and then we also have a SALTovation, so it’s our special state and local tax, it’s kind of like a resource website as well, because I also write for Tax Notes, we have articles we publish, we have blogs, we do also podcasts, and so we have all that stuff on our SALTovation website as well.

And that is SALT, S-A-L-T and ovation, right? One word.

Ovation, yes, SALTovation. 

I think the SALTovation works well, it’s a good picture of what you guys do. The description of the firm as a “firmily” is another picture that you guys paint real well, and I think that’s just a couple of the things that you guys have done to really set yourselves apart in a very noisy market that, hey, we’re an option that you need to consider when you’re looking at your career. It’s not just Big Four that you have an option with, it’s not just a top hundred national firm that you have an option with. There’s some pretty cool work, some pretty challenging work. Look at what you can find here.

So I commend you guys for what you’re doing. Wish you continued success and growth of the firm. I appreciate you spending a little bit of time with us. And for the rest of you that spent a little bit of your time with us here today, learning about TaxOps and Tram Le, if you like what you’ve heard, take a minute, give us a review or a rating on the platform of your choosing, hit the subscribe button to be in the loop on all the future episodes that we have coming up.

We’ve had some pretty amazing guests and interesting topics that we’ve been able to kick around that are heading your way in the coming weeks. You don’t want to miss that. But until then, thank you for spending some time with us today and another episode of CPA Life.


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