Shortly after I became a tax partner at Coopers & Lybrand (now PWC) I got a call from the receptionist. “Lyman,” she whispered, “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 deal with her?” I said “I’ll be right out.”
There was, indeed, a not-very-well-dressed lady sitting in reception. A wrinkled shopping bag and a beat-up old purse sat on the floor beside her. But I doubted she was a bag lady. Her unkempt hair was lustrous and clean, and her nails perfectly manicured. Her slacks and sweater, although 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 to be in her late 30s.
I introduced myself, and told her that I was a tax partner. She thanked me for seeing her and with a slight accent introduced herself. (For reasons of confidentiality I’ll call her “Mrs. Weiss.”)
After we were seated in my office and an offer of a beverage refused, I asked, “Why do you want to see a tax partner, Mrs. Weiss?”
“My husband and I moved here recently from Germany,” she explained, “and I need someone to prepare my Canadian and German income tax returns.”
I inquired how she came to choose Coopers & Lybrand.
With a wide smile she said, “Well, Mr. MacInnis, this isn’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.”
I asked, “Why didn’t you use one of the other two?”
With another wide smile she responded, “At the first, I didn’t get past the receptionist, who told me I’d probably be happier dealing with a small 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 junior work on my account, but I want a partner in charge of it.”
“Fine,” I said, “that’s how it usually works in large firms. A staff person prepares the returns and then, depending on their complexity, they’re reviewed by a manager or a partner. But, I should warn you, that means our services are fairly expensive.”
She reached into the beat-up purse, took out a cheque book and said, “I will give you a retainer.”
I told her that wasn’t necessary; I just didn’t want her to be surprised when she got our bill. I then asked her what the source of her income was. “A German bank,” she said.
“OK,” I went on, “have you got records we can use?”
“Of course,” Mrs. Weiss replied and passed me a bound set of documents she retrieved from her shopping bag. She had given me a complete set of audited financial statements of a German bank. Then the conversation went something like this.
“Is all your income from this bank?”
“Did you receive income other than interest from this bank?”
“Oh, yes,” she said, extracting another set of documents from her bag. “There were dividends of course, and some consulting income and director’s fees. All the information is here.”
“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 the answer, asked, “why the disguise?”
“We moved to Toronto because my husband is the new CEO of (again, for confidentiality reasons I’m omitting the name of the very recognizable organization). 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 a very unusual bag lady.
Because of the German income tax implications, I took Mrs. Weiss and her re-packed shopping bag down the hall to meet my colleague Frank Sanders, who spoke fluent German and knew more about German income tax than anyone else in our office. When I left them, Mrs. Weiss and Frank were talking animatedly in Deutsch and I had every confidence that they would get along splendidly; which they did.
On my way back to my office I met one of my partners who snidely smirked, “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.