TEI at Three Score and Thirteen: Respected, Essential-and Evolving
As new leaders inevitably emerge, seasoned professionals say TEI critical to professional, personal growth

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Over seventy years ago, a core group of corporate tax professionals met in New York City and created an organization to serve the professional needs of in-house tax executives. Meeting the education, networking, and advocacy needs of business tax professionals has anchored Tax Executives Institute ever since.

Over the ensuing decades, notes TEI Executive Director Eli Dicker, the organization has grown in size and scope, from one chapter to fifty-six, from fifteen members to more than 7,000, resident on five continents. “At the same time, so too have the business and regulatory environments in which our members work, striving daily to add value to the departments and employers they serve, while seeking personal and professional fulfillment. At every step, TEI has been its members’ steady partner, adapting to serve and support their particular needs, while staying true to the vision of its founders,” Dicker says. In particular, he points out, TEI’s education platform, historically focused on technical excellence, has been successfully expanded to address skills-based learning, modifications designed to reflect heightened market demand and member need. “And, TEI has also modified how its educational content is delivered, a further testament to how it meets the changing needs of its members. The following narratives provide insight into our members, how they embrace TEI, and how TEI embraces them,” Dicker says.

Assisting In-House Tax Professionals

There’s no question that TEI members think the organization has done an excellent job serving in-house tax professionals. “My participation on TEI’s IRSAA committee [IRS Administrative Affairs Committee] and attendance at the TEI Annual and Midyear Conferences and Audit & Appeals Seminar has allowed me to share knowledge of tax laws and administrative best practices with in-house tax professionals at TEI chapter meetings and also with Barrick global tax team members,” says Colleen Brown, senior tax advisor at Barrick Gold.

“My participation on TEI’s IRSAAC committee and attendance at the TEI Annual, Midyear, and Audit & Appeals Conferences has allowed me to share knowledge of tax laws and administrative best practices with in-house tax professionals at TEI chapter meetings and also with Barrick global tax team members.” —Colleen Brown

The experienced U.S. tax team members at Barrick attend and participate in monthly TEI chapter meetings, Brown notes. As a result of this continuous effort to stay informed about the latest regulatory and administrative changes, she explains, TEI has created substantial value for Barrick shareholders. “The impact of the knowledge gained through the association with TEI includes significant cash saving projects initiated and completed over the years, along with ensuring significant compliance with complex international tax laws and regulations,” she says.

For Mitch Frank, general director, taxes at BNSF Railway Inc., TEI represents the strength of the in-house tax professional community globally and has offered him the opportunity to serve in several ways. “The most significant way has been serving my chapter membership through leadership, as I have served in each of the elected positions in Dallas. I have also enjoyed and personally benefited from volunteering on behalf of the local tax community, in that I have served as committee chair for several Dallas Chapter activities, specifically the federal luncheon presentations committee and as sponsor of our annual two-day Tax School,” Frank says.

In addition, he explains, he had earlier involvement with TEI outside of the Dallas Chapter that gave him the chance to influence the way large companies are audited by the IRS. “Along with many others, I was among the TEI members who consulted with IRS LMSB [Large and Mid-Size Business division] leadership on the design of the CAP program in the early 2000s. I still recall how well my team’s presentation of our views of the potential, both theoretically and practically, of what became the CAP concept was received by the IRS participants in that meeting.” They were pleasantly surprised, he notes, “by our willingness to be transparent and forward-thinking as we discussed the design features we believed would be critical to the success of the program under consideration. As we all now know, CAP has been extremely successful and become a desired audit approach by many large corporate taxpayers.”

Finally, Frank says, he has enjoyed serving the international tax community as a participant on the TEI International Board of Directors as both a regional vice president and Dallas Chapter representative. “These roles have allowed me to have a voice in the organization from a top-down perspective. Along with these roles I have participated in many Annual and Midyear Conferences as an attendee, a presenter, and an ‘active question asker’ in the educational presentations at those events. In fact, I am not always positive the speakers are glad I am in the audience, but do feel satisfied that my questions and comments are received by the community and often move the technical discussion forward for the group,” he says.

