from tax to transformation

transformation talks: paul mueller, cpa, took a leap of faith when he left a national accounting firm at the apex of his career to start a new firm serving small- and medium-sized businesses.

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center for accounting transformation
center for accounting transformation

transformation talks
with bill penczak
center for accounting transformation

paul mueller was at a crossroads. as a national manager for the tax group of a large firm, he should have felt like leonardo dicaprio, yelling, “i’m the king of the world!” yet, something just wasn’t right.

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today, he is the managing director of his own firm, mueller pye & associates, cpa llc in loveland, colo. his is a story of a late-life career transformation.

takeaways

  • there is life—a really fulfilling one—after a departure from a large national firm into a small firm in rural colorado.
  • in order to effect transformation either as a firm, or as a professional, it’s important to have a support network you can trust and open up to about your challenges
  • while firms do a great job of advising their clients on succession planning, that’s not always the case for themselves.

“i was too young to retire, and i was too old for this to be a midlife crisis,” he said.

he added, “if you’re asking, ‘is this all there is,’ that’s a cry for help because the answer is no. that’s not all there is. there’s more, and there’s better.”

mueller reflected on his conundrum: “the firm was very profitable. as partners, we were all making a pretty good living, but after a while, you realize–as i refer to it–it’s a gilded birdcage, which, once you take the gilding off, it’s a birdcage. there were times when i felt like i had all the responsibility of running the tax practice but none of the authority to exact change that i thought needed. you get stuck in that birdcage, to go along, get along. that’s just not me.”

mueller said he took a cue from the book “the radical leap” by steve farber and asked himself three questions before deciding to leave his cushy position in houston, texas, to start a new adventure in his 50s, more than 1,000 miles away in colorado.

mueller said, “the first question is, do you really love what you’re doing? number two is, do you love working with clients who love what you do for them? number three, do you love where you’re doing it?”

he said the first two were easy to answer. “i absolutely love this, the public accounting, and i love this business. it’s a dynamic, innovative platform for creativity. number two, i just love working with business owners.” however, the third question was a tougher one to answer.

“i think we were on divergent paths and the book just really made me zero in on that,” mueller said. “it was one of those things that it was up to me to make a change in that situation.”

mueller discussed the introspective process in more detail, as well as succession planning, and offered suggestions for anyone asking, “is this all there is?”

about paul mueller
paul mueller works with owners of small and medium-sized businesses, focusing primarily on taxminimization strategies, profit improvement, estate planning and wealth accumulation. he is licensed to practice in colorado and texas and specializes in matters relating to oil & gas
production, craft breweries and professional service businesses.mueller consults on specific issues involving entity selection, retirement and succession planning, merger & acquisition transactions and creative philanthropic and legacy planning.

transcript

announcer:卡塔尔世界杯常规比赛时间 presents a production of the center for accounting transformation.

bill penczak:hi, and welcome to this episode of transformation talks. i’m your host bill penczak and i’m the chief transformation officer for the center for accounting transformation. in this series, we talk to firms and people in the accounting profession that are going through either a personal or a firm or life-changing transformation in general. my guest today is paul mueller. paul and i happen to work together years ago. we stayed in contact over the years. it’s been how many years, paul?

paul mueller:oh my gosh, bill, you’re going to age me before people figure it out.

penczak:me too. it’s probably been 10 years or at least or so ago.

mueller:you know what? it seems like it’s gone just like that.

penczak:it has gone like that. i still didn’t have all my hair back then. you looked pretty much the same. anyway, paul, tell us about your firm and then give us the backstory of how you went from being the national head of the tax group for a pretty large firm. what you’re doing today?

mueller:people would probably think i need my head examined [chuckles] but i tried that one time and they didn’t find anything in there. i am where i am. i’m the managing director for the firm of mueller pye & associates. we’re a full-service accounting firm strictly focused on serving the needs of business clients. of course, we do a lot of 1040 returns because every business is owned by somebody, but our real focus is on tax accounting and advisory services for the business, small and medium-sized businesses.

we’ve been in business…we founded the firm on halloween day of 2008 and it’s been all treats, a few, very few tricks ever since. pye is robyn pye, my partner since january 1 of 2017, who runs our practice in katy, texas, which is a suburb as you know just west of houston, texas. we hope to hit maybe $2 million in fees this year outside of some of the special project fees we’ve earned from all the covid work. we’ve been on a really good growth trajectory, the whole 13-plus years that we’ve been running the firm.

