Tom is a tax partner and improv guru
Originally from New Jersey, Tom received his Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Dayton, OH in 1986. He worked the next 9 years with a large Wall Street law firm and with a CPA firm in New York and the Virgin Islands before relocating with his wife and children to San Francisco. Tom has been with RINA since 2002; he is currently a Tax Stockholder, Chairman of the Board and Head of the firm’s International Tax Practice. Tom works with outbound US businesses to structure overseas operations in a tax efficient manner and also with inbound businesses to assist with US entity formation. The consultation includes reviewing tax treaties to determine how to efficiently structure the intercompany transfer of funds.
In this episode, Tom talks shop with John on working in improv comedy and how he applies it to his accounting firm to engage interaction among co-workers. Tom also discusses breaking down the barrier between partners and their colleagues.
• How Tom got into improv
• Tom binging in his assistant as an improv instructor
• How Tom’s skill in improv helps him prepare engaging partner meetings and retreats
• How he introduced his improv passion at work and why
• Benefits Tom finds in people sharing personal aspects of their lives at work
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Other pictures of Tom taking part in improv comedy
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Welcome to Episode 176 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 which makes them standout like a green apple in a kind of boring red apple world. To put it another way, it’s encouraging people to find their and as my guest, Tom Neff, is an accountant and performs improv which are two things most people wouldn’t put together but one certainly helps the other a huge way. I can’t wait to talk to Tom more about this.
I’ve got a quick favor to ask, if you like the show and are listening on iTunes, 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 absolutely no different with my guest, Tom Neff. He’s with RINA Accountancy out of the Bay Area in California and works as a Tax Stockholder, Chairman of the Board and Head of the firm’s International Tax Practice. That is a mouthful, Tom. This is going to be so much fun though. I’m so excited to have you on the Green Apple Podcast.
Tom: Hey, good morning, John. How are you doing? It’s very good to be here. Thank you for having me.
John: Absolutely, man. This is going to be great. The first thing that I’d like to do though right out of the gate and as an improv guy, I figured you’d be ready for is my 17 rapid-fire questions to get to know Tom on a new level here right at the beginning. All right. Here we go. Buckle up. Here we go. I’ll start you up with an easy one though. Do you have a favorite color?
Tom: Sure, blue.
John: Nice. Mine, too. How about a least favorite color.
John: Mauve. It just sounds terrible. Fantastic. How about more Sudoku or crossword puzzle?
Tom: I’m a Sudoku guy. I think playing that is the best way to just mindlessly allow the hours to go by so Sudoku.
John: Yeah. Absolutely. On an airplane, I’ll transition right into that one, more a window seat or aisle seat?
Tom: Aisle seat. I always feel trapped if I’m in the window and I just hate to bother people when I have to get up.
John: Right. No, I agree. Totally. How about more Star Wars or Star Trek?
Tom: Star Wars a 100%.
John: Yeah. There you go. How about when it comes to a computer, more PC or a Mac?
Tom: I am PC guy. You put a Mac in front of me and I am completely lost.
John: Right. Totally. How about when it comes to your mouse, right click or left click?
Tom: Right click.
John: There you go. That’s where all the options are, right. That’s exciting stuff, right. I can hear you looking at your mouse as you answered it like, “Wait a minute. Which one?”
Tom: Yeah. Like, “Wait a minute. I’m not sure.”
John: Like it’s click and right click, I guess that’s more what I should say. How about more jeans or khakis?
Tom: Jeans, I think. Yeah.
John: Okay. All right. How about chocolate or vanilla?
Tom: Always been a vanilla guy.
John: Yeah. Totally. How about, I got to ask you as an accountant, more balance sheet or income statement?
Tom: Balance sheet. Everything just kind of flows into the balance sheet.
John: Right. Whatever doesn’t balance you put in good will and we call it a day, right. That’s how it works. This is a good one. Being in the Bay Area, more oceans or mountains?
Tom: Oh, that’s a tough call.
Tom: You know, it got to say mountains because I skied a ton growing up and January to April, as you know, is our busiest time now and I don’t get up to ski as much as I’d like.
Tom: I’m going to have to say mountains.
John: Mountains, there you go. How about do you have a favorite number?
