Tom hikes his way to better business skills
Tom Wheeland recently took some time away from work to hike with his wife to the bottom of the Grand Canyon. On one of the nights that they camped at the bottom, Tom took some time to look at all the stars he could see without any city light pollution. That’s when he realized, “Any time you can broaden your perspective on the world, you see both the significance — and insignificance — of what you do.”
In this episode, Tom and I talk about how this trip and his other passions of playing tennis and watching Notre Dame sports have allowed him to have other dimensions for him to talk about when meeting new people at work. He finds that it’s easier to relax and be himself, whether that’s in the office or on a client visit. This sets an example for others to see that, “The barriers that prevent you from deep relationships melt away if you’re being genuine.”
Tom Wheeland is the National Insurance Services Practice Leader at BKD.
He received his Bachelor of Business Administration, Finance from The University of Notre Dame and later received his Doctor of Law from Saint Louis University School of Law.
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Welcome to Episode 138 of the Green Apple Podcast. This is John Garrett and each Wednesday I interview a professional who just like me, is known for a hobby or a passion or an interest outside of work, making them standout like a green apple in a pretty boring red apple world. To put it in another way, it’s encouraging people to find their “and” as in my guest, Tom Wheeland, is an accountant and hiked the Grand Canyon and plays tennis and loves Notre Dame Sports. As you’ll hear, his passion for hiking especially has helped him get a better perspective on everything which in turn makes him a better leader.
This isn’t unique to only Tom as most of us have a hobby or a passion or something that sharpens some aspect of us that can benefit our careers whether it’s a long distance running for mental toughness or music to make the numbers on paper come to life or comedy theater, standup comedy for presentation skills or all the wide variety of guests that I’ve had here on the show. These are just a few of the examples of the hobbies and passions that can make you better at your job, but only if you’ll let them.
I’ve got a quick favor to ask, if you like the show and are listening on iTunes or your favorite Android app, don’t forget to hit “subscribe”, so you don’t miss any of the future episodes because I love sharing such interesting stories each and every week. This week is no different with my guest, Tom Wheeland. He’s the National Insurance Services Practice Leader at BKD, out of the St. Louis office. I know you’re a very, very busy man, so thanks so much, Tom, for being with me today on the Green Apple Podcast.
Tom: Thanks for having me, John. I appreciate it.
John: Oh, man, I’m so excited to have you on. You can vouch for me being a PWC employee. I mean we go back to the very beginning. This is amazing.
Tom: I actually saw you doing double entry accounting. I know you had trouble with the second entry. The second one, it was always a challenge for you, so it’s not surprising you decided to do something else.
John: Right. I remember having to — I think that’s so funny though. But actually, I remember the first time that I had to balance cash and I was just like, I don’t why I can’t do this. This is ridiculous. I don’t even know why I have to do this but, anyway, but yeah. But we go way back to the original PWC days which is fantastic. I gave everyone a little bit of an introduction to you, but maybe in your own words, what are you up to now?
Tom: Well, I’ve been specializing in tax my whole career in for the lion’s share of that tax as it relates to the insurance companies: life companies, health companies, property casualty companies. I came over to BKD a few years ago and I oversee the insurance practice, so consulting, auditing, and tax report up to me somewhat loosely and we have some really good people in the consulting and audit areas that really don’t need me other than the help organizationally to help with budgeting and getting resources. So I oversee the practice, but at the same time, I’m still practicing on the tax side. I kind of work two hats. I’ve got a giant melon of a head. Those are big hats, yeah.
John: This is actually true, actually, for everybody listening. He is not joking.
Tom: Well, it’s a podcast and sort of on TV.
John: Right, that’s funny. That’s so funny, yeah. But one question that I love to ask everyone and for some reason never asked you is just how did you get into accounting?
Tom: Well, this probably plays pretty well with your theme of what the typical accountant is or is not. When I was in Notre Dame just like you and I was told that I didn’t have to personality to be an accountant even though I really liked accounting. I decided to major in Finance and after I graduated, I worked for a year and then I went to law school. And in law school, I kind of gravitated to the tax courses. When I got out of law school, it was after the ’86 Tax Reform Act, that’s 1986 not 1886, for those listeners.
All of the accounting firms were hiring lawyers because they were trying to figure out what this new tax code meant. So I happen to fall in to that and I said, “Well, I worked for two years in public. I’ll go back and get my credits at night so I can sit for the CPA exam and then I’ll be a JDCPA and I will be an estate planning attorney and hang out my own shingle.” I came in, I did the first part of that. I went back at night and got my credits and became a CPA and then loved public accounting so much. Thirty-one years later, I’m still here.