penczak:talk a little bit more about that leap of faith and leap of everything that you made from a long-time career with uhy to doing what you’re doing now. by the way, you did that when you were in your 50s. you could have smelled the barn and just let things progress as they might. what possessed you to do that? as you look at that now, do you wonder why you didn’t do it sooner?

mueller:essentially you used the word leaps and i’m going to come around to that in just a little bit. i joined the firm in 1983 and i think i was probably the 20th employee at the time. we were a very small firm in houston, texas. as you know at our zenith in 2006, i believe, i think we had about 600 people in our houston office. it was a tremendous experience of growth and managing growth, being a part of a movement to really propel that firm but in the early 2000s, i began to feel like we were letting some of our culture erode that got us where we needed to be. just felt that maybe myself and the firm were on divergent tracks.

when that happens, something has to change. you either change the situation by changing where you’re at, or you change the situation by doing something else. it was about 2004, 2005, somebody–i don’t know, it might have been you, bill–but somebody mentioned this bookthe radical leapby steve farber. it’s a quick read, takes maybe about two to three hours to read it. it’s written as a fable. you’re reading a story. it’s not a how-to book. you’re basically reading a story and it’s up to you to glean your own impressions from it. leap is an acronym. it stands for love, energy, audacity, and proof but for me, what it did, it set up three questions that i felt i needed to answer.

i think anybody that reads the book will pretty readily understand there are three questions you have to answer. the first question is, do you really love what you’re doing? number two is, do you love working with clients who love what you do for them? number three, do you love where you’re doing it? after reading that book and a lot of reflection, i realized i could easily answer questions one and two. i absolutely love this. the public accounting, and i love this business. it’s a dynamic, innovative platform for creativity.

number two, i just love working with business owners. we specialize in the construction industry. i’m dangerous with a hammer, man, but i respect people that can run construction businesses that get their hands dirty, that actually create things and build things. i just have a lot of respect for people in that area but when i got to the third question, do i love where i’m at? in all honesty, i wasn’t. again, like i said, i think we were on divergent paths and the book just really made me zero in on that. it was one of those things that it was up to me to make a change in that situation.

my wife and i had bought a home in estes park, colorado, to use for vacations, holidays, you know, those kinds of trips. we just decided that it was time to make a leap. your word leap is perfect. it was time for us to make a leap and for us to do our own thing and notions i had about client service, fees, how you groom and treat, and develop employees, that it was time for me to put those practices into place and see if they play out.

penczak:is it easier now that you’ve got a smaller infrastructure to deal with? the passions that you have for working hand in hand with clients or working with your people, or all the things that we talk about from an aspirational standpoint, is it easier to do it in a smaller organization?

mueller:it’s easier to do it and you’re totally accountable for your successes and you’re totally accountable for your failure. in some cases, it’s like a lab. you know if things are going to work pretty quickly or not, you’re going to know if a product you’re trying to promote to your clients, if you’re going to gain traction on it pretty quick, if you have a developmental program with your staff and it’s not working well, you know it pretty fast. you know you need to fix it. things happen a lot faster in a smaller environment and you get instant feedback on what it is you’re trying to do.

penczak:do you feel like there’s a greater level of accountability because there’s no place to hide?

mueller:oh, absolutely.

penczak:for you and for everybody, right?

mueller:oh, yes. working with any clients, but business clients, in particular, you got to bring your a-game every day. you just can’t drop the ball. it holds your feet to the fire and really up your game and be on it every day. that’s a great place to be in rather than just gliding.

penczak:the decision that you made to move full-time to estes, wasn’t that hard to do in your 50s? you had gotten the brass ring. you had a lot of respect across the firm from me and a lot of other people. it was somewhat shocking being one of the people left behind. it’s like, “oh my god, he’s going to do all of this.” what conversation did you have in your own mind about, “oh my gosh, i’m 50. i’m in my 50s. i can just ride this sucker out?”

mueller:you know teresa, my wife. we’re coming up on 45 years of marriage. teresa is my best friend, mentor, counselor, partner in life. the two of us really had some deep conversations and she was totally supportive of what i was going through. she’s probably the one that asked the really hard questions of what’s this going to look like on monday morning. it’s one thing to talk about it over a glass of wine on friday, but what’s it going to look like on monday morning? i really had to be accountable to her first for that. in some respect, bill, i think it was easier. our kids were up and out of college. they were on their own. we weren’t disrupting lives, girlfriends, school relations. we didn’t have any of that blocking us. we both laughed that if this didn’t work out, we could both go sack groceries at safeway. there’s a safeway store in estes park. worst case scenario, we just go sack groceries. once you understand the worst-case scenario, it makes it pretty easy to go, because you know if you can survive that, something better is going to happen. the other part of it that i think i came to realize by readingthe radical leapwas i think it was harder to stay. i think it was actually easier to make the leap and start over in a totally different situation than to be that proverbial frog in the pot that you may not be happy with, but you’re comfortable. that may be the riskiest thing of all is to maintain the status quo.

