Interview - Amie Kuntz

Tax
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Amie is a freelance tax writer and consultant with 13 years experience in several areas of taxation. She also runs the tax and business blog Living the Tax Life. Hope you enjoy!

Thanks for joining us! Tell us about your background.

My senior year of high school was spent as an exchange student in Argentina. So naturally, I was feeling adventurous and initially applied to colleges in other interesting locations, like Hawaii – and I got accepted! But my Mom was not thrilled with the idea of me so far away again and so I went to Iowa State University, which is only an hour from my hometown.
Yes, I did study accounting, eventually. But like most good stories, there were big twists and turns getting there! In high school I learned I had a knack for foreign language and actually enjoyed it quite a bit, hence the Argentina stint. After my year abroad I decided I’d like to teach Spanish on the beach somewhere beautiful, so that was my first major in college (Spanish, unfortunately no major for beach going).
Very long story short, I ended up taking a brief hiatus from college after my Freshman year and moved to NYC for three years to pursue life. During that time, I landed a little receptionist/bookkeeping gig with a family owned real estate firm to pay the bills. It was an interesting business; the owners inherited a city block of property in the Meatpacking District in lower Manhattan that eventually became the Fashion District while I was there. In my role, I was invoicing and the like in QuickBooks and picking up a few tricks from their CPA who would drop in monthly to reconcile more difficult items. Turns out another thing I have a knack for is accounting, so I took a couple night classes to learn more. I realized I could probably make a lot more money in accounting than teaching Spanish, plus seeing the inner workings of a business is pretty interesting! So, when I moved back to Iowa and rejoined ISU, I made a big left turn into the accounting and business program.
At the time, ISU did not have a CPA exam review Master’s program or an official Master in Tax degree, like I would have preferred. But I decided to go for a Master of Accountancy either way to get my hours to sit for the CPA exam and take every tax class it offered. A very good decision I would recommend to anyone serious about the profession. Plus, I spent a Summer in London studying that last year; it was all right up my alley.

What was your public accounting experience like?

Right out of college I had a couple offers both in public accounting and with big company in-house tax teams. Either would have been a great option but I’m glad I chose public to start, and also glad I worked for a large national firm first. Public accounting at a large firm is like CPA bootcamp – you’re thrown into a fire and if you make it out, you’re a much better professional than before you entered. It’s where you learn the foundation of your entire career, things you will take with you the rest of your life: discipline, referencing, crying at your desk quietly, researching on your own to not look like an idiot in front of someone waiting to make you feel like one. I am forever grateful for that experience, even if it wasn’t always pleasant.
But I did decide to go to smaller firms after that, and let me tell you that is a whole other ballgame too! Clients of small firms have different issues than large firm clients and depend on their CPA as a trusted business advisor, in my opinion much more. At a small to mid-sized firm, you really learn about how a business is run and what a client needs. You’re basically an outsourced CFO, tax pro, and financial advisor all wrapped into one person, even if the business already has other professionals that cover some of those areas.

How did you get interested in tax?

I had a couple of great tax professors in college who were former practitioners. They would mix in stories about clients and working with different businesses, and it just seemed really interesting.
Since then I have been in tax my entire career and never regretted it over the other related options such as audit or traditional accounting. I did have an interest in forensic accounting for a minute – how cool would it be to work for the CIA or FBI! But something about tax caught my attention right away and I just knew it was for me. There’s so much to learn and know, and especially the last few years there’s never a dull moment.
There’s also the fact that if people hear you’re a CPA, they ask you tax questions…even if you’ve never done tax in your life! So I figured I might as well be prepared to help people who will be expecting me to have answers!

What’s tax busy season like?

