The telephone call I made after leaving Carl Murray’s office was to a gentleman by the name of Don Beach at the accounting firm of MacDonald Currie (which shortly after I joined became Coopers & Lybrand and is now PriceWaterhouseCoopers). I mentioned earlier that taking the CICA Tax Course had a profound impact on my life; Don was a major player in that.
During the first month-long, in-house session of the course at the University of Toronto I became close friends with three people. They were Dave Matheson, a tax lawyer with McMillan Binch, and Don Beach and Ed Stewart who were tax managers at MacDonald, Currie. Both Don and Ed, and particularly Don, were continually urging me to leave TransCanada and join them at the accounting firm. So, when I resigned from IBM it was natural for me to call Don to tell him I was available.
Don arranged an interview for me that afternoon with David Timbrell, the partner in charge of the firm’s Toronto tax department. David told me that he’d heard a lot about me from Don and Ed, asked me a few questions, told me how much they’d pay me (which was about the same as I’d been making at TransCanada) and hired me on the spot. For some reason that I no longer recall I didn’t start work at McDonald Currie until Monday, March 25th.
I was extremely pleased with my new circumstances. Everything about MacDonald Currie, the premises, the people, and the attitude, was thoroughly professional.
I shared an office with a fellow by the name of Frank Sanders, at least that was his Canadian name, he was born Francis Xavier Spanberger, in Austria. Frank was easily the most interesting person I’ve ever known. Here’s one reason I say that (in addition, of course, to his having two names -- and two passports): For years the firm would annually offer Frank a partnership, but he’d never accept it. He said he was quite happy as a manager (one level below partner). The prestige and money that came along with a partnership meant nothing to him because he had no interest in prestige and he was independently wealthy. The firm finally gave up and Frank remained a happy manager until his retirement.
Although I never cared for commodity tax work, and, in fact, pretty well avoided doing any of it, I loved income tax work. Figuring out ways around the rules in the Income Tax Act was both challenging and rewarding. I also liked the fact that income tax practice was really more like practising law than it was practising accounting. I particularly enjoyed the mental sparring with lawyers in which I often got involved while engaged in tax planning for our clients and was always especially pleased when I’d come up with the solution to a sticky tax problem before the lawyers did.
Another reason I revelled in income tax practice is that every business or investment decision, and every item of revenue or expense, has an income tax implication, which meant that I was involved in essentially every aspect of countless individual and corporate situations. As the tax outcome often depended on the underlying details, I learned a tremendous amount about many different types of businesses and investments. I also learned a lot about dealing with people. It’s not an exaggeration to say that there wasn’t a day went by when I didn’t learn something useful. I also loved the fact that when I arrived at the office in the morning I had no idea what the day would hold; there were always unexpected letters, memos, phone calls, partners and staff dropping in to my office with tax problems, and emergency meetings of one sort or another..
I eventually moved completely away from corporate tax and concentrated on personal income tax. This meant that I became much more involved in investment decisions rather than business decisions which led inexorably to my becoming a personal financial planning specialist, which in turn had a major impact on my writing and broadcasting activities, which I will deal with in greater detail in other columns.
I soon figured out a number of things about personal income tax and financial planning that stood me in good stead with our clients and which more or less set the tone for my professional activity. These were:
1) What the client is actually paying for is peace of mind.
2) Clients are happier when you tell them what they can do rather than what they can’t do.
3) If somebody insists on a quick answer, always say “no,” because it’s a lot easier to turn a “no” into a “yes” than vice versa.
4) There’s no such thing as a standard contract, things can always be negotiated.
5) Never trade the long term for the short term.
6) Waffling gets you nowhere, clients love advisors who aren’t afraid to make
I’d finally found my true niche.
I started with the firm as a tax senior, two levels below partner. Less than two years later I became a partner and spent almost seven years with the firm.