This incident took place shortly after I became a tax partner at Coopers & Lybrand, so it would have been in the early 70s.
The voice on the phone was Mae, the receptionist on my floor. “Lyman,” she said in a hushed tone, and hushed tones were unusual for Mae, “there’s a bag lady out here who wants to see a tax partner. Shall I send her on her way, or do you want to come out and do so?” Making no commitment one way or the other about sending people away, I said “I’ll be right out.”
There was, indeed, a not-very-well-dressed lady sitting in one of the comfortable plush chairs in the reception area. A well-used shopping bag and a beat-up old purse sat on the floor beside her, However, not for a moment did I think she was a bag lady. Her hair, though tangled and a bit unkempt, was lustrous and clean; her fingernails were perfectly manicured; her eyebrows symmetrically plucked; her baggy slacks and over-sized sweater, though worn and mismatched, were clean and looked to have been stylish in their day; and, although she wore no makeup, her skin was clear and unwrinkled. I guessed her age to be in the range of thirty-five to forty.
I shook her hand, gave her my name, and told her that I was a tax partner. She thanked me for agreeing to see her and introduced herself. (For reasons of confidentiality I’m not going to use her real name; let’s call her “Mrs. Weiss.”) I detected a German accent, and as we made small talk on our way to my office that impression was strengthened, soon to be confirmed.
“Why do you want to talk to a tax partner, Mrs. Weiss?” I asked, after we were comfortably seated in my office and my offer of tea or coffee refused.
“My husband and I recently moved here from Germany,” she replied, “and I need someone to prepare my Canadian and German income tax returns.”
I inquired how she came to choose Coopers & Lybrand.
She broke into a wide grin and said, “Well, Mr. MacInnis, this wasn’t my first stop. I looked in the Yellow Pages for the names and addresses of the large accounting firms. Your firm is actually the third I’ve visited today.”
“Oh, oh,” I thought, “maybe she is just a well-groomed bag lady.” But I pressed on. “Mrs. Weiss, why didn’t you use one of the other two?”
Again, a wide grin as she replied. “At the first one I didn’t even get past the receptionist, who told me I’d probably be happier dealing with a smaller firm. At the next one I was told I could see a junior staff person, but not a partner. I don’t mind having a staff person work on my returns, but I want a partner to be in charge of my account.”
“Fine,” I said, “that’s how it usually works in a large accounting firm. A staff person normally prepares the actual returns, but then the returns are reviewed by a manager or partner, depending on the complexity of the client’s affairs. But, I must warn you, that means that our services are pretty expensive.”
She reached into her beat-up, old purse, took out a cheque book, and said, “I will give you a retainer.”
I told her that wouldn’t be necessary; I just didn’t want her to be surprised when we rendered our account. I then asked her what the source of her income was. “A German bank,” was her reply.
“OK,” I went on, “have you got information slips or any other records we can use?”
“Of course,” Mrs. Weiss replied, as she reached into her shopping bag and took out a bound set of documents which she passed to me.
I wasn’t sure exactly what she had handed me, but I soon discovered it was a complete set of the audited financial statements of a German bank.
Then the conversation went something like this.
“Is all your income from this bank?”
“So, you received interest from this bank. Did you receive any other income last year?”
“Oh, yes,” she said, plunking the shopping bag on my desk. “There would also have been some consulting income. And, of course, dividends and director’s fees. All the information and documentation you’ll need is in this bag,”
“Where did the dividends, consulting income, and director’s fees come from?”
“Everything came from the bank.”
I wasn’t surprised that she had dividends from the bank (I thought she probably owned a few shares) but I questioned the other income.
“How come you received director’s fees and consulting income from the bank?”
“Oh, didn’t I tell you? My sister and I own the bank.”
“OK, Mrs. Weiss,” I said and, although suspecting I knew what the answer would be, I asked, “why the disguise?”
She confirmed my suspicion by replying, “You see, we recently moved to Toronto because my husband is the new CEO of (again, for confidentiality reasons I’m omitting the name of the organization; most of you would recognize it). My tax affairs are really quite complex, Mr. MacInnis. I want to deal with people who would take me as a client even if I wasn’t well off or my husband wasn’t an important person.”
Mrs. Weiss was most assuredly not a bag lady.
A couple of footnotes here:
Because of the German income tax implications, I took Mrs. Weiss and her shopping bag down the hall and introduced her to my colleague Frank Sanders, who spoke fluent German, and knew more about German income tax than anyone else in our office. (You’ve met Frank in other columns, especially Francis Xavier Sanders (The most interesting person I ever met.) When I left them, Mrs. Weiss and Frank were talking animatedly in Deutsch. I had every confidence that they would get along splendidly; which they did for many years.
On my way back to my office I met one of my partners who asked, “Dealing with street people now, Lyman?” “Yes,” I replied, “She hangs out around the Brandenburg Gate.” I left it at that, and so did he.