It’s brutal. There’s a finite amount of time to get a ton of work done; it’s an intense peak that just has to be tackled every year (sometimes twice a year!). As a young kid coming out of college, you may have thought you knew stress and pressure, but tax busy season will be something unlike anything you’ve experienced. You're thrown into working 60-80 hours a week, doing things you may have thought you knew about but quickly learn you’ve got a LONG way to go.
In my first years I was working till 1am regularly during tax season, but I didn't know any different. Everyone was working hard! You're surrounded by people who are incredibly dedicated and smart, so you naturally want to live up to that. You feed off each other and it becomes a little competitive. Some firms post your hours every week for the whole group to see. I remember them handing out a candy bar for the person who had the most charge hours every week. It's a sick and twisted little thing, but it works! And I got totally sucked into it for a long time; I may still be in it, albeit due to my own internal anxieties. It really isn’t sustainable though; that’s why firms try to give a lot of flexibility in general and time off in the Summer.

You’ve gone up the ranks all the way to Senior Manager. How do hours and workload change with different levels?

It really depends on the firm and the person. But in general, if you're able to delegate effectively, the hours don’t change, but your responsibilities do. As I was moving up and became a signer of tax returns, I was caught off guard by compliance/deadline stress being replaced by the stress of overall responsibility and managing clients. You almost want to revert back to being a staff person with a safety net of people above you sometimes! When you're the signer, it's on you. You're the one who needs to figure out the tough issues and get it out the door, all while maintaining client and firm expectations. Even if you may be working a little bit less in hours, that pressure is intense.

You’ve also worked in private industry positions. Can you discuss that experience?

There’s no better place to learn how a business is run than working in industry. I spent my first 7 years in public accounting but always wondered what it would have been like had I joined an in-house company tax team. So when an opportunity came up in a phenomenal local privately held national manufacturing company’s tax team, I had to take it.
No more charge hours (though that isn’t the case in all non-public roles), no more losing three months of my life to busy season (again, not always the case so look out). Instead of managing a bunch of client deadlines, I was managing a couple big ones that took months to complete. The company filed in almost every state, had an international presence, and were well positioned to regularly be looking at acquisitions.
It was very interesting to see the inner workings of a large, complex company. I finally understood the other side of the work I had been doing for so long. How difficult it is to simply get usable information out of certain systems, how long it takes to make big decisions, or even simply cutting checks to meet tight deadlines. It rounded me out as a tax professional.
If you really want to know my full thoughts on public vs. private, check out my blog post which was basically me talking to myself trying to decide what was the best fit for me. It’s definitely not all inclusive but captures a big chunk of typical roles in both worlds. Maybe it will help someone else, too.

What made you go back to public?

Life happens, and sometimes it’s out of our control, which was partly the case of why I decided to leave such a fantastic company (and benefits package) to go back into public accounting. On top of having to move far enough away that the commute was becoming a big downer, I missed public. Something in me couldn’t sit still enough to enjoy a slower pace in my private tax role and I actually started looking into night teaching at a local college. So when an interesting opportunity back in public came up closer to where I was living, I went back into the fire.
With this particular venture back into public, I had an opportunity to help a small firm get their foot in the door to my hometown marketplace. I liked the networking, trying to get business, and potential growth opportunities it offered. I also was able to be a key resource in navigating tax reform (TCJA), which is where I realized my ability and love for writing about and teaching tax. They are a good firm but it ultimately wasn’t the right fit.
I decided to take a chance on another great private company, with incredible benefits, and year-round half-day Fridays! This time, though, it was for an industry in which I had zero experience that really necessitates a specialized knowledge base - insurance. I quickly realized that my generalist background and desire to continue following multiple facets of tax law may not work long-term for this narrower career path, even though it was a wonderful company and team. I started a tax blog in my free time and continued to give presentations to fill the void.
Even though I was blogging and speaking in my free time simply to be helpful and keep up with tax outside of insurance, it didn’t go unnoticed and I had an incredible opportunity come up to do the things I am most passionate about for a top 20 CPA firm. It was a perfect fit for my passions and skillset, so I took it with great excitement!  I was writing on technical tax topics, giving presentations, co-authoring the firm’s tax blog, developing spreadsheets for firm use, and covering any and all new tax guidance and legislation, plus reviewing tax returns which helps keep you in the know of real issues. I finally found what I was looking for all these years and I was great at it. Unfortunately, a world pandemic crashed the economy, and I lost my dream job after only a few months. C’est la vie, I guess.
So currently, I’m expanding my formerly fun little side project into something real. I’m bringing the things I did in my old national tax role to life on my own! I’ve added a services page to my website where I offer my writing and consulting skills to other firms who don’t have a national tax office. Outsourced NTO, you could call it.