John: Wow. That’s awesome, man. That’s crazy. I mean, yeah, it’s weird how when we look back, it’s a straight line but when we’re in the moment, it’s a zigzag and helter-skelter and I don’t know what’s going to go on. Yeah, everything happens for a reason.
John: That’s great. So when you’re not busy ruling the tax world for BKD, what sorts of things do you love to do outside of work?
Tom: Well, I get fairly involved in my church and like to play poker with my friends. I play a lot of tennis, not as much golf as I’d like. It’s hard to squeeze that in. My wife and I had done some nice hiking together. So last year, at this time actually, we were at the bottom of the Grand Canyon camping for four nights before hiking back out.
John: Wow, that’s impressive.
Tom: She got out before I did. I think she was hoping, well, not hoping but I think it was 50:50 as to whether she cared if I got out or not. I think I’m over-insured.
Tom: So there was some times when she was looking back and kind of disappointedly seeing me and is like oh, it looks like he’s going to make it. Darn it.
John: So we’re going to do it again next year. I can tell you.
John: That’s hilarious. That’s so funny. I’m sure Notre Dame Football as well, I know we’ve talked about that quite a bit.
Tom: Yes, yes. Yeah, although the women’s basketball team did very well this year. That was fun to watch.
John: Yeah, Women’s Basketball winning the National Championship, I mean buzzer beaters and two back-to-back games. That’s so cool. That’s super exciting.
Tom: Yeah. We won the Fencing National Championship too, don’t forget that, for all you fencers that are listening in right now.
John: See, there you go. You know I haven’t had a fencer on the Green Apple Podcast yet. So if anyone is listening that fences —
Tom: Foiled again.
John: Hello, hello.
Tom: That’s a bad — hello.
John: Yeah, but that’s I think how we connected to begin with was as Notre Dame Alums and being able to talk sports. That’s what is so cool is, like how something not work-related at all is what actually made us connected and still connected to this day.
John: What do you think it is that why the default mode is to not share that kind of stuff, the things that we love to do outside of work? I mean, I guess college is easier to share because it seems like it’s related to work. But the other things why do you think that people are so reluctant to do that?
Tom: Maybe there are two reasons. I think one of them is, some people are just shy and they don’t feel comfortable talking about themselves and their own experiences. I can respect that.
The one that I struggle more is when people believe that’s taboo to talk about those things. If you’re uncomfortable talking about your relationship situation or what you like to do on weekends, that’s fine. But if you feel that you can’t share it because people will look down upon you or make judgments about you, I think that’s unfortunate that people would feel that way. I always feel that it adds a depth to relationship. It helps you find common themes even if let’s say, I’d like to hike and you like to water ski or something like that. It’s an outdoor activity. It’s something that humanizes that other person and people gravitate toward people that show a depth of character and a depth of interest and people that are empathetic and are will to show that they’re human beings and they’re vulnerable and things like that.
John: Yeah, absolutely, yeah, it is crazy. Not the drama sort of stuff, but just things that really fuel you. Things that you’re really passionate about, that you can put pictures of in your office, you know sort of a thing to be like, “Hey, yeah, I’m a real person that goes and hikes the Grand Canyon.” When people make that taboo and it’s not professional or there isn’t a charge code to talk about these things. I was like, man, that’s insane. That’s completely insane. Is there anything that you do as a partner to show the people around you that it’s okay?
Tom: I think probably, what I do most is just try to set an example. So when I take staff and managers and senior managers and directors out to see clients, I think very early on, they can see that a lot of the walls that we put up in business kind of crumble. I am who I am and whether you like it or not that’s up to you. But I’m never afraid to be myself and part of being myself is I — for instance, I know my clients that generally know their relationships and are they married or do they have children or do they like cats or what their favorite things to do are. I think when I bring the staff out, they see that and then they are more than willing because they see there’s some effectiveness to it and I don’t want to make it sound like it’s mercenary like I’m doing these things just to get business. But I really do it to develop friendships and relationships and because I feel I’m being more genuine.
Maybe that’s the most important thing. If you’re being genuine, then people just really like that. They might not like what you’re genuine about, but they respect the fact that you are genuine and that there’s not an artifice there. I think that rubs off on the people that have worked with me over the years and I think that allows them to be more human. A lot of those barriers to developing deep, long lasting relationships kind of melt away if you’re genuine.
