Donna races her way to better client relationships
In this episode, we talk about how running has given her an identity that clients are interested in. Donna spent many years at a Big 4 firm before starting her own firm with two other Partners, that was later merged with BKD.
Donna graduated from Mississippi State University and is currently a Tax Partner and also serves as Tax Director for the Mississippi practice of BKD. She works primarily with high net worth family groups, closely held businesses, nonprofits spending a large amount of time with income tax, retirement and estate planning.
Other pictures of Donna
(click to enlarge)
- Read Full TranscriptOpen or Close
John: Welcome to Episode 12 of the Green Apple Podcast. I hope everyone has a Happy Holidays and can relax a little before busy season starts. I’m thinking it’ll be a little tough to get interviews then so in order to pace myself, I’m going to start doing one episode every first and third Wednesday. So if you or someone you know is an accountant known for their hobby or passion, please have them contact me at greenapplepodcast.com, but first, let me introduce you to Donna. After 18 years with a Big Four firm, Donna and two other partners formed their own local accounting firm in Jackson, Mississippi which later merged to be a part of BKD where she’s now a tax partner and also serves as tax director for the Mississippi practice. And now, she’s here with me today so I’ll let her tell you a little bit more about herself.
Donna: I’m a tax partner with BKD in Jackson, Mississippi. I also serve as the tax director and have been in public accounting since graduating at Mississippi State and came to work in Jackson Public Accounting and have in some form or fashion been there ever since.
John: Wow! That’s fantastic. So have you been in tax your whole career?
Donna: Tax the entire time.
John: Wow! You know, you couldn’t leave. I’m just kidding.
Donna: Well, they didn’t tell me that.
John: They never tell you until it’s too late and now you’re a partner.
Donna: That’s right.
John: That’s so funny. I always refer to tax as the dark side because I don’t even know what they do. They don’t come out. They’re on a different floor. I’m not good at tax, so God bless you. We need more of you.
Donna: Well, I’m glad I landed in tax and not audit.
John: Well, yeah. I guess that’s true, too. It’s whatever fits your skill set. That’s fantastic. And so, just out of curiosity, how did you get into accounting?
Donna: Thinking back, I think my mother probably told me I’d be good at it and I guess I listened. You know, you do what your mother tells you. When I was in college and started taking classes, I enjoyed it. I think it came somewhat naturally to me, and so it stuck and it was the right answer for me. Other than probably being told that’s what I needed to do, I guess that’s how I landed there.
John: Right, and you were good at it, so yeah, why change? What drew you to tax as opposed to any of the other service lines?
Donna: Audit has never made sense to me. Maybe the rules of tax were more appealing. I’m a rule-follower and I think that’s probably why. Just the nature of tax and tax law was more my personality, more my skill set. All of it just always seemed sort of grey and probably because I didn’t understand it enough, but —
John: Yeah, there is a lot of grey area there, that’s for sure, but that’s great. Doing taxes takes up a good amount of time being a tax partner obviously, but when you’re not at work, what is it that occupies your time?
Donna: Well, probably that’s better phrased “early morning hours”, is working out and specifically running. I run before work. I work out. I do a boot camp, Paul Lacoste Boot Camp, and I run marathons. I spend a lot of time running and getting moving.
John: And how many marathons have you done?
Donna: I believe that I’ve done 18 and I’m about to do 19, number 19. The New York Marathon is coming up in about ten days, and so I’m currently preparing for my trip to New York for that one.
John: That’s fantastic. I’ll be here. I’ll be on the side eating a donut and probably a Wendy’s double cheeseburger. Yay! I did one half marathon and I was like, that’s enough. We have cars, but good for you! That’s just so awesome. Well, New York City Marathon is pretty huge. What are some of the other marathons that you’ve done?
Donna: I’ve done the Boston Marathon four times. I’ve been out to California to do Big Sur, Disney, South Dakota, the Grandma’s Marathon. I’ve been to Duluth, Minnesota as well. I’ve done a lot of local ones, but the opportunity to make a travel trip out of it has been one of the more rewarding experiences. I’m not expecting to go to all these places otherwise, but running has given me a motivation and a purpose to visit some of these either larger cities or small towns across the country.
John: Yeah, that’s excellent. That’s an excellent excuse to come to New York City or to visit Duluth or the Badlands or what have you. That’s so cool. So how did you get into wanting to run marathons? Is this something you did maybe in high school cross country and on?
