Sunday, June 7, 2015

A Mentor's Wisdom


“Janet, I was only kidding about the bathtub."

I started working at Arthur Andersen less than one month after graduating from college.  My work experience to that time had consisted of:

Working the retail floor, assembly line, delivery routes, and warehouse for the Pop Shoppe (24 flavors of soda that you could mix and match in a 24-pack case of 10oz bottles)

Manning the drive-up window as a teller at a local bank

Working on the street crews for the local utility company during my first two college summer breaks and in the tax department in the break between my Junior and senior years

Grading papers, tutoring and helping out with administrative tasks for the business office at Regis University as part of my scholarship funding.   

I enjoyed all of the above experiences for their own merits: Spending money, pressures of working in fast-paced environments, a little blue-collar grit, exposure to the corporate tax world. Nothing though really prepares one for the demands, culture, politics, and personalities that made Arthur Andersen a truly unique place to start a career.  I was pretty green in the ways of a place like Andersen.  

Fortunately I had several mentors to show me the path to survival.  This story is a tribute to one of those mentors.

Brian Dierns was a senior manager close to making partner when I joined the Firm in the summer of 1984.  Think of a much taller Michael J. Foxx with a more subdued and humble interior. I initially thought the Firm would consist primarily of formal, rigid people who felt they had to look, act, talk, walk and dress a certain way to fit the Andersen mold.  Brian, a decade or so my senior, did not fit that mold.  I think he was too busy working hard and trying to pay his dues to waste much attention on how he was supposed to play any game.  In that way he was a living lesson to a new guy like me. I was more concerned with substance than form but knew I needed a little form to get by.

I don't know if Brian made a conscious effort to "mentor" me, or if it was just his way to be helpful and to look out for the young people in the office.  I gained an early confidence in my ability to succeed at the Firm because Brian gave me real responsibility that challenged me to figure things out.  He treated me as a trusted member of the team from the start, but remained approachable and patient when I needed guidance.  Several learning episodes that I still recall:

Shortly after I joined the Firm Brian was writing an article for The Journal of Corporate Taxation on the pending changes to Section 382 of the Internal Revenue Code (IRC, Code, The Tax Bible).  This section of the Code addresses net operating loss carryovers.  I know you are thinking this is pretty sexy stuff, and you would be right.  Brian asked me to co-author the article.  I immersed myself in the old and new rules becoming a published author and an expert on the subject in the same motion. 

There was practical method to Brian's madness in having me co-author the piece.  We were implementing a planning strategy involving these rules for one of our key clients.  I would have a role implementing and executing the strategy for many years to come in my continuity with this engagement.  The Section 382 technique we implemented saved our client tens of millions of dollars.  More than a decade later the Internal Revenue Service  (IRS) took our client to court on this matter.  Our client prevailed in a notable Tax Court Case.  I don't know if he planned it that way, but Brian created an opportunity for me to learn a topic, get my name out as an expert, and implement a strategy that would play out over a decade simply by enlisting me as a staff person to co-author a technical tax article.  It was a masterful stroke of connecting the dots.

Apart from his technical tax knowledge, Brian also had a way of establishing a rapport with his clients.  He gained a client’s respect by being prepared for every meeting or technical discussion, listening, and getting to know his clients as people.  There were certainly more polished and sociable leaders in our office, but Brian brought an old school sincerity and work ethic that made clients feel comfortable. 

Brian had me tag along to monthly breakfast meetings he had with Fred DiPinto, an older gentlemen who owned a small oil and gas exploration and production company.  The three of us would sit down in the Petroleum Club with its great views 38 stories above the city and spend maybe five minutes on tax topics.  The rest of the meeting time Brian and Fred would talk about Fred’s business and family matters. Fred would make a point to give me one nugget about the oil and gas business at each meeting.  Sometimes I even received fashion advice. Fred always wore bow ties and one morning he presented a clinic on how to tie them.  Brian's lesson:  When you take a genuine interest in your clients as people you will build stronger and more trusting professional relationships.  A more trusting client will solicit your input as a matter of course because that person knows you care about more than simply selling them the next billable hour.