penczak:yes, because you had that vision or that dream of doing something else and it would probably, i know it would gnaws at me. it’s like, “oh my god, i’ve got another path forward that’s different and maybe scary,” but nonetheless, it’s an opportunity or possibility, and it would be worse maybe to have had that insight and then not be able to have it come to fruition. that would be worse.

mueller:when i look back on it now, because i’ve had other people ask why did i make a change like that. the firm was very profitable. as partners, we were all making a pretty good living, but after a while, you realize, as i refer to it as a gilded birdcage, which once you take the gilding off, it’s a birdcage [chuckles]. there were times where i felt like i had all the responsibility of running the tax practice but none of the authority to really exact change that i thought needed to take place. you get stuck in that birdcage to go along, get along. that’s just not me.

penczak:you and i are both baby boomers. i think you’re a little bit older than me, but we grew up in a generation and that was, you get one job, you put your nose to the grindstone. you come in early. you stay late. it’ll all pay off. even my dad was that way. my dad worked for the same company for 35 years.

mueller:my dad, too.

penczak:he started in the mail room and literally worked his way up, but now, i think the millennial generation and the ones after that generation x and z, and then overlaying the whole covid thing, people have had time to be more introspective and thinking about their, i hate this term, but their work-life balance and all that other stuff. what lesson have you learned as a baby boomer that you think is appropriate for somebody in public accounting? a couple of episodes ago, i talked to a guy that started off at anderson. he was in audit and didn’t want to do audits for the rest of his life. he got into consulting and he said, “i probably wouldn’t be in public accounting today had i not made that switch.”

i think there’s a lot of lingering angst, frustration, whatever of people in public accounting. fewer and fewer kids are getting into it now. the turnover is pretty high in general. it’s an industry in flux. for somebody who is 20 years younger than we are or 30 years younger than we are, that’s scary, and working, what advice would you give them to think about in terms of finding their bliss, in the words of joseph campbell, in public accounting or not at public accounting?

mueller:first of all, it’s hard to take that journey alone. most of us are not introspective enough to honestly figure those kinds of things out. in my case, i mentioned my wife, teresa. i think if you don’t have that kind of a support network, perhaps a professional coach that you can confide in and talk to you, somebody who’s not going to have the answers, but maybe they’re asking you the right questions to make you process through that because we all have the answer. it maybe just hasn’t been facilitated where we can really seize onto it, a therapist to help in that kind of a situation, because sometimes, we may be all bungled up in our own heads and need that help to straighten things out, think clearly, think forward, and all of that.

those are turnoffs to people. they really don’t want to have somebody else involved, or maybe they think nobody else will understand where they’re at, which by the way, we’re all in that area. particularly, if you’re asking, “is this all there is?” that’s a cry for help to find out because the answer is no. that’s not all there is. there’s more and there’s better. you might need help to get there. if somebody’s going to say, “i just can’t open myself up that way,” something i thought of is just as simple as getting a piece of paper and draw a line down the middle. on the left-hand side, list out the things you love about what you’re doing, what really drives you, where your passion is, and all of that.

in the other column, put down the stuff that you hate, the stuff that’s just driving you crazy about the situation that you’re in. the real courage in this is addressing those items that you hate and mitigating them in some form or fashion. i’ll give you an example in just a second, but it’s so easy to look at the things you hate and say, “well, that’s just the nature of the beast. that’s what i have to put up with.” that is not true. each of us has the power to do something about it.

bill, i’ll go back to the day when i announced that i was leaving uhy and i was going up to colorado and start our own firm up here. i told everybody, “i was too young to retire and i was too old for this to be a midlife crisis.” i just thought this was the real deal that i’m going to go forward on, but it was interesting. there might have been three partners that came into my office after that meeting, closed the door and they all said the same thing which was basically like, “gosh, i wish i could do what you’re doing.” my response to every one of those individuals was, “you can.” of course, you got the backtracking. “oh, but you don’t understand. i can’t do–

penczak:“my kids are in college, blah, blah, blah.” i don’t want to name the name. you and i, talked about, a couple of weeks ago when we first connected on this, we talked about someone else at a firm that we both know that did the same thing. he didn’t go to work for another firm really, but i think he had had enough, as well. probably, it’s a combination of different things, but his firm got bought out by one of the big firms. he was definitely working for the man and just wasn’t fun anymore. i get that.