Donna: No. I ran track in high school and I hated it. I played tennis as an adult and then my husband kept saying, “I think you’d like to run.” I said, “No, you forgot, I hate running. I don’t want any part of that.” In 2009, I realized that some of our friends were running half marathons and having a lot of fun, and quite frankly I felt left out and thought I guess I’m going to have to take up this running practice. And so, I started training for a half marathon and then ran several half marathons —
John: Well, you add them up then it becomes a full marathon, right?
Donna: That’s right. And then I ran my first full in 2011 and just —
John: Oh my! So you’ve done —
Donna: I thought well, if I’m going that far, why not train and do a few more miles? It’s a natural progression at that point.
John: Wow! So you’ve done 19 marathons in four years? Well, roughly.
Donna: Yes, I guess so.
John: That’s impressive! Wow!
Donna: I try to do four to five a year although I’ve got a number of back to back ones where you do either — well, Boston to Big Sur, I did two within seven days, so I’ve done that a couple of times, but generally you need to space them out to let your body recover.
John: Right, yeah. I’m still recovering from my half marathon and I think it was ten years ago. My mind is blown. That’s just so impressive, so impressive. Have you had one that’s your favorite marathon that you’ve run?
Donna: I guess like people talk about their children, it’s hard to say which one is your favorite because they’re fun for different reasons.
John: Right, except for my parents who think I’m their favorite. I just tell them all the time that.
Donna: Probably the one that is the most special to me would be — I want to say Boston either 2013 because of the bombings. I was very close. I was certainly not affected physically, or 2014 when I went back to Boston for the celebration of post-bombing.
John: Yeah, that’s so powerful.
Donna: Those are the two most special to me.
John: Yeah. Wow! Just one year later, just to go back and put closure to it somewhat, that’s got to be so difficult.
Donna: Well, the whole city just rallied around, the comeback, and remembering those lost and those injured. It was both reverent and emotional, but yet very much a celebration as well. It’s really hard to articulate that. Being there and being part of that both years were I would say very much a life event.
John: Sure, yeah. They would certainly be up there as far as special and something to remember. That’s for sure. Is running something that you talk about at work? What do your co-workers think about — do you run to lunch and stuff?
Donna: I don’t run to lunch, but yes, I talk about it at work. There are a lot of us up here that do run and train together. There are four or five of us I guess that will see each other for the first time at five in the morning when we work out together, but it’s certainly a conversation piece with everyone, co-workers, clients —
John: Yeah, so there are quite a few co-workers that do run marathons as well?
Donna: Well, some of them run half marathons. Some of them work out, yes, but there are several that do run marathons as well and we train together. Sometimes we travel to the same races together, but we can always coordinate to have our long runs together on Saturday even if our races are at different times.
John: Right, that’s excellent. Maybe with clients or even co-workers, is it something that just comes up organically or do you have some of the medals in your office or something like that? How does it usually come up?
Donna: I think it would be more of an organic conversation topic. It’s been very touching how many clients and business associates follow when my next race is and that’s one of the first things they say to me, is, “How is the training going” or “When’s the next one?” And after the bombing in Boston, I was getting texts from all these people from home checking on me, but most of them were clients that knew I had traveled to Boston and had heard the news and wanted to check on me and that was very meaningful.
John: Yeah, that’s so nice.
Donna: Yeah. It’s sort of like, “How are your children?” “How’s the running going?”
John: Yeah, that’s so great because it shows that there’s a level of care there as a person more than just as a client-tax partner relationship. It’s more of a friendship and a level of care there that’s developed over time.
Donna: In tax, I work a lot with high net worth individuals and family groups and that long-term client relationship is to me what is fun about my tax career. Talking about each other’s hobbies and interests is certainly part of what solidifies those relationships.
Donna: I have been very overwhelmed by how many clients do inquire and want to know what’s going on.
John: Yeah. I think that that’s so great that that’s what’s happening down there and somewhat even client-driven that they’re asking those questions, but I guess it’s different when you’re dealing with individual high net worth tax returns. I guess they do want to know a little bit more due diligence than just if you’re an auditor that comes into a company and the person that you’re talking to isn’t really attached to this company per se, so yeah, that’s really profound. I hadn’t really thought about it that way, that that would be something that comes up like that. I guess obviously talking about your running and your boot camps has obviously benefitted your career on all sides, the clients and co-workers.