Teri Wielenga, head of finance at Akrivista LLC/Whitecap Biosciences LLC and a TEI member for more than twenty years, also has a story to share. “One of the first TEI events I attended,” she recalls, “was a regional conference held in Reno, Nevada. I had recently left public accounting and joined a Fortune 500 pharmaceutical company’s tax department. I was still trying to figure out the difference between serving a client and being one, and at this seminar I quickly realized that TEI offered exactly what I needed to learn: technical material, networking opportunities, and making new friends.”

Wielenga also realized that TEI had something special to offer, but she was unsure what it was exactly. “Inclusion” is probably the best description. “As I began to step forward (or perhaps the term today is ‘lean in’) and volunteer for various roles within the organization, I immediately felt included,” she explains.

What Makes TEI Special?

So, what is special about how TEI’s services help members serve the in-house community? Having access to the most current information on significant regulatory changes is crucial for an in-house tax professional, particularly in the current environment, Colleen Brown says. In addition, she points out, regulatory leaders and professional firms are invited to present at TEI meetings and conferences. “The professional firm presenters have access to national resources to gather and research the most pertinent and current information required for compliance, and they clearly communicate how regulations should be effectively applied and adhered to,” Brown explains. At the conferences, she notes, “the regulatory leaders share new information and insight related to the administration of tax laws and regulatory changes. The information presented is extremely beneficial to the in-house tax professional and many times not available on published websites.”

“TEI involvement has helped me professionally as it has given me ready access to a community of in-house tax practitioners.” —Mitch Frank

Brown also cites TEI’s advocacy role: “Tax advocacy is a priority with the TEI IRSAA committee. An inventory of possible topics for comments is maintained by the committee.” An example of how this advocacy has benefited TEI members is the submission of a comment letter in June 2016 related to the recently updated Form W-8BEN-E, she points out. “TEI submitted comments outlining concerns related to the form and also clarification of several additions to that form,” she explains. “In October 2016, in response to industry comments, the IRS officially made clarifications to certain standards related to Form W-8BEN-E and delayed the date [for businesses] to start using the new form.”

For Frank, joining TEI was like snagging “a gold ring.” “I was reaching out to grasp. I wanted to participate in the luncheon and dinner meetings to learn about tax technical matters but also wanted to be one of the gang in the local chapter,” he notes. “The tax leader in my organization was extremely proud of TEI and was a staunch advocate of membership coupled with active participation. He saw that as a way of strengthening the organization and training us as tax professionals at a level beyond simply attending presentations and learning the tax law. I recall asking if I could join not long after I was hired and learning that TEI membership was a privilege I would need to earn by progressing in my career and contributing at levels within the organization to prove up my commitment to active membership.”

At first, Frank was frustrated, but he realized that beginning at the committee level forced him to value TEI as more than just an organization of tax professionals with the requisite “time in seat” to justify membership. He came to see TEI as a true community that required his contribution and that promised a much greater return to him personally than he had at first imagined. “Over the years,” he explains, “I have seen TEI take more of this perspective as well, since we have added to our technical tax training offerings more of the soft-skills training that we as professionals need to operate throughout the larger corporate organizations we serve as in-house tax leaders.”

Changing With the Times

It’s important for TEI to be open to changing with the times, veteran TEI members say. As an organization, TEI takes change very seriously, according to Wielenga. “There is an old adage, ‘If it’s not broken, don’t fix it,’” she notes. “Much of what TEI does is not broken, but at the same time, the organization constantly challenges itself to make changes that adapt to the needs of its membership. As I progressed in my career, and eventually became the head of tax for the Fortune 500 company I mentioned earlier, TEI provided so much, on so many fronts, all which helped me to do my job better. Judy Zelisko, a past international president of TEI, once shared with me an anecdote about TEI that resonated with me. She said, ‘When you are the head of tax, you don’t learn how to be better at your job from your boss—you learn how to excel in your role from your peers.’”