John: Right. Like you said, it’s not being mercenary about it. You’re going to get business either way, so you might as well make it fun. I mean we’re going to be here either way, so I might as well enjoy the people that I’m around.
John: I might as well enjoy the clients that I have and the byproduct is better business.
Tom: Right. That’s a great point. If we’re in the seventh ring of hell during busy season, let’s just have little fun while we’re at it, right?
John: Right, exactly. I mean at least know who you’re going down with. This is the end of days. At least I know that you really like to water ski or whatever — right? That’s what I always found interesting you know, when I doing the internal audit or the merger acquisition types stuff was, you know, if we’re in the middle of this, why don’t have some laughs or why not have just a couple of moments of reprieve to catch your breath and something like that where – you know, I’m not sure if that’s always allowed or even an idea for anyone to even think that way.
Tom: Right, good.
John: Yeah and so I guess, is this something that you talk about at work, the hiking or the Notre Dame Sports or tennis or things like that?
Tom: Well, I’m in my office right now and I can look around and I’ve got a Lou Holtz statue there. I’ve got a bunch of — this is kind of interesting, but if somebody passes away and I get a mass card or a holy card at the wake, I sometimes put some of those on my wallet. I know that kind of shows a religious bent, but I don’t feel any compulsion not to do it. I’ve got a picture of myself golfing and there’s a clown in the picture. I’m not sure where that clown came from. I got a picture of my dad and myself at Notre Dame for a football game weekend. I’ve got pictures of my granddaughter who’s six months old, so yeah.
John: Oh, fantastic.
Tom: Yeah. I guess when you come in my office, you probably get an idea of the type of person that I am and maybe some of the things that interest me.
John: Yeah, no and that’s such a simple way to let it out there because then they’re asking you. What’s up with the clown and the golfing? I don’t know either, ma’am, but it’s a pretty funny picture.
Tom: And I’m scared of the clowns, so yeah.
John: Right. No wonder I shank that shot. But you know, that’s such an easy way for people that especially tend to be more introverted or don’t want to feel like they’re bragging or whatever. It’s just like these are just things that bring me joy to look at and you’re coming into my world.
John: So you get to look at them, too, sort of a thing. Do you feel that any of these – well, like you said, the hiking you know you can find common ground with people, do you feel like it makes you a better accountant or a better business person of all these extracurricular activities?
Tom: I think anytime you can broaden your perspective on the world. And then you see both the significance and insignificance in what you do. What we do is significant. I don’t sound silly, but we take complex tax rules and regulations and try to make them more simple, more digestible for people that are trying to run up business and they’re trying to employ people and they’re trying to accomplish a task. And by us handling our side of the job, they can feel free to do their things. You realize what we do is significant and I’m compensated for it in handsomely so. But then there’s this other part of your life that I think that needs to develop and flourish for you to kind of then return with your batteries charged to what you do.
When you’re standing in the vastness of the Grand Canyon and you’re looking up at the sky and you can see millions of stars, you realize that just as a person you’re somewhat insignificant. But then, when you look at the relationships you have in your personal life, you are significant. So it’s kind of that yin and yang of understanding your place in the universe I think, that I experience that a year ago. It was somewhat mind-blowing really because until then, we all have this somewhat feel maybe at times that the world kind of revolves around us. I have got two children and I think each one of them went to that period that they felt the world revolved around them. But at some point, you realize it doesn’t. It was a tremendous experience though, it really was.
John: Yeah, for sure, especially CPAs and I’d say partners that could probably do a lot of good for people to realize that yeah, it doesn’t always, always revolve around you. I’m sure part of you is sitting down there and like “I wonder who does the taxes for those stars, we could probably get a little business.”
Tom: Yeah. Do they have an alternative taxing regime in another galaxy out there? Is there another way to do this?
John: No. But I mean that’s so profound for you to be able to unplug and to just really just be engrossed in that and to think like wow, to really even consider that is really fantastic and really cool. Then, yeah, you’re able to come back and share that with people. You know about it and some pictures if they ask or things like that. That’s really cool. Is this something that you are always open with from the beginning of your career?