Donna: I think it has. I think that there’s a bonding experience when we train together. Again, it’s something that we can relate to each other for. After a few races, the local news has interviewed me and clients and even prospective clients have called me and said, “Oh, I saw you on the news.” I had one lady who called and said, “Wow! I saw you on the news after,” whatever race. “Well, I’ve been wanting to change accountants anyway and I thought, well, I’m just going to call Donna.”
Donna: So I thought wow, that’s some interesting marketing.
John: Yeah. They didn’t tell me this when I was an undergrad. Talk about your hobby on the news and you’ll get more clients. No business school is teaching that one. That’s funny. Who knew? That’s really weird. Had you been on the news talking about some new tax update, they probably would’ve changed the channel.
Donna: Absolutely glazed over.
John: But the fact that it’s like, “Hey, look, she’s doing cool stuff. Let’s be around that person.” That’s so great. So I guess before you got into running — it sounds like maybe four years ago or five years ago — was there something else that you shared at work or was running the one that blew everything open?
Donna: Well, running is probably the most unique hobby or outside interest that I’ve had to share, no doubt. I guess we always share whatever is going on with us, but that’s one that’s just been a little bit unique.
John: Right, yeah, and plus when you say the Boston Marathon and the New York City Marathon, those are things that people have heard of before and they’re like, oh wow! You’re the real deal.” It’s not just, “Yeah, I ran around the block five times.” It’s like all right, whatever.
Donna: Well, a lot of people think I’m crazy, but that in and of itself opens up a conversation.
John: Right. Hopefully your husband is still onboard with this. When he was like, “You should run,” did he mean you’re supposed to stop at some point?
Donna: He is still onboard. He is very supportive and he travels with me. He’ll run short distances, but he really doesn’t have any interest in marathons at all.
John: To run it with you, no. My wife is also a runner and she did the Chicago Marathon, qualified for Boston, and yeah, I’m happy to bounce around the city and wave at you as you run by three or four times, that’s about it, and meet you at the end with a foil blanket or whatever it is.
Donna: It can be a great trip for the non-running spouse.
John: Yeah, and then when it’s over, I’m like hey, let’s go and — I always feel bad because there’s obviously some discomfort and you’re not up for necessarily going and doing a lot, a lot of times. You need some rest time or whatever, but you definitely need that support for sure to do something like that. I guess a question that I like to think about at times because I have nothing else better to do is how much of opening up or employee engagement, if you will, how much of that is on the individual versus maybe the organization to create that culture?
Donna: I think it does and I think it’s a responsibility from both. The culture is so important. No one wants to work as hard as you have to work in public accounting or almost any career, I’m sure, without enjoying it. I think that you have to have some personal relationship. And wherever you find that common ground, to develop that relationship is important, but I think that the organization has some responsibility to ensure they’re fostering that and encouraging their partners and managers to engage and try to create an environment where the staff are comfortable.
John: Right. That’s so great and especially someone like you at the partner level that’s willing to open up and share that look, work isn’t the only thing I do. I also spend a lot of time training and running these marathons and it’s a big piece of who I am. And I think it’s really cool that you do bring it to work so then people that are also in the office at a lower level see someone that’s very successful that’s made it to the top that you can do this. I think that that probably, I would think, helps others to open up as well whether it’s not even running, but whatever their hobby or passion is.
Donna: Sure. Well, I hope so. Everyone has their own interests whether it’s with their children’s activities or church, school. Whatever their interests are, I encourage them to plug into the community through that interest. It is certainly good exposure for the firm to have our people plugged into the community, but they’ve got to enjoy doing it. Yeah, I want people to find their interest and plug in, again, charitable work, whatever their activity is, to just plug in.
John: Right, yeah, and like you said — that’s an excellent point, is it doesn’t have to be a sport or a musical instrument. Just volunteering, just being involved in the community is just the same as any of this. Maybe a lot of people think, “Oh, I’m supposed to pretend to be a super accountant” or I’m acting like what I think I’m supposed to be in order to get promoted or be a good accountant. I remember when I first started. At first you don’t know anything, so you just start to just do whatever everyone else is doing, and to me, that’s when I realized like oh man, this is crazy because everybody else is going down the same path. It’s so crowded. All you have to do is just come over here where there’s nobody and be yourself.