the benjamin franklin list, the pluses and the minuses, i think he is credited with having invented that. i think that applies to wherever you are in your career or your life for that matter. it’s a pretty simple thing to do, but i do think it is difficult for a lot of successful, driven people to admit that they don’t have all the answers, so having a sympathetic spouse, friends, coach, therapist, or whatever else, i think nobody can go this alone. i think cpas are smart people and they always think in their head in a weird way that they have to have all the answers. guess what? i’ve learned one thing as i’ve gotten older, i don’t have to and i don’t have to be embarrassed by it.

mueller:we talk in our office that the most dangerous client that you can have is the business owner who doesn’t know what they don’t know. basically, they know it all. you can’t tell them anything new that they hadn’t already heard, or whatever. the best client of all, and this applies to ourselves too, the best client of all who knows what they don’t know, and they’re seeking that assistance, help, advice, and all those kinds of items, those people we can relate to really well, talk to and help them get better, but the people that don’t know what they don’t know, that’s a sad, scary place to be in.

penczak:that’s funny. what you just said is a lead into one of the questions i was going to ask later, but i’ll ask it now. cpas do a great job, especially on the tax side of advising their clients about how to do things within the company. you’re the, i don’t like this term either, the trusted advisor and you’re the shoulder many times that the client will come to and cry on, or ask questions about or ask advice about, but even with having all of those skills sets, i think you and i agreed a couple of weeks ago that firms do a lousy job of doing it for themselves of setting in the disciplines to run a company or firm effectively or holding people accountable in an effective way. i’ve had these conversations before with partners. i said, “if you heard one of your clients saying what you’re telling me right now, you’re a going concern or you don’t have a plan or whatever. can you comment on that about the cobbler shoes?

mueller:the doctor’s kids have the runny noses and the cobbler’s kids have no shoes. we all put our tax returns on extension. we’re great at trying to save the world, but we’re not so good at trying to save ourselves. i think that’s where you have to sit back and say, “am i taking my own medicine? whatever advice i’m giving to my clients, am i living up to that as well? am i doing this for myself?” that’s a real challenge. i think in our situation with robyn as my partner, it’s easier to hold each other accountable and have those conversations about, “are we on the same page? are we rowing in the same direction? do we have the same goals in mind?”

penczak:she is younger than you are, by a generation. i think you mentioned she’s like 20 years younger than you are.

mueller:yes.

penczak:ideally, you’ve got the ideal situation to have an elegant transition. that was one of the other things we wanted to talk about in terms of transformation is about your eventual exit from the firm and having robyn and others take over. what have been some of the conversations and thought processes that you could share with us?

mueller:first of all, i promised robyn five years ago when she joined that i would never retire. of course, we know that that’s not totally within my power either. as a little bit of background, as you know, robyn and i worked together for about 10 years when we were both in houston. really built up a special relationship, built one heck of a great team within uhy. we were just clicking on all cylinders, doing some great work when i decided to leave and take off on this. she left the firm shortly thereafter, but we just kept in touch.

when she came on board, let’s see, it’s been five and a half years ago now. we pretty much spent the first year transitioning clients, office space, hiring people in that office. we spent the first year doing all those things. the second year, and this is where i’ll give robyn all the credit. she was the one that said, “we’ve got to sit down and talk. you’re a lot older than i am and you may want to go in one direction, i want to go in another direction. we got to make sure we’re on the same page here.” we spent a significant amount of time working through an exercise called the million dollar firm that basically helps you make sure you both are on the same page in terms of achieving common goals. we have those goals and we revisit those now and then to make sure we’re both, are we okay. we’re moving in the same direction.

i know, bill, my role here at the firm is going to morph over time. i have no near-term plans to actually hang it up and retire. frankly, i’m having so much fun right now. i wouldn’t want to give up this gig right now, but health, those are things that are sometimes beyond our control. it’s really compelling on me to do what i can to make sure not only robyn, but her management team are ready to take this thing well beyond what i’ve been able to do. in some respects, that’s my legacy. [crosstalk] if i were to leave this firm and it cratered, what would that say about me? i did a lousy job, but if this thing sustains, grows, builds after i’m gone, i can sit back and say, “you know what? i helped with the foundation.”