The bottom line, according to Wielenga: “TEI offers exactly that, and I found it to be true over many years of involvement. By staying active I always felt like I was up to date on the current technical changes and issues within the tax law, I always felt like I knew what best practices trends were in managing and running a corporate tax function, and I learned how to be involved in tax advocacy matters by being involved in the TEI leadership.”

Different Ways to Get Involved

There’s no single path to becoming more involved with TEI. For example, Brown was involved significantly in committees and education.

Concerning committees, Brown notes that through the IRSAA committee, TEI members have been able to develop essential relationships with senior IRS executives. The IRS executives are interested in member experiences in the field and best practices used for IRS exams. The communications with the IRS create a “win-win” relationship for the national IRS leadership and TEI members, she explains.

Brown’s description of the process: “To assist with communicating best practices and proposed problem resolution, the IRSAA committee formed working groups to explore problematic audit areas. The working groups focus on member resources to derive creative solutions to IRS exam issue problems. The current working groups include the CAP company group, R&D group, and transfer pricing group. Specifically, the CAP company group’s bimonthly calls provided strategic direction with regard to the communications with the Barrick IRS CAP team. The information shared on the calls from other CAP taxpayers was essential to successfully navigate through the CAP program, especially when my employer was new to the program. The information derived from the discussions on the bimonthly CAP company calls, and also the monthly calls with the IRS executives, directly impacted and improved my ability to efficiently administer the IRS audit examination for my employer. The successful coordination of the IRS CAP audit provides significant value and benefit to my employer and is considered best-in-class.”

“I always felt like I knew what best practices trends were in managing and running a corporate tax function, and I learned how to be involved in tax advocacy matters by being involved in the TEI leadership.” —Teri Wielenga

When it comes to education, Brown cites the information presented at TEI monthly chapter meetings and Annual, Midyear, and Audit & Appeals Conferences, information she says in-house tax professional leaders need to successfully manage tax administration for their companies, especially when implementing complicated regulations on a budget.
She cites two examples that significantly impacted her role as the senior tax advisor:

  • New Repair Regulations. “I was charged with implementing the IRS new ‘repair’ regulations at my company. Due to the extensive capital assets associated with the mining industry, the external consultant’s estimated bid to implement the new regulations was significant. As a result of budget constraints, it was imperative that the project be completed in-house without the assistance of external advisors. The TEI education provided everything I needed to effectively lead the implementation of the new repair regulations. The collaboration with other taxpayers through the TEI IRSAA committee, repair regulation–specific sessions at the Midyear, Annual, and Audit & Appeals Conferences, along with chapter meetings, webcasts, and articles were all sources of support for implementation of the project. In addition to the initial implementation, the annual analysis of equipment acquisitions each year results in significant tax deductions and reduction in cash taxes for my employer.”
  • FATCA Regulations. “Without the TEI-specific education programming on the new FATCA [Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act] regulations, and ongoing changes to the regulations, my company would have had to hire external consultants to implement this global compliance project. Many financial institutions have sophisticated compliance processes in place for properly completing the new forms related to the FATCA regulations, but many nonfinancial institutions, like my company, do not, and we run the risk of incorrectly filling out the forms. Through my role as a member of the TEI IRSAA committee and my attendance at FATCA-focused sessions at the TEI Annual, Midyear, and Audits & Appeals Conferences, I was able to gain the knowledge and understanding necessary to effectively implement FATCA for my company without having to hire an external firm.”