Tom: Twenty-three and mine are kind of like sports related. I think of my favorite athletes and Don Mattingly from the Yankees was 23.
John: There you go.
Tom: It’s my mom’s birthday as well.
John: That’s perfect. All right. How about cats or dogs?
Tom: Dogs. No questions.
John: That one you didn’t need to think about. How about a least favorite vegetable?
John: Solid answer.
John: Yeah. I got three more. Three more. How about do you have a favorite comedian?
Tom: Since I was little, I’ve always been a George Carlin guy.
John: Oh, there you go.
Tom: I don’t know if this is typical thing but you had the cousins where when you went to their house like anything goes, like there are no rules there. Honest place to hang out and they’re the ones who turned me on to the Seven Dirty Words.
Tom: Since that time, when I was probably like 10, I’ve been all in on George Carlin.
John: That’s fantastic. I had a similar story, a slumber party with Eddie Murphy Raw and like, I’m going to say like 4ht or 5th grade. Yeah. Completely not right but my friend’s brother was a senior in high school and he had rented it on VHS. Yeah, we watched it. it was pretty amazing.
Tom: It’s been a long time. I think I need to go back and watch that again. I remember it being just really funny.
John: Yeah. I got two more. Two more. Would you say, more pens or pencils?
John: Okay. Last one, the favorite thing you own or the favorite thing you have?
Tom: Well, looking around, I’m in my office right now and I have this gold-plated four-leaf clover that I got from my grandfather. It’s like the one thing I got out of my grandfather’s house when he passed away. My grandfather was like this classic, Irishman construction guy. When he’d come to the house, everything was all about Ireland. We’d have to say grace in Gaelic. It was all about Notre Dame football.
John: I like this guy already.
Tom: Yeah. He was a crusty dude for sure but great guy. This four-leaf clover hanging in my office always makes me laugh and think about my grandfather.
John: That’s awesome, man. That’s really cool. That’s a really great answer. I’ll jump right in here. I mean, performing improv, how did you get into that?
Tom: I think I was kind of a quiet kid and performing growing up I was not a theater bread, I was more of a sports kid. I remember watching a skit, I must have been flipping around on TV and just randomly came across this. It was Steve Carell on the Ellen Show and they did this skit and Steve Carell was a big improv guy.
John: Yeah. Absolutely. Second City in Chicago?
Tom: Yeah, yeah. They did this skit where Ellen was interviewing him for some job position and he didn’t know what it was. It was just a suggestion that someone in the audience made, I think. As it turned out, he was interviewing to be a hooter’s waitress and just the way the thing played out, I thought was hysterical. Just that idea of kind of making up stuff on the fly, I started thinking it was super interesting. Living in Oakland, there are a couple of theaters, improv theaters around and one just a couple of blocks from my office had just a free drop at night to come and check it out. I went and kicked the tires a little bit and just had a ton of fun with it.
John: Yeah. Making stuff up on the fly, I mean, every day as an auditor for me, I really think people like, “Why do you need this form?” “I don’t know.” Here we go.
Tom: Yeah. There’s no right or wrong answer. It’s all just kind of gray so.
John: Right. Just, “Yes,” and, “Lady, hurry up.” Like, “Give it to me.”
Tom: I need to get my billable hours here so let’s get through this.
John: Exactly. That’s so fantastic, man, how you saw something on TV and were so inspired and just blocks away from you. There was the opportunity and you went in and did it. That’s cool. What were you thinking that first time?
Tom: So I was super intimidated when I walked into the class because there was this one dude there who was wearing like a kimono with a dragon on it. As people were walking in, he was doing like some weird like Tai Chi thing to warm up. I’m like, “What am I walking into here?”
Tom: He started talking about all these improv. He’s from Australia and started talking about all the classes he took in Australia. I had no clue what was going on. It took a little bit for me to get over that initial like fear of “what am I getting into here?” I realized pretty quickly that just about everybody else in the class was just a complete newbie like me.
Tom: It made it easy. The instructor made it super easy as well.
