Ben’s coworker connections makes others say “Bravo!”
Ben was also fascinated by music and singing while he was growing up. It started with the children’s choir in his church and led to piano lessons when he was 8 years old. By the time he was in high school, he was performing in 5 different choirs and still keeping up with the piano. He graduated from Rice University with a degree in Music Performance and went on to sing opera professionally for some time. His favorite performance was singing the male lead at an old opera house in Mazatlan, Mexico, where the crowd was so enthusiastic that they were almost part of the show as well, providing a new level of energy to the performers.
In this episode, Ben and I talk about how there is a step by step approach when it comes to both music and taxes. Music is a lot more analytical than many people think and Ben is keen to finding the patterns, which is very similar to doing taxes. He proudly displays his opera performance degree on his office wall as a way for others to see his true passion and for them to see that you can be successful at the firm even if you don’t come from an accounting background. When evaluating staff, he feels it’s important for firms to realize that billable hours is just one component – and it’s definitely not even the most critical one.
Ben Westbrook is a Manager, Tax Administration at Berdon LLP in New York City.
He graduated from Rice University with a Bachelor of Music, Voice Performance and later received his Master of Music, Opera Performance from the University of Texas at Austin.
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Welcome to Episode 107 of the Green Apple Podcast where each Wednesday I interview a professional known for a hobby or a passion, making them stand out like a green apple in a red apple world. When I tell you to imagine an apple in your head, I’m sure for most of you, it’s red, right? Because in school, “A is for apple”. Remember that picture? It’s always the red apple, because that’s the stereotype.
But the interesting thing is that all apples actually start out green, and then over time, they turn red, turning into the stereotype. But deep down inside all of us is this passion for something other than our jobs. That’s what a love to shine a light on each week here on the Green Apple Podcast.
I’m also doing some research for a book I’m writing that should be out in April or May. It’s a super short one-minute anonymous survey about firm culture and how the Green Apple message might apply in your world. If you’ve got 60 seconds, please just go to greenapplepodcast.com, click that big green button there, answer a few quick questions. Again, it’s totally anonymous, and I really, really appreciate the help.
Thanks so much to everyone for subscribing and leaving rating and comments on iTunes or your other apps. So encouraging to hear how much people enjoy what someone described to me as “the least businessy podcast out there”. I guess that’s pretty cool. Subscribe, subscribe, subscribe. Don’t miss any of the cool guests like Ben Westbrook.
He’s a manager in tax administration with Burden in New York City, and he’s got such a unique story leading him to how he got into accounting. I know you’re a super busy guy, Ben, so thanks so much for being with me today on the Green Apple Podcast.
Ben: Thanks for having me, John.
John: I’m so excited. A fellow New Yorker. Well, not a native. I’m not a native, anyway, but another New Yorker on the show. This is exciting.
Ben: I feel like, five years, I can call myself a New Yorker-ish.
John: Right. “Ish” is appropriate to add on the end of that. That works. Like when I go away, I honk at people, but then when I’m in the city, I still say “please” and “thank you”. I’m somewhere in between.
Ben: Even outside of the city, I awkwardly avoid eye contact, and people are like “What is wrong with you?”
John: Exactly. “You don’t know where I’ve come from.” Yeah. But in the introduction, I gave everyone a little bit of your background, but maybe in your own words, a little bit of where you’re at now and a little bit of how you got there.
Ben: Sure. Right now, I manage the operations of the tax department at Burden LLP in New York. It’s a pretty good-sized, midsize regional firm in New York. I kind of take care of everything tax-related. Staffing, software, work flow, anything tax.
John: Wow. I don’t know anything tax, to be honest with you. You’re like in that dark world that I don’t know what happens. You’re the one pulling all the strings.
Ben: Yeah. It’s pretty fun. I started out as an accountant, but I’ve kind of moved into this sort of operations admin managerial role which I really like, because I don’t actually have to do accounting anymore. I can’t still use the credit of years as experience. Now, I have to start over.
John: Right. No, that’s hilarious. That’s an interesting point. What made you want to get into accounting, then?
Ben: It was kind of by accident, although I think there’s somewhat of a fate operating there, because I’ve always been interested in numbers and trying to solve things. I think when I was like in ninth grade, I started doing my dad’s taxes for him, which is ridiculous. Who at 14 does that?