Frank highlights the programs he participated in as a regional vice president several years ago. “The main program that benefited me in that role was the IRS/TEI liaison meetings held each year. In those events we meet with local, regional, and national IRS leaders to discuss the challenges faced in our day-to-day jobs handling IRS audits. It has been extremely helpful to gain a better understanding of the constraints the IRS team members face in meeting their goals of completing a quality examination while at the same time we as in-house tax professionals are actively trying to complete those same audits as advocates for our employers. The discussion at these liaison meetings has brought me great perspective and an appreciation for everyone’s hard work on these projects rather than allowing me to simply focus on my own goals in the process,” he notes.

Wielenga points to her service as a chapter president, chapter representative, and regional vice president, as well as chairing a committee and ultimately progressing through the officer queue to serve as international president, as having provided her with more growth than anything else she could have done. “All of these roles provided opportunities to build confidence, develop technical skills, improve my public-speaking skills, meet new people, and provide input to an organization that I had grown to understand and love. I have always felt, and often said, that volunteering for TEI takes time, but what you get back in return is immeasurable,” she says.

“Yes, it is true that millennials may be in a different stage in their career or see their career through a different lens than other groups, but it all comes down to the value proposition that TEI can offer.” —Emily Whittenburg

Emerging Tax Professionals

TEI recently formed a new group—the Emerging Tax Professionals Subcommittee—to deal with the burgeoning challenges and opportunities for the next generation of TEI members. The committee is chaired by Emily Whittenburg, senior tax advisor, policy and government relations, at Shell Oil Company, and Kris Rogers, director of tax for Love’s Travel Stops and Country Stores Inc.

TEI faces a few challenges when it comes to attracting and retaining emerging tax professionals, including competing for their time, competing with other sources for tax training, and competing with other organizations that could step in and offer a more compelling value proposition, Whittenburg says.

“Emerging tax professionals (ETPs) tend to be in the season of their life where raising a family or outside hobbies are their primary focus outside of work, which create time constraints and limit their ability to participate in external organizations and activities. If the ETP does not see value in spending their time with TEI or its activities, it won’t be a priority and garner much of their attention. In addition, with so many options for obtaining tax technical, training TEI must stay price-competitive while offering something the other groups can’t . . . opportunities for networking with other professionals. Finally, we are already seeing other organizations pop up across the country trying to attract the younger tax and accounting professionals, and TEI is going to have to move faster with developing and rolling out programs and events focused on the ETP or risk losing ground to other groups,” she explains.

Rogers notes that TEI is an aging organization that needs to attract the next generation to develop a future pipeline of tax leadership both for the organization and for the tax profession. “To attract the millennials, we need to appreciate the generational differences and consider what is it they are wanting, given where they are in their careers/lives. How can we stand out from all the organizations that are competing for their engagement? What unique offerings can we provide?”

New Opportunities for ETPs

So, what are the new opportunities for TEI in terms of emerging tax professionals? TEI is well positioned to take advantage of some great opportunities in terms of emerging tax professionals, according to Whittenburg. “For example,” she explains, “TEI can leverage its already successful platform of national programs to begin to offer more leadership and soft-skills training opportunities. In addition, TEI can utilize their chapters to identify and engage emerging tax professionals in chapter activities by having ETPs serve in advisory roles in the chapters. TEI can gain valuable insight into their training and professional development needs.”

Rogers agrees with Whittenburg: “Skill-based training is the right direction for TEI to focus our offerings for the emerging tax professional. There are many organizations that offer the technical training (and TEI is one of those that offer great technical training), but few are focused on developing the emerging tax professionals into leaders, which requires nontechnical skills more than in any previous generation.”

A question TEI members like to discuss at various hours of the day is whether new TEI members differ from previous generations, and, if so, how. In many ways, Whittenburg says, newer members are the same as in previous generations. They are interested in nurturing their tax skills and developing their professional networks, which can lead to a rewarding career in the profession, she explains.

However, she asserts, “I think newer TEI members understand that the days of starting and finishing your career with the same company or organization are a thing of the past, and today more than ever your professional network can be a critical asset in finding your next role. In addition, attitudes toward work/life balance have evolved over the last several years. You hear terms like “work/life integration” and “working to live.” As work attitudes have changed, so have professional definitions of success and career development. The traditional career path may not be applicable to everyone, and organizations need to provide training and opportunities to fit these new models and definitions.”