John: That’s great, man. It’s just so much fun once you jump in and let yourself go. It’s pretty amazing when you start a scene in place and then you end somewhere completely totally random. It’s like, “How did we even get here?” The kimono dragon guy dragged us over. “What? How come everything is going to a karate dojo? This is dumb.”
Tom: Yeah. I think everybody kind of have that instinct like when you first start out and improv like you have this whole idea that you come in to a scene within your head and that’s kind of like what you’re going to do, right. You learn pretty quickly that, “Sorry. That’s not where this thing is going.”
Tom: You better get on board with it quickly. Yeah.
John: Yeah, yeah. Now, I mean, you’re doing shows pretty regularly, right?
Tom: Yeah. I’m with a troupe now called Butter Boots and I was the one guy who voted against that name. It drove me crazy. I was in the minority so we are Butter Boots and we perform every month at a comedy club in Oakland called All Out Comedy.
Tom: They do comedy and lots of improv. We’re going to have our third show this weekend.
John: Very cool.
Tom: Getting into it.
John: Yeah. No, that’s great. I mean, I have to imagine that when you make that transition from those beginning workshops to actually having a troupe. I mean, that’s a big step, man. Congrats on that. That’s really cool.
Tom: Yeah. It was interesting. The others that I went through these classes with, when I did the drop in, I decided to sign up for a class with that same theater. Three classes later I came out. It was the final class that they offered. There was a group of us that have been through the whole thing together and we decided — they audition you for the various troupes that they have in that theater and we all got placed in different troupes and we decided we wanted to stick together. We went out and found a teacher. My administrative assistant at work was actually an improv instructor at NC State. We brought her on as our instructor and we found a little theater that we could practice in and perform in. That’s what sort of got us rolling.
John: That’s so great, somebody from the firm. Also, you’ve worked into that. Wow. What a small world, right?
Tom: Yeah. It was crazy. I mean, we didn’t have a teacher. There was this weird thing at the theater where they — you know, you’re either with us or you’re against us. We were not sticking with that theater. We were totally on our own. These resources were kind of placed in front of us so it was very fortunate.
John: That’s fantastic, man and so cool that she was open to letting people know that that’s what she did in her past as well because if neither of you ever let it out, that that’s what you were interested in, then Butter Boots would never happen.
Tom: Yeah. It was kind of a weird dynamic at first because like we have this relationship where 9 to 5, like she is my assistant. She’s working for me. Then, all of a sudden we leave the office and go to the theater and you know, different hats on but I think it was for both of us, I think it was pretty easy because she really knew her stuff.
John: That’s fantastic, man. Really cool. Is there a favorite show that you’ve had so far or more rewarding experience from doing this?
Tom: I would say the very first show that I did was the most rewarding and most terrifying at the same time. I’m going to say we had about 60 people there from just friends and family that we had invited. For the most part, it was not going well. As a beginning improvisor, you’re kind of into, I think you see with the experienced improvisors, they have an ability just to develop characters and relationships. We were fumbling around up there. I went out for a scene and there was a woman, Sara in our troupe who went out and initiated the scene and I jumped out and joined her and her first line was, “It’s terrible what’s happening in this neighbor, isn’t it?” At that moment like I had read that like that day or around that time, an article about how Oakland had become like this hipster place. There was even some hipster scale like they measure like how many —
John: How many hooded sweatshirts and beard combos there are.
Tom: Yeah. Exactly. Like, how many vintage shops are there, abandoned industrial buildings and some crazy thing like that. I had that kicking around in my head and so my response to her line was, “Yeah. The hipsters are moving in droves.” She went into this whole scene where like it was reverse gentrification where like hipster are ruining our neighborhood. We did this thing where like their kids are on the street corner like selling kombucha for $9 a cup.
Tom: But like the thing was, like we’re saying these lines and people were laughing their butts off and such a rush to be up there and have people laughing at you.
John: Totally, man. It’s a drug. I mean, it’s no kombucha but it’s a drug. Yeah.
Tom: I’m sure as you experienced, right, when you start just developing a connection like that.
John: Yeah. When you get in a groove and you just reach a level where you’re confident and you’re like, “Yeah. Let’s just do this. It’s going to happen. This is going to be great.”
John: It’s a cool feeling for sure. Do you feel like the improv has helped you at work at all or impacted work?