John: I mean, I was playing Nintendo. That’s pretty much what I was doing.
Ben: I was just a really weird, nerdy kid. I was also into music a lot. Classical music. I sang, took piano lessons. Then in college, I ended up majoring in music, and then I sang opera professionally for a while.
John: Wow. Yeah. That’s fantastic.
Ben: I know. It seems weird that I brought that up when you’re asking how I got into accounting, but it actually is related. It’s like this really random, long story.
John: That’s such a huge leap. A lot of people say “Wow, going from accounting to comedy is quite the leap” for me, but for you, from professional opera singer to tax accountant – that’s impressive.
Ben: When I was in college, I had a job at a church right next to the college. I went to Rice University in Texas. There was a church right across the street, and they hired me to be part of their music department, so I sang in the choir, I played the piano, for the kids choirs, I kind of helped them out with whatever they needed. It’s a great job to have when you’re in college. One of the summers – I think it was the summer after my sophomore year – I wanted to stay in Houston for the summer. I’m originally from Tennessee.
Ben: I stood up in choir practice one night, and I was like “Hey, if anybody knows of a similar job for me, let me know.” Sure enough, the next day, one of the volunteer choir members called me up, and he said “Well, I own an accounting firm, and one of our admins is on maternity leave this summer. Would you want to fill in for her?”
I said “Sure.” I remember this, because this is so funny now.
He’s like “Well offer you $10 an hour.”
I literally thought I had hit the jackpot. Ten dollars an hour? Oh, my gosh.
Then the next summer, a different admin went on maternity leave, which is really crazy, because there’s only 12 people at this firm. I did another summer. Then that summer, I just really liked it. They kind of taught me some intro bookkeeping. I sort of redid how they stored their files at the time because this was 2002, so everything was still paper for them. I redid all of that for them.
Then after I graduated, I needed a job, and he told me he’d give me two months as a temp until I could find a job. He’s like “Oh, we’ll let you go interview. We don’t really have a fulltime spot.” But that was great. They’re just really nice people that they would do that. But then one of their CPAs resigned. I just –
John: Look at you, man. You’re just like backing into this.
Ben: I went right into his office, and I said “I think I can do that job. Give it to me.” Based on nothing, by the way. Based on nothing.
John: You were really good at alphabetizing folders.
Ben: I had zero experience in accounting, zero education in accounting. I have a music performance degree. There’s no minor. There’s no double. It’s an intensive music degree. He let me do it, though.
He was like “You know, you see smart. I’ll give you a shot.” So I became a tax accountant.
John: That’s so good.
Ben: I spent a few years there. By the time I left there, I was like fully prepping the biggest, hardest returns they had. Some real stuff.
John: Well, you’d been training for this since you were 14.
Ben: There was always something that I liked about the way the numbers fall in the form and the way the instructions like “Figure this out, put it here, then add is to this, and this is what you owe” – I liked that sort of flow, that step by step sort of like solving that it took. That’s always appealed to me.
I think that helps me in my music, too. Just using a step-by-step approach to everything just has always appealed to me. I think that that’s why tax appealed to me a lot. It was always kind of like solving a puzzle, and there’s no one right answer. There was a lot of technically correct ways to do a tax return, but there’s a best way. That’s always appealed to me.
John: Yeah, man. That’s so cool. Also, I love how you found that parallel between your music passion and background and your job, which is really neat. A lot of people wouldn’t find that connection.
Ben: Yeah. Music school is actually really analytical. I did go to music school at Rice University, which is a really great school, pretty nerdy, so it’s definitely one of the more theoretical school where you have to take a bunch of theory and a bunch of ear training and a bunch of history classes. It’s pretty intense.
But in our theory classes, you just sit down and you look at a piece of music and you analyze it. You look for the patterns. You look for the recurring themes and when did they come back and what is this composer doing or what is he trying to say? The structure of their pieces.
I do think there is a decent amount of overlap.
John: Yeah. That’s so great. That’s so great. This music is probably still a part of you, right?