penczak:when you all first had those conversations about the succession, was it hard for you to have that conversation? i’ll tell you i’ve talked to a lot of other managing partners and they get freaked out. i literally had this happen not too long ago where two of the senior partners from a firm were going to go fly someplace. i said, “do you think it’s smart for both of you to be on the same plane?” and like, “what do you mean?” i said, “god forbid,” and played that out.” the partner i was talking to was mortified. he stopped in his tracks and i wasn’t trying to be evil, but that’s just a risk thing that you got to think about because if you guys weren’t around, i’m not sure what would happen to the firm. that idea of your mortality or your career mortality, was that a hard thing to approach when robyn and you first started talking about it?

mueller:four years ago, when we first had those conversations, it was probably a little more difficult for me, but it really came into sharp laser being focused with the pandemic. you made reference to it earlier. the media talks about great resignation and all that stuff. wait a minute, these people didn’t just drop out of the work for– they’re not all sitting in mom’s basement playing video games. they just went someplace else. there might be some people that are still assessing things, but they basically left crappy organizations to try to find something better. i referred to it as the great reassessment. i was really surprised. particularly in 2020, i think i had about a half a dozen of our business clients that were like, “you know what mueller? i think it’s time for me to sell.” for me, this whole issue about succession became compelling because you had more time to think. you were home alone. you’re thinking, “what if i caught it, and what if i didn’t make it?” it really for me sharpened the focus that i’ve got to be intentional. i’ve got to get off my butt. i’ve got to push the ball. i’ve got to get this done. i’ve got to wrestle this thing to the ground and make sure i live up to my own expectations that this firm survives way past beyond me.

penczak:that’s pretty powerful. you do eat your own dog food. you have those conversations with your clients and you actually live that, but it goes back to a couple of things. it’s like having that support structure that you could have people to talk to. it’s a certain degree of self-awareness, i think. i love what you said about your legacy. i know you and i know you’re not doing it out of boastfulness or pride. it’s just because it’s the right thing to do and you have an affiliation and a friendship with the people that you work with, and you want to see them be prosperous as well.

mueller:yes. bill, i think part of it, too, is we all talk about exiting the firm and that exit’s going to look different for everybody. an exit might be selling the firm. an exit might be tucking into another firm. an exit might be a succession where, like in my case, robyn and our management team take this firm over and continue to run it. instead of just talking about exit in a generic way, i think somebody particularly in my position at my age, you need to sit there and define out what is that exit going to look like, what’s the right exit for you, and what it looks like and what’s your participation and what’s your responsibility to make that exit happen? in our case, the exit looks like robyn and our management team taking over. it’s really on me to teach, empower, furnish those lessons that hopefully resonate with them and help them build their skill sets to run this firm.

penczak:any last pearls of wisdom?

mueller:i said it earlier. for somebody that’s either thinking through an exit or they’re 20 years younger and they’re not feeling it where they are right now and they’re wondering, “is that all there is,” take comfort in the fact that you’re not alone. take comfort in the fact that you’re probably among the 5% who are asking themselves those kinds of questions rather than just accepting the status quo. lean into it. embrace that questioning. i can tell you from experience if you do make that leap, you’re going to experience some change. you’re going to experience a lot of challenges, and there’s going to be a lot of discomfort along the way as part of that transition, but the outcome is joy, love, and fulfillment.

penczak:well said. thank you so much, paul, for agreeing to do this, to begin with, being so open and articulate on this episode of transformation talks. i always loved working with you and getting reconnected over this has been a pleasant memory of the time that we had together.

mueller:yes, it’s taken me back some years and you got to enjoy the ride. running a small accounting firm is like riding a roller coaster. there are some days where it’s exciting and you’re yelling your full head off. i got to tell you though there are some days where you just want to get back to the station and get off so you can throw up. that is the human experience. that’s the range of emotions and i wouldn’t want it any other way.

penczak:great. we encourage everyone who’s watching this to visit the center for accounting transformation website at www.improvetheworld.net. the center for accounting transformation provides business professionals with a framework for utilizing innovations that are ready for adoption, the training, and resources necessary to apply those innovations, and an opportunity to engage the talented community needed to follow their pursuit of innovative accounting practices that drive responsible and mindful business performance. once again, you can see all the resources that we have at www.improvetheworld.net. if you’re interested in sharing your own transformation story like paul and others have done, use the contact us button on the website. thanks for joining us, and we’ll look for you at the next episode. thank you, everybody.

mueller:thank you, bill.

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