“Skill-based training is the right direction for TEI to focus our offerings for the emerging tax professional.” —Kris Rogers

Here is Rogers’ take: emerging professionals are different. “They think and learn differently, they prefer short bursts of information. The perfect example is whether it’s TED talks or any other quick video, they love quick learning opportunities. They grew up with technology and social media and believe in utilizing it to its fullest extent. Life is very compartmentalized. The negative connotation is that they don’t want to work hard, but what we have learned by talking to millennials is that they are perfectly willing to work hard and put in the hours, but they want to understand the underlying reason, how is their contribution helping with the end result and propelling their career.”

Attracting millennials does not necessarily require TEI to do anything different to attract new members in general, Whittenburg says. “Yes, it is true that millennials may be in a different stage in their career or see their career through a different lens than other groups, but it all comes down to the value proposition that TEI can offer,” she explains.

“In order to attract and retain millennials, TEI must offer programs and networking opportunities that other groups can’t or don’t offer. Obtaining quality CPE/CLE has become easier than ever with the plethora of online and F2F choices offered by accounting and law firms, but what they don’t offer is a chance to network and discuss real-life tax problems with other professionals in one-on-one settings. Our network of over 7,000 members should also be leveraged, and TEI needs to do more in the areas of mentoring, leadership development, and career planning and placement,” she says.

Rogers agrees: “We need to offer programs and networking opportunities that other groups don’t offer. We have a strong base of seasoned leaders in the industry. If we can partner those leaders with the emerging tax professional, it can provide a satisfying transfer of knowledge for the seasoned professional and a great development relationship for the emerging tax professional.”

So, what’s the consensus on TEI at three score and thirteen?

Asked what TEI membership has meant to her, Brown likely speaks for many TEI members: “I cannot imagine successfully performing my responsibilities and carrying out the required due diligence associated with my position without my involvement in TEI.”

Michael Levin-Epstein is the senior editor of Tax Executive.

TEI: Helping Members Grow Professionally and Personally

Here’s how TEI has helped Colleen Brown, Mitch Frank, and Teri Wielenga:


Brown: My involvement in TEI has been personally and professionally rewarding. There is no doubt that I have advanced my career because of my involvement in TEI. I was awarded a Barrick Finance Excellence Award as a result of the successful coordination of the IRS exam, a direct result of my involvement with TEI.

Frank: TEI involvement has helped me professionally as it has given me ready access to a community of in-house tax practitioners. That pool of contacts provides me regular perspective on the challenges I face in my daily job and alternative ways of meeting those challenges, many of which I would have never thought of myself. My peers’ insights on business and the practice of tax in corporate America today have been a strong foundation for me to stand on over my thirty-plus-year career. The TEI community has benefited me personally by challenging me to grow in confidence and in my ability to relate to others in business settings, particularly when I needed feedback and coaching to see beyond my natural abilities in adapting to new challenges at work. I would also note that I have been very fortunate to be able to interact with a network of peers that have advocated on my behalf as I have sought in-house tax positions with strong companies throughout my career.

Wielenga: There are many examples, but the one that resonates with me at the present time is very recent. In 2015, the Fortune 500 pharmaceutical company that I had worked with for over twenty-two years was acquired, and I found myself out of a job. Having watched it happen to many good people over the years, I knew this was not unusual, but when it happens to you it is difficult. So much of our identity is tied up in our professional life, and it is hard to see that suddenly disappear. TEI has been a “port in the storm” of my career. Being able to remain a member through the transition has kept me sane and helped me to evaluate what I want to do next. The TEI network that I have built over the years has been invaluable and really sustained me and other members of my team, who also suddenly found themselves looking for new roles. I am so grateful to the many friends and colleagues I made over the years, all of whom have provided support and encouragement to me.

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