Ben: Oh, yeah. Most definitely. I don’t really sing opera anymore. It’s really hard to keep that up. It takes a lot of continuous practice. I’ll sing at home alone. I have an electric piano that I’ll play, and I’ll sing, but I go see lots of stuff. That’s one of the great things about moving to New York five years ago is the ability to go see so many operas and concerts and world-class things are going on every week. I’m still very active in that.
The cool thing at this point is I’m far enough out of school that I get to see my friends that I was in school with years ago sing leads and big roles at these things. I get to go see them.
Ben: Yeah, it’s really neat. I got to go backstage at the MET a couple times because my friend was singing. They put me on the list. That was really cool.
John: That’s so fascinating. That’s so cool. That’s really neat. Really, really neat. How did you get into music? Is it something that you – just from growing up when you were young?
Ben: Yeah. I remember – or at least my parents told me, because I don’t totally remember being three or four, but evidently, my parents told me I was always fascinated with the kids’ choir.
By the time I turned five and could actually join it, I was begging to be in the kids’ choir. I always had this sort of draw I guess. I started taking piano when I was eight. I was in church choir and school choir. By the time I graduated high school, I was like, piano lessons, voice lessons, five different choirs. I was getting paid to be in a couple of them. I loved it. Just loved every second of it.
John: That’s so great, man. That’s really, really cool. Some of the more rewarding experiences or some of the cooler things that you’ve gotten to do when you were performing?
Ben: Oh, my gosh. Yeah. I’ve got a lot of great things. When I was in grad school, I did leave accounting briefly to go to grad school, although less than halfway through it, I started working in accounting again, because grad school is not cheap. At grad school, a group of us were invited to go down to Mazatlán, Mexico, which has this beautiful old opera house – it’s gorgeous – and sing The Magic Flute. I got to sing the male lead. It was a packed house, and they went crazy. It was so memorable. Everybody loved it. You know when you’re performing and you feel that energy of the crowd coming back, the way they laugh or the way they clap or cheer. I’ll never forget those two performances. But I’ll never forget them. Plus, I mean, it was in Mazatlán. It was like, then you leave and you’re on the beach, and it’s gorgeous. I’ll never forget that. I have a lot of good memories like that, but that’s one that sticks out as being pretty special.
John: Yeah. That sounds fantastic. I know as a performer myself, when the crowd’s all in and you’re able to feed off of each other, it’s kind of surreal, I guess. It’s hard to explain to people, really.
Ben: The whole thing was great, too. They randomly have this really big crowd of Russian expats in Mazatlán, so there were like four sort of older former Soviet classically trained string players that were out quartet that played, and they were just unbelievably great. The staff at backstage, the theater – every time we took a break, they were slicing mango for us and thinking – everything was just so cool about that form every aspect. The people, the performers, the stage, the theater. It was just one of those times where everything lined up.
John: Yeah, everything comes together. It’s like “We could do this. Why isn’t it like this all the time?”
John: I know what you’re saying, man. I know exactly what you’re saying. Is this something that you talked about at work?
Ben: Yeah. Definitely. Definitely. I’ve always been pretty open about that. I talk about it all the time. In fact, in my office, I have my two opera performance degrees right up on the wall. I want people to see that. It’s a good conversation starter, but I also want them to know that not everybody in this industry came from an accounting background. The reason I was able to get into it is because somebody took a chance on me. I’m hoping to inspire that for the rest of the people I work with to not be so close-minded like “Oh, if they don’t have an accounting degree, they can’t work here.”
I like to keep those up, because people come in that don’t know yet, and they look at me like “Wait, music degree? What?” Then I can tell them the whole story.
One of the things about being an opera singer is that – I was a tenor, and I was a big voice tenor. They call it a “dramatic tenor”. My opera voice is extraordinarily loud. People that are always like “Oh, just sing a little right now” – I’m like “Not going to do that, because then everybody in the entire four floors of our office will know.”
John: Right. That’s great, man. That’s really, really cool. Outside of the skillset of being analytical from music to translating to doing taxes in the office, do you feel that sharing has benefited your career at all?
Ben: I do. I think so. First of all, it just gives you a way to connect with somebody, talking about that. Then when I tell them that, a lot of times, they’ll tell me about their thing, whatever that is, and we connect over that. I think it’s helped me connect to people on a personal level.