Brian had a way of imparting gentle advice simply by sharing his earnest observations about the world around him.  Here are a few such observations:

Financial Restraint:
Though it was none of my business I asked Brian what he would make as a new Andersen partner.  Brian was not offended by my invasion and answered openly: "I think my total draw before taxes will be about $160,000."

This sum was a lot of money in the middle 1980s and I teased him about getting soft and spoiled by the wealth.  "Hmmm, I guess you are going to get fat and happy."

"Not me.  My last year as a manager I saved 43% of my take home pay.  That percentage will go way up.  My goal is to retire at fifty and be a ski bum." 

Several weeks later Brian had a little movie night at his house for some of the staff people. Brian and his wife had a nice but modest house in a great neighborhood, but a house very well within their means.  We watched The Predator and Robo Cop.  Brian didn't equate affluence with happiness or stature. His plan didn't involve accumulating things to impress others.

Life at Andersen:
"Arthur Andersen is not a job, it is a way of life."  Brian said this often as a subtle reminder that the place I had picked to start my career was different than most places.  To succeed at Arthur Andersen required a commitment in terms of hours, learning, stress threshold, and social sacrifice that differentiated it from most places.  There is no denying that for better or worse the rhythms (people, clients, deadlines, travel, training, social functions) of the Andersen world dictated most of my waking hours for the thirteen years I worked there.  Looking back I wouldn't change it except maybe to revel in the "present challenge" more than I did.

Time Managemnt:
We did frequent internal trainings in the tax division.  Brian was leading a training session where he was reviewing several recent Private Letter Rulings (PLRs).  A PLR is a pronouncement from the IRS that issues a conclusion on a particular factual circumstance that generally has applicability to a wider audience.  Janet Jacques, a tax division manger asked Brian where he found the time to read all these PLRs.

"We waste so much time each day.  For instance, the time you spend sitting in the tub is a perfect chance in a relaxed setting to catch up on some technical reading."

Several weeks later Brian, Janet and I were meeting in Brian's office. We were reviewing relevant Code provisions as we schemed a client issue.  Janet was having a hard time separating pages of her Code that appeared to have suffered some major water damage, leading to this exchange:

"Janet, what on earth happened to your Code?"

"Well, I was taking your advice this weekend and was doing some technical reading in the tub.  Unfortunately I dropped it."

"Janet, I was only kidding about reading in the tub."

Maturity and Priorities
In his high school and college days Brian had skied frequently.  A Colorado native, he was an expert skier capable of cliff jumps and skiing the most technical terrain.  I asked him one time if he sill enjoyed a big jump or a helicopter (a feat where a skier gets air and attempts to rotate 360 degrees before landing) every now and then.

"I would like to, but it is not worth the risk of getting hurt.  I have too many people in the office and clients that have come to rely on me.  I can't afford any down time caused by being crazy on skis."

Coming from anybody else this statement would ring of arrogance: Both from the standpoint of current importance and former prowess on the slopes.  When Brian said it though I knew he was just being completely honest.  Yeah, he could still do extreme and risky things on the sticks, but he was an adult now with responsibility.  He would get back to those days at some time (see Financial Restraint) but he had to have different priorities now.

If you know Brian Dierns you have your favorite Brian Dierns story.  Here is mine.  We were in the parking garage getting ready to drive to a client meeting on a cold January afternoon.  We walk over to Brian's car, a shiny 1977 yellow Toyota Celica -- Tweety Bird Yellow.  The car won't start.  Brian gets outside of the car and pops the hood.

"Can you bring me that glass jar that is on the floor in the back?"

I reach in back and grab a 1/3 full mason jar that smells of gasoline and hand it over to Brian. 

"Get in the driver's seat and turn the ignition when I tell you.  I am going to prime the carburetor." 

Hmm.  This may not go well I thought.  Brian flashed the do it nod and I started the car. Two flames shot up from the engine as Brian jumped back.  He put the air filter cover back in place (probably should have done that before we started the engine), got in the car, and we drove off to the meeting.  Just a little pyrotechnics to put us in the right frame of mind.  The shooting flames dovetailed nicely with another of Brian's signature phrases - "back with a vengeance".  

I had a catch up phone conversation with Brian in the fall of 2014.  He has not retired yet to lead the ski bum existence and currently lives in Austin, Texas.  He did mention that he still owns the 1977 Celica.  I smiled at the symmetry of it all.

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