How can those in public accounting get the most out of the experience?

Absorb information like a sponge. Take it all in, say yes to hard projects, learn from those above you. Read as much as you can, learn to research on your own, invest in yourself. You’re building a foundation that will help define you as a professional, try to look at difficult projects and situations as learning opportunities. I promise things will click and you’ll understand the “why” behind the tasks eventually, hang in there!

What advice would you give to current students?

Think about your natural strengths and passions. Figure out what speaks to you and piques your interest enough to make a life of it. It’s not to say that you can’t do a 180 if you find yourself on a wrong path, but starting out on the right one might save you a lot of grief! If you’re able to intern or job shadow positions and industries that interest you, do it as much as you can before making a permanent commitment.
Also know that life and business is a two-way street. Businesses will be vetting out candidates and you should be applying the same scrutiny. You have a lot to offer as well, make sure you go somewhere that will value you as a both a professional and a person.
And it sounds lame, but study and work hard; things will work out best for those who do. Be kind, to yourself and others.

What career risks have you taken? Are you glad you took them?

Putting yourself out there is scary but so important because you never know what's going to happen. It could be an incredible win, a painful loss, or somewhere in between. But not taking the chance kills the opportunity in total. You just have to accept a certain level of risk when you're doing something different. Even though you're not going to win every time, there's definitely a nugget of wisdom you'll get from those failures.
If I’ve realized anything, it’s that my career has been filled with accepting risk and being open to opportunity. I’ve not taken the easy road, and life has been hard at times because of it, but I do not regret any moves I’ve made. They have all taught me something important and made me into the adaptable, diverse, well-rounded professional I am today. Take the risk or lose the chance.

Can you tell us more about your blog?

I started my blog because I wanted a platform to share information. During tax reform in 2017 I started an email blast to my clients and prospects for the firm I was at, and people really seemed to appreciate it! Along with the email blast, I started writing for the firm’s website on tax topics as well.  
Once I was no longer at that firm, I still kept up with new tax developments and was getting questions from people regularly. I remember that I researched an issue for someone and wrote it up in a way that could be easily understood (so they’d stop asking me questions! ha). I thought...there are more people that could benefit from this, but I have nowhere to put it!
Intro livingthetaxlife.com in late 2018. It came together as quickly as the idea had entered my brain; it was such a fluid process that felt incredibly right and good. When that happens, you know you’re onto something, even though I had zero expectations or any ideas where it would lead!

If you could go back in time, would you still study accounting?

Maybe. Admittedly, I have a lot of different interests. Science fascinates me and it’s in everything we touch, feel, see...everything! My curious mind has so many unanswered questions about nature, space, and our own minds and bodies. Sometimes I wish I would have studied something in that world.

What is something you’d do differently early in your career (other than what you studied)?

You don’t know what you don’t know. I’m not sure how I would have figured out my true passions if I hadn’t experienced everything just the way it happened. Sometimes you have to go through difficult things to learn what you don’t like and understand your strengths.I do wish I would have had more patience though. Life is a long road, take in the good and bad with grace if you can, and know that things will go your way when it’s time.

What are your long-term career goals?

I ultimately like to make a difference and help people. Research, writing, consulting, and teaching are my strengths. So long as I can do that in tax I’ll be happy.

How can readers connect with you?

My blog is a good way to get in touch!