In my role now in the sort of operations role where I’m over a lot of the HR functions of the department too, that’s really helpful to be able to make connections with all the people that I work with.
John: Yeah. Absolutely. How does that happen? I know sometimes people are reluctant. Let’s say there is an opera singer out there that’s like “Well, no one else sings opera” or “That has nothing to do with accounting”. How do you bring that up? Outside of someone seeing it on your wall, which I think is a perfect example for people listening – hey, just have a little something that’s out so it catches someone’s eye, then now we can talk about it. If not, then is it just sort of – it just comes up in conversation? “What’d you do this weekend?” sort of thing?
Ben: Yeah. Exactly. “What’d you do this weekend?”
“Oh, I went to see the opera.”
I’d be like “Opera? Well, actually, I used to sing opera.”
John: Right. “And my friend was performing….” Yeah.
Ben: “I got to go backstage. It was cool.” Yeah. Things like that. I’m a big chatter. I like to talk. I do want to bring it up.
John: Yeah. It’s not hard for you.
Ben: Which is kind of related to another skill that I think I really got from it is just the performance aspect of it. They’re like “Oh, Ben, do you want to get up in front of the firm and talk about this for 30 minutes?”
I’m like “Yeah, sure. Whatever.” I know how to deal with my nerves. I know how to present things. I’m very comfortable doing that. It’s a skill that a lot of people in accounting are very uncomfortable with. I think that has helped me a lot. It doesn’t bother me to have to get up and do that.
John: Right. That’s an excellent point. One thing that I’m always curious about is how much do you think it’s on the organization to create a culture where it’s okay to share and to talk about things that you’ve done outside of work even though it doesn’t have a charge code, let’s say, versus it’s on the individual to plug into that culture or maybe create a little subculture of their own.
Ben: I don’t know. I’ve been lucky I guess that I’ve never worked at a place where I felt uncomfortable sharing. I worked at two smaller firms in Texas. I worked for a big software company called CCH for five years. I always felt super comfortable there. I’ve worked at two bigger firms here in New York.
I would hope most places are like that. I know that’s not true. I think it just involves being at a place that wants to feel like a team. If that’s a priority of management, then these kinds of things about what people’s interests and hobbies are outside of work just sort of naturally come out. If teamwork is a genuine priority, I think that naturally happens.
John: Yeah. That’s an excellent point. Don’t make sharing specifically the goal; make something bigger the goal, and then all this other stuff just falls in line. Were there some things that these other firms or ever Burden does specifically to do that, or is it more of a showing by example?
Ben: For that, I think it’s more showing by example. I think there’s a lot of things that Burden does that I really like, but I think in general though, it’s just sort of fostering an environment where people feel like they’re part of something, feeling like they’re part of a team.
It goes down into just the way we staff our jobs. We don’t use teams that only work for one partner. We kind of spread everything out. We want to make sure people work with as many people as they want. We really try to make this like our whole department is a team that works together. There’s a lot of ways to do that.
I think staffing’s a big one, but I also just think like sharing information, having regular meetings where you tell everybody what’s going on – that’s huge. If they feel like they’re aware of what’s happening, they’re going to feel like a lot more a part of the team.
John: Right. Those are two excellent examples that people listening could implement tomorrow type of thing.
Ben: Nobody wants to be blindsided, ever. I know there’s certain things you can’t talk about, but in general, though, again, in front of pretty much the whole department, between three different meetings once a month and say “Okay, this is what’s going on. You need to remember this. You need to remember that. I want to let you know that this is coming next month.” The more people feel a part of it, the more they’re going to work to do their part.
John: That’s an excellent point. Excellent point. Really, really good examples that are simple. I mean, it’s really not hard. It’s been really fascinating to see people’s reasons why people don’t share. They feel like, well, there isn’t a charge code for this, or we don’t get paid to socialize, or things like that.
I guess from a leadership perspective, how do you view that as being okay? It’s not necessarily billable work.
Ben: It’s hard to really quantify specifically. Obviously, billable hours are a big part of this industry. I know some firms have effectively moved beyond that. We have not. But even when we talk to people about their hours, we always communicate with that – that billable hours, it’s just one piece, and it’s not even the most important piece of many, many, many different things we use to evaluate people.