Tom: I definitely see that. I first started about three years ago is when I took that first class. I’m still sort of figuring out how it’s corrupted me when I come to work every day. There are definitely a couple of things I’ve noticed. One of my roles here, I’m a tax partner with the firm. As chairman of the board for the firm I have to facilitate our quarterly partner meetings. We’ve got about 13 partners in the firm.
I thought to myself — we had a meeting last Thursday and I brought this exercise into the meeting where we talk about trust in the firm and how to build the level of trust inside the firm. I think pre-improv, I was much more of a control freak. I would sort of play out in my head like how the entire conversation needed to go and then prepare like crazy to make sure that it got there.
John: Right. Right.
Tom: So with this meeting last week, I just came in with just some ideas. I read some stuff online and got some ideas. I think I see myself more as a facilitator to help bring ideas out of other people and to kind of riff on their ideas versus I’d stand up there and like preach everybody.
John: Yeah. Do you feel that that goes a little bit better?
Tom: It 100% has gone better. There was this weird moment of silence in the meeting the other day where somebody made a comment and I just sort of allowed there to be like 20 seconds of awkward silence before somebody jumped in and I don’t know. It just seems like people are more willing to open up in their — they’re more checked in because I think it just changed the vibe of the meetings and just made it more kind of like collaborative, I think.
John: Yeah. That’s so encouraging to hear, man. That’s not always the case. I’ve been in plenty of those meetings.
Tom: Yeah. They’re deadly.
John: Yeah. I mean, it’s a little bit of a bully mentally sometimes. It’s like, “I really want to say something but I’m not sure what will happen if I do,” you know, type of thing. By letting it breathe and giving them the space then people come more energized because they know that they can actually make an impact now, which is cool in a different way which is great. How did you start talking about doing improv because I know a lot of people that have passions outside of work, they’re like, well, it had nothing to do with my job. There’s no charge code for it so why should I talk about it type of thing. How did it come up for you?
Tom: Good question. I don’t remember specifically but it happened kind of slowly. I was sort of stealthily mentioning it to a few people that I was friendly with at the firm and I think the point where it really got out into the open was at a — we do a partner or a leader retreat with our partner group and our senior level managers. It’s an offsite retreat. When we did that a year and a half ago, I think it was, I brought in my assistant here to run everybody through some improv exercises on day one just to kind of kick everything off and set the tone for the rest of the session.
I got some really strange looks around the room when I was sort of describing what we were going to do but she made it super easy on everybody and we didn’t ask anybody to get up and like perform exercises. We think everybody had fun with it so it was all out in the open from that.
John: Right. Right. I mean, you know, is it something that you were tentative to share for that fear of people judging you or whatever or is it more of people are going to want to watch you and you’re like, “I don’t know if I’m good yet,” type of thing?
Tom: I think it was a little of both.
Tom: I guess I didn’t feel too fearful that people would judge me for. It’s just like the first couple of people I told about it, a few people said, “Oh, that’s really cool.” You get sort of blank stares back and I guess that there’s more just a sense that your like little world here in the confines of the office and your outside world and it just almost felt like a violation to bring in something. It’s like, “What does that have to do with work? You know, that’s absolutely nothing so why bring it up?”
I’m not sure how others have reacted to it but for me, it’s just been really fun to share that side of myself with coworkers. For our last show, I did get a couple of coworkers that showed up for the first time. I think they really had a good time.
John: Yeah. That is so interesting. How you said that. Like, it’s a violation or you feel like it because I mean I know exactly what you’re talking about and so many people that have been on the podcast, you know, I think can relate to that as, you’ve never been taught that this is something that has to do with your job even though clearly once you started sharing it with people, it makes you much better at your job. It just straight does. That’s what’s so rewarding to hear is, you know, they’re reluctant at first but then once you did, magic, type of thing.
Tom: There’s like this invisible barrier, too, right?
The more you move up inside a firm, you become a partner and like where it feels like a violation. It’s like that invisible barrier that’s there.
John: Yeah. That’s a good point, too, is that you move up then you feel like you have to act like something that you’re not. In reality, you’re the partner, like it’s you, just be you. It’s hilarious how the further up we move, the more we try to become something that we’re actually not and yet it’s us. Just do it. I see that all the time, man.