Donna: Yeah. I think you have to be comfortable with what you’re doing and be an individual. You can’t be a conformist with what you think is expected of you. Having said that, clearly there’s a culture and — rule is certainly the wrong word there, but ethics —
John: Yeah. You can’t just come in and shatter everything, absolutely not.
Donna: Right, but I think having a mentor so that you can have that balance of a corporate structure versus applying your individual characteristics to it is important. Certainly people have to enjoy what they’re doing and if you’re living someone else’s dream or expectations and not applying your own personality to it, that’s not going to happen.
John: Right, yeah, and it seems by applying your own personality since it’s your own and it’s the only one that exists then you’re able to stand out a little bit compared to everyone else who maybe is applying someone else’s or definitely not their own, it seems in my experience anyway, but I’m not sure. I think that you touched on it, any words of encouragement for people. I think you touched on that, just bring yourself and be unique.
Donna: I feel like the training in my hobby has made me more disciplined and hopefully goal-oriented as I bring that to the office and to work. You get this satisfaction and self-confidence from having achieved something personally and I think I find myself more motivated at the office for those same reasons, if that makes sense.
John: And plus when you’re up in the morning and you’re doing physical activity, your brain is functioning. When you hit the office, it’s go time and you don’t need those cups of coffee to wake up and it’s not 9:30 before you’re actually doing something like some other people. That’s so great, too, with those small goals and just building up your confidence at that as well. That’s an excellent observation. I really appreciate it. This is so fantastic. You brought up some really good points that I hadn’t really thought of before.
I guess before I let you go, we got to know you pretty well, but the real way to get to know Donna is definitely my 17 rapid fire questions. I do try to do different ones each time to mix it up a little bit, some are the same, some overlap, but it’s just all for fun, so here we go. Star Wars or Star Trek?
Donna: I’ve never seen either.
John: Oh wow! All right. Sudoku or crossword puzzle?
John: From a tax person, I expected Sudoku 100%.
Donna: There are a few surprises.
John: Yeah. Your favorite band?
John: Journey, that’s a good one. Pens or pencils?
John: Wow! No mistakes here. I am ready to go. I should say pens and White-Out probably.
Donna: You have to commit.
John: Right, yeah, you’re all in. Balance sheet or income statement?
Donna: Income statement.
John: Heels or flats?
Donna: It depends.
John: That’s a solid answer, solid answer, maybe flats that you can press a little button and the heel comes out.
Donna: Now, wouldn’t that be a good idea?
John: Yeah. I think we’re onto something. Let’s do this. Favorite number?
John: That’s mine, too. Favorite sports team?
Donna: I’m a big tennis fan, so I would have to say that’s not a team, so an individual.
John: Yeah, favorite sports individual.
Donna: Clarify that.
John: Yeah, favorite sports individual.
Donna: Andre Agassi.
John: Andre Agassi, there you go. Right click or left click?
Donna: Right click.
John: PC or Mac?
John: Movie that makes you cry?
John: Oh wow, I haven’t heard that one in a while. Favorite color?
John: Blue, all right, and the least favorite color?
John: Oh, that’s interesting. Favorite ice cream flavor?
Donna: It’s been so long since I’ve had ice cream. I don’t know.
John: Oh no! Favorite dessert?
John: There you go. Yeah, you can’t miss on that. Favorite comedian?
Donna: Comedian? John Garrett!
John: Oh, John Garrett, there you go! Good answer, good answer! Diamonds or pearls?
John: And favorite thing you own.
Donna: Favorite thing I own?
John: Yeah, or that you have.
Donna: My newest favorite thing I own is a handcrafted rocking chair by Greg Harkins that I got for my birthday recently.
John: Oh wow! That’s fantastic!
Donna: When I can’t run anymore, I’ll sit in my rocking chair.
John: Yeah, exactly. When you’re done with your training and your runs, you just go and relax and rock away. That’s so perfect, so perfect! Well, thank you so much for taking the time to be on the Green Apple Podcast, Donna, and I really appreciate you being here.
Donna: Thank you, John.
John: I really hope you enjoyed what Donna had to share. You can see pictures of Donna including one at the 2014 Boston Marathon finish line by going to greenapplepodcast.com. There are links to iTunes and Stitcher and if you’re listening at one of those, please leave a quick review on there and I’d really appreciate it. Now, go out and be a green apple.