Then too I tell people don’t worry about your hours too much, because I don’t want you to work too hard. I don’t want you to be paranoid about your hours to the point that you wear yourself out. That’s part of our communication. We do look at hours, obviously; if they’re super low for somebody, we have to talk to them. But the message is always just that that’s one piece of many.
John: Yeah. That is excellent.
Ben: When somebody’s hours are low, there’s almost always some sort of mitigating factor. It’s rare for us to have somebody that’s just low because they’re lazy or something. They’re in school to get their master’s, or they are working on this client and the work came in really late and they didn’t really have anything for a little while.
There’s always a good reason for the hours. We don’t usually do too much based on that. That’s a part of it. If we had this sort of “You don’t hit 1,800 this year, you’re out of here” mentality, that would obviously stop people from being more social around the office.
John: Yeah. I think that’s great. It’s a great mentality that you share with people to take the burden off of that and let them see that there is more to this than just the work necessarily. It’s okay to back off a little bit to create better connections, because then when you get back into it, you’re operating at a higher level.
Ben: Yeah. When you do your non-billable time, we have a bunch of different classifications for you to put in what you were really doing. Were you mentoring somebody? Were you interviewing? Were you recruiting? Were you doing a meeting?
When it’s in one of those classifications, we usually don’t get mad. The only time we might say something is if they plug to sort of the unassigned code, because then it’s like, okay, but there’s opportunities for them to say “Oh, you know, we had this meeting with all the interns, and we were mentoring that group.” Oh, put that in the mentoring code.
John: Yes. Exactly.
Ben: Most firms look at all of your non-billable time as “admin time”. We only look at the part that’s not classified into something else that benefits the firm. Being social and talking to some of the people under you, that counts as mentoring, and that’s important. That doesn’t hit your bad non-chargeable time, either.
John: That’s fantastic, man. That’s really, really perfect.
Ben: The other thing we do that really helps is that we don’t have weekly minimums for hours. We assign every single client to somebody, whether it’s at the prep or check or review level, so even as an associate, it’s like “This is your client list. These are your clients. If you’re not familiar with one of the groups, go to the manager, and you can talk to them and see the timing and plan your busy season out.”
We find that doing it that way, we have way less problems with people not being able to get to things when they take ownership and they think of it as their client, they’re willing to put in the extra hours that week because it’s their client, and they want to make sure they do a good job.
Whereas when you’re just assigning things as they come in, it’s just a random client to somebody. Then it’s like, oh, you know what? I’m too busy. I don’t have time. When you really get even on a first-year level some ownership over their list, we don’t have to set those minimums, because people have a way of just making it work. When they come to us, we know that they’re having a problem, and we fix it then.
John: That’s such a great idea, because yeah, a lot of times, you have this small piece of a giant client that you’ll never even see the final return or the final piece that goes to the client, but you have this small-level thing that you don’t even understand. You feel worthless. “I don’t even know what my piece of this cog in the wheel is” type of thing”, which is really cool that you guys do it that way. Like you said, the expectations are up, so they get it done.
Ben: It’s true. Then they love it. They’re more productive. We have meetings with just about every associate. Up here, twice a year, we just sit down and me and the HR supervisor for the tax department say “What on your schedule do you not like? Are there any clients you want to get rid of? Are there types of clients you want to start working on? Is there a specific person here you’d like working with and want more of their stuff?” We try to tailor each person’s schedule to what they want for their career.
We have a really low turnover here, and I think that’s a big part of it is we’re really willing to work with people to make sure that it’s the job that they want. Within reason, obviously. I thought, “Oh, I want to start doing more trust and estate. I really want to learn about that.” Can we retool their schedule to be more focused on that and to work with our experts in that field?
John: That’s great, man. Man, I’m glad I didn’t start there, or I’d probably still be in accounting.
Ben: Oh, yeah. Our turnover is super low. More than a half of our partners haven’t worked anywhere else.
John: That’s amazing, man. That’s amazing. Kudos to you guys for seeing the benefits of that and how it can really pay dividends long-term. That affects the bottom line directly. You’re not recruiting new people. You’re not having to train new people. You’re not having to get them all up to speed. That’s certainly something that affects the bottom line directly.