Tom: I guess I was just because I’m just not really good at pretending to be. I’m not saying that people pretend to be somebody else. I’m really just an open book and I always have been. That seemed that that’s best quality in the world because sometimes I can probably come off like who does this guy thinks he is? But it’s just easier for me to just relax in an environment and just say this is what I am and if this isn’t right, I’ll move someplace else. But I really don’t know any other way to be in, I think it was probably because my parents were so diligent about making me always be honest and open with who I am and what my values are. I never really lost that. I’m not saying I’ve always been true to everything, but I think fundamentally, I am my parents child and I try to be just very forthright with who I am and what I am.
John: Yeah. I tell people I was just too dumb to know any different. I mean, this is me. I didn’t know we were supposed to be something else. The firm hired me, so I’m going to be me. That’s what so crazy to me is, the firm didn’t hire to pretend to you. So be you. Everybody’s got some really cool things and really great assets that you can leverage for your own career and for the firm’s benefit. Not everybody is showing up to the table with all that. Yeah, it’s very similar where it’s like I didn’t know any other way type of thing. Is it something that — does BKD do anything specifically to encourage this or make it that kind of a culture or is it something that’s more of a case by case basis I guess within offices or what have you?
Tom: Well, I think all the firms try to encourage work life balance. If that’s part of the conversation, again, it’s public accounting so there are times when work life balance is a little bit skewed toward the work rather than the life. We also have all kinds of activities within the community that you can participate in. There’s ample vacation time to take and then every 5th year, partners get a sabbatical where you get a month off, and you pretty much have to — you have decompress because there’s nothing to do that kind of unplug you.
John: Oh, wow.
Tom: Your email, you’re really almost like in an Amish shunning ceremony or thrown out there for a month and you will disappear and we will see you in a month. It’s really, it takes you a couple days before you check email. But once you got into a rhythm after about three and a half week, you’re like, okay, I really don’t want to go back for a little while because you kind of enjoined this, but no. I never backfire or something never actually came back from their sabbatical but —
John: I forgot where the office was.
Tom: They changed the door codes.
John: Right, right.
Tom: The ability to take a trip, we took a trip as a family a year-and-a-half ago, went to Europe. My daughter at that time was 14 and my wife and I — our son is married and lives in Chicago. He couldn’t go. But my wife and daughter and I got to spend two-and-a-half weeks in Europe. That’s a life-changing perspective, particularly for a 14-year old girl who’s looking at — we’re in Austria, we’re in Switzerland, we’re in Germany and she — it really broadened her horizons too and it was time that you — time is that most precious commodity as we all know as we get older that, to spend time with people and to give them your almost undivided attention for an extended period of time and then do experience new things together, that’s priceless. So I’m very appreciative to the firm for having that because it’s a great opportunity. I can’t wait for another three-and-a-half years to go by before I can go back and take another sabbatical stuff.
John: Right. I think that’s also really cool, too. Then it shows you that, you know what, it’s okay. The firm is going to be okay if you take a month off. I think so many people are so nervous to take vacation because oh, everything is going to fall apart when I’m away. And it’s like, calm down. You’re not the only person that makes the ship go. Yeah, that’s really cool. So, one thing that I kick around in my head because one day, I decide one thing and the other day the next, but there is something else. How much do you think it’s on the organization to create that culture where it’s okay or how much is it on the individual, like you and I, accidentally did to just be themselves?
Tom: That’s interesting because I’m sure that at BKD just like at the PWC, maybe it’s kind of an office by office feeling. You can try to have a culture that is expensive and covers everything, but you’re always going to be in a different office with different leadership. Some of it is the tone at the top. So I guess you can imagine being in an office that just didn’t welcome that. I don’t know what that would be like to be honest with you. But I think it’s really incumbent upon me as an individual. When I interviewed at BKD to try to get a feel for, is this the type of organization that’s going to be able to accept me as me? And then, once I got here, I kind of felt like okay, now my — part of our responsibility is to create a culture where these other people can come in and feel comfortable being who they are and knowing that it’s kind of a safe environment and we’re going to walk on that.
John: Yeah, no. That’s fantastic, man. That’s really great, because we need more of that. I guess do you have any words of wisdom to anyone listening that maybe they’re afraid to open up and chair or maybe they’re partners that think that if you’re not building work, then why are you here, type of thing?
Tom: So much of that hopefully comes through when you’re interviewing and you can kind of feel out those firms and their personalities. It really generally is somewhat representative. The people that you send out to do interviews are hopefully the types of people that are excelling in the organization which gives you an idea that maybe that’s the type of person that is welcome in that organization and that might give you a read. But occasionally, in a situation where maybe that’s not the case, but the great thing about what we do is, and it’s encouraged now more than ever even by the firms themselves is developing your own brand. You are your own best ambassador and you can pick up and go someplace else. But certainly, try to be the best you can in the environment you’re in. I think you’ll be surprised that most people gravitate toward that. If they don’t, you’re portable. You got that great skill set between your ears that can pretty much take that anywhere you want to go.