Tom: I had this vision in my head like of what is the Mel Gibson movie, Braveheart, is that what it was?
John: Yeah. Yeah.
Tom: Like he does that scene where he’s riding back and forth in front of the — they’re going into battle and I always felt like as I moved up in the firm like I could never be that guy.
John: Right. Right.
Tom: You’ll realize at a certain point was, “Well, you don’t really have to be.”
John: Right, not at all. Yeah. You show up with like half your face painted blue one day and like, “He was watching Braveheart, I bet.” Like, you’re yelling, “Freedom!”
Tom: Braveheart again, darn it.
John: Yeah. Your Irish grandfather is rolling over in his grave as you’re bringing up Scotland. He thinks, “Oh.”
Tom: Yeah. I can’t do it. I can’t do it. I mean, it just makes it more enjoyable coming to work when you know something personal going on with people that you work with. Like one of our administrative people here in the office, she got a dog a couple of years ago. She never really talked about anything about herself outside of work. Then she got this dog and she got really amped up about it like she’d come in, show you picture of the dog and talk about where she took the dog over the weekend. It made her so much more of an enjoyable person to work with.
I never really thought about like applying that same thing to myself until I started sharing this, the improv stuff with people. To me, it makes it easier to relate to people. When you relate to them on a personal level, it somehow breaks down stuff. It makes it easier to work together on client stuff.
John: Yeah, for sure. I mean, especially as chairman of the board, it’s like, you know, “Dan, dan, dan…” It’s like, “No, it’s just Tom. Go talk to him.” It humanizes you and it brings you down to everybody’s level of, “Yeah, I’m chairman of the board but I’m also a regular dude that likes to do stuff besides tax accounting. I’ve got this other side of me that’s really fun. There’s no reason to hide it from everybody,” then you’re holding back not only yourself but the firm.
Tom: You know, it’s funny, that’s a really good point. I hadn’t thought about that too much but in the role that I’m in, it’s really important that I know what’s going on and the only way I know what’s going on is if people tell me what’s going on. I mean, you alluded to it before, right? I think we both come up through environments in the accounting firm world where they’re like, “Oh, what are you doing talking to me? You’re a staff person, I’m a partner. Are you off your rocker? Go back to your desk and shut up.”
Tom: I certainly work for those kind of people and it doesn’t do anybody any good.
John: That’s awesome, man. Awesome. Well, this has been so much fun and really powerful. I can’t wait to get out to the Bay Area when Butter Boots has a show because I’d love to check that out, man. It sounds like it would be a lot of fun. But before I bring in it for a landing, I’d figure I’d ask you if you had any rapid-fire questions, turn the table back on me here and put me on the hot seat.
Tom: Yeah, for sure. So, how about funniest joke you’ve ever told?
John: Oh, funniest joke I’ve ever told that I wrote? Oh boy. Okay. Well, some of them are a little bit longer but I guess the funniest shortest one was — one time I did, I actually run a half marathon then I found out I’m not a very good runner because by time I finished, the winner was already back in Kenya because he wasn’t even wearing shoes. He went right through security. I think he’s just showing off. That’s really the funniest, fastest, shortest whatever joke I like. You laughed, so, good. Pressure was on.
Tom: All right. So one other, I’ll ask you one other one. What’s the thing you miss most about being an accountant?
John: The thing I miss most is a steady paycheck and benefits. That would probably be the thing I miss most about that.
Tom: That’s a good real answer.
John: That’s an accountant answer, no. Look, I mean, come on. You can take me out of accounting but you can’t take the accounting out of me. That’s how that works. This has been so great, Tom. Thank you so much for taking time to be with me today on the Green Apple Podcast.
Tom: Thank you, John. It’s been a lot of fun.
John: Well, that was so much fun. If you like to see some pictures of Tom on stage or maybe connect with him on social media, be sure to go to greenapplepodcast.com. While you’re on the page, please click that big green button and do the anonymous research survey about Corporate Culture.
That will really help for the book that’s coming out in a couple of months. Thanks again for subscribing on iTunes or whatever app you use and 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.