Ben: I’ve never seen anything like this. Our turnover is so low, in the two years I’ve been here, we’ve only had one person leave to go to another firm. People have left because they had to move outside of the tristate area for family reasons, and one person just stopped working. After her second child, she decided to be a stay-at-home mom. But only one person has actually left to go to another firm, which I’m very proud of. It’s a 100-person department.
John: That’s impressive, man. That’s really impressive, especially in New York where people are getting cherry picked left and right.
Ben: The job market here for accounting is so crazy right now.
Ben: You can leave and get five offers in a week.
John: Good for you, man. That’s impressive. That’s so impressive. Yeah. Do you have any words of encouragement to people that are on the fence?
Ben: Well, I do want to say just, everybody has a thing. Everybody has that thing. Mine’s opera. I also have one other thing at any given time. Right now, it happens to be baking. I’ve gotten addicted to the Great British Baking Show.
Everybody’s got that thing. Why you wouldn’t want to share that…You tell somebody “You know, I actually really like doing this weird thing”, and they’ll be like “Oh, you know what? I actually do this other thing.” Everybody has one. It’s not going to make you weird.
John: That’s exactly right. If anything, it makes you more interesting.
Ben: Yeah, exactly.
John: That’s great, man. So perfect to wrap it up on. But before I get on the subway and train into the city and hang out, I have my 17 rapid fire questions that I need to run you through. Let me get this thing going here. Here we go. You got a seatbelt? You’re all ready?
Ben: I’m ready. I’m ready.
John: All right. Here we go. Here we go. All right. We’ll start with an easy one. Favorite color?
Ben: Blue. Easy.
John: Blue. Nice. How about a least favorite color?
Ben: I’d have to say orange.
John: Orange. Okay. Yeah. When you’re reading, do you prefer Kindle or real books?
Ben: Real books. I know. I’m a technology guys, but real books.
John: There is something about it. Yeah. All day long. How about do you have a favorite actor or actress?
Ben: I’d say Patrick Stewart, I think.
John: Oh, yeah. When it comes to computers, more PC or Mac?
John: Do you have a favorite ice cream flavor?
Ben: I would have to go pretty traditional. Just plain chocolate is what I go for.
John: That’s solid. It’s hard to screw that one up, right? How about are you more suit and tie or jeans and a t-shirt?
Ben: Jeans and t-shirt.
John: How about more Star Wars or Star Trek?
Ben: Star Trek. No questions about it.
John: Okay. How about going back to elementary school – favorite activity in gym class?
Ben: You know, when I was really young, we did this thing with parachutes where we tossed it in a circle and ducked the parachute. I freaking loved that as a kid.
John: How about more cats or dogs?
Ben: Dogs, but I have a cat.
John: Interesting. Okay. In New York, it’s hard to have a dog.
Ben: It really is.
John: What’s a typical breakfast?
John: There you go. Solid answer.
Ben: Every day. Scrambled eggs.
John: Nice. How about do you have a favorite tax form?
Ben: I guess it would just be the 10-40.
John: 10-40, there you go. Not even the EZ. You want the long form. How about do you have a favorite number?
John: Why is that?
Ben: When I was a kid and the teachers would assign you a number, I was 27 like five years in a row, and I just took that as my lucky number.
John: That’s a good enough reason right there. Yeah. How about do you have a favorite movie of all time?
Ben: Favorite movie of all time…I would have to say Alien.
John: Alien. Wow. I did not see that answer coming. Interesting. Okay, three more. More pens or pencils?
John: Pens. Sudoku or crossword puzzle?
John: I figured that. Last one – the favorite thing you own or the favorite thing you have.
Ben: I’d probably have to say…I have a collection of every single program from every single opera and concert I’ve been to since I moved to New York.
John: That’s pretty awesome.
Ben: I can look back and remember all these things that I’ve seen. I’d have to say that.
John: Wow. Well, this was so fantastic, Ben. A lot of great takeaways for everybody. Thank you so much for being with me today on the Green Apple Podcast.
Ben: Thanks for having me.
John: Wow, that was so great. I loved how Ben said everybody’s got a thing. It’s not going to make you weird; it’s going to make you interesting. Too many times, we psych ourselves out, but once you share your passion with others, the right people are going to think that it’s actually really cool.
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