John: Right. Yeah, I agree totally because it’s one of those things where I think as accountants were always asking for permission before acting. We’re always scared or afraid or no one’s ever done that or whatever, but you’re so surprised that when you’re just you and you’re genuine and authentic and excited about something, other people are also excited for you or they feel that energy and they feel that aliveness, I guess and people are naturally gravitated towards that. I think we’re our own worst enemy in that. Our own biggest barrier to overcome is just to get of our own way, you know.
Now, that’s awesome, man. I think it’s fantastic and I always love catching up with you. But now that I have my 17 rapid fire questions, I’m not sure if we could hangout unless we, you know, I guess catch a Notre Dame Football game. We’re going to be there for like all day. So we need to make sure that we can hangout and not to stir any trouble up too much with the ushers.
Tom: No guarantees there, my friend, no guarantees.
John: Down in front, down in front, everyone’s got to stay seated. If you’ve ever been in a Notre Dame Football, that’s just hilarious. But here we go, 17 rapid fire questions. Let me fire this machine up here. Alright, here we go. I’ll start you out on an easy one, easy one, favorite color?
John: Blue, alright. How about a least favorite color?
John: Orange, yeah, good answer. Are you more Star Wars or Star Trek?
Tom: Oh, I see, we all want to live long and prosper, but we also want the force to be with us. Let’s see. I’m going to say Star Trek.
John: Okay, interesting, alright. When it comes to computers, are you more of a PC or a MAC?
John: Yeah, totally. When it comes to a mouse, would you say you’re a left-click or a right-click?
Tom: Always a right clicker.
John: Yeah, yeah. That’s where the fun stuff is, right?
John: How about do you prefer more hot or more cold?
Tom: Oh, cold.
John: Cold, okay. How about when it comes to toilet paper, over or under on the roll?
Tom: I used to be under. I’ve gone over, actually.
John: Yeah, how about you’re more of a balance sheet or income statement?
Tom: Balance sheet.
John: Balance sheet, there you go. How about a favorite food?
Tom: Grilled fish taco.
John: Oh, yeah.
Tom: It’s kind of one of my more recent thing, yeah.
John: Okay, alright, yeah, absolutely. Would you say you’re more pens or pencils?
Tom: Pens. Then I don’t make as many mistakes.
John: Oh, nice, okay. Alright. How about do you have a favorite number?
Tom: Okay, I usually go either three or 16 because Jo Montana were both those.
John: Right, right. Now, that’s a fair answer. Absolutely! Would you say you’re more Sudoku or Crossword Puzzle?
Tom: Oh, that’s a toss. I do them both.
John: Okay. How about do you have a favorite band?
Tom: Rolling Stones, no question about it.
John: Nice, man. We got four more, four more. Are you more cats or dogs?
John: Okay, alright. How about do you have a favorite actor or actress?
Tom: Favorite actor, probably, Harrison Ford. He’s just strong in everything he does. Yeah.
John: Yeah. No, absolutely, and really good movies, too. Yeah, totally, all right. Are you more of an early bird or a night owl?
Tom: Night owl by far.
John: Alright, the last one is the favorite thing you own or the favorite thing you have?
Tom: My family.
John: Your family, yeah, that’s a slam dunk. That’s a slam dunk. Well, cool. Thank you so much, Tom. This was awesome and it was so great to catch up with you again and have you be a part of the Green Apple Podcast.
Tom: Thanks, buddy, God bless. We’ll see you hopefully soon.
John: Wow. That was so much fun. I just loved how Tom said that the barriers that prevent you from deep relationships melt away if you’re being genuine. I couldn’t agree more and I could honestly vouch for the fact that Tom is an absolutely perfect example of this. And all you could do is be the best of you that you can be and people will respect that.
If you’d like to see some pictures of Tom from his hike in the Grand Canyon or connect with him on social media, be sure to go to www.greenapplepodcast.com. While you’re on the page, click that big green button and do the anonymous research survey about firm culture. Thanks again for subscribing on iTunes or whatever app you use for sharing this with your friends, so they get the message that we’re all trying to spread, which is to go out and be a green apple.