Southern by the Grace of God
Jim Lowe of Asheville Tax & Accounting isn’t southern by birth, but please don’t hold that against him. “I’m a Yankee,” Jim, who was born in Pennsylvania, admits with a laugh. He and his wife, Jody—another northern transplant—met in high school, and both came south to attend college.
The couple settled in Asheville because Jody’s family had relocated there. Jim then spent twelve years working with Jody’s brother as a cabinet builder before changing gears. Cabinet making is solitary work; Jim, an outgoing “people person” with a charming sense of humor, found the ”people” side of accounting and tax preparation more fulfilling. “I like this job because it’s so people-intensive,” he says.
From Carpenter to Accountant
Asheville Tax & Accounting began in the late 1980s as Laserfast Tax Service and was purchased in 1992 by Konnie Hall of East Flat Rock, NC. The Lowes knew the Hall family from church, and Konnie’s husband, Kirk, was the CPA for Jim and his brother-in-law’s cabinet-making company. At the time, the Halls had a young family, and Kirk was busy operating his own tax and accounting business.
“All the pieces came together,” says Jim. “I was ready for a move, and they offered me the position as the general manager. With Kirk as my ‘tax mentor,’ we began preparing taxes in January of 1993.” Prior to 1993, says Jim, “I had never done any tax returns except my own.” Laughing, he adds, “It’s a good thing Kirk was a walking Pub 17!”
In 2002, the year Jim became an Enrolled Agent, Laserfast Tax Service changed locations and doubled its office space. Traditionally sustained by fairly simple returns with most adding a bank product, the company began to focus in 2006 on more complex returns, such as for corporations and partnerships, and on year-round accounting and payroll services. “In 2007,” says Jim, “we changed the name to Asheville Tax & Accounting and began offering Laserfast Refund Loans as a product rather than a definition of who we are.”
Asheville Tax & Accounting now processes about 1,800 returns a year. In addition to Jim and Jody, a number of tax professionals are employed seasonally. Jim says, “We have the best staff around, and our employees are like family. Many of them have been with us for years.”
Asheville Tax & Accounting was the first e-filer in Asheville and is still the largest independent e-filer in town. Says Jim, “We’ve been pushing electronic returns since 2000 with no extra fee for e-filing. We were 90 percent electronic in 2000 and have steadily increased our electronic percentage to 95 to 98 percent since then.”
Drake Gives Support, Guidance
Asheville Tax & Accounting has a long history with Drake Software and has been using Drake since it began. “Drake is one of the easiest tax software programs to use and, I would say, the most accurate. Not to mention,” Jim adds, “Drake gets the product out early so we can look at it and train, all before tax season even begins.”
Jim also appreciates the ease of training new staff using Drake’s Electronic Training Center (ETC); in fact, the company requires its tax professionals and support staff to use ETC, in addition to other training, to prepare for tax season. During downtime, Jim has his staff—even those who don’t prepare the more complex returns—complete the partnership and corporate modules, just to become more familiar with the program.
“And I can’t say enough about the support,” says Jim. “The phone is always answered, and if the person doesn’t know the answer, they immediately find someone who does. I’ve never had a negative experience with Drake support.”
Jim likes using Drake Software because he feels that Drake trusts its preparers to know what they’re doing. “The software doesn’t hold us back and slow us down by asking too many questions or making us go through unnecessary steps,” Jim explains. “There’s a great balance of helping us as professionals while trusting that we have the knowledge to prepare a return.” Jim also appreciates the Drake EF database for the amount of information it gives him to provide to clients, and the speed with which he can access that information.
Last May, when Jim started thinking about refocusing and growing the business, the first thing he did was go to Drake for guidance. “I just wanted to sit down with them and ask them some questions, just get their perspective. I went to Drake first because I trust them, and I know they’re supportive and are going to give me the advice that’s going to help me grow my business.”
“Are you guys on Facebook?” Jim asks, laughing. “I’ll be a Facebook fan and follow you on Twitter!”
Asheville’s Homegrown Tax Place
“We want to become Asheville’s tax place,” says Jim. “We’re homegrown, locally owned and operated, and we have a lot to offer clients who aren’t interested in a chain tax experience.” Jim believes the two most important things he and his staff have to offer are accuracy and customer service.
Accuracy is accomplished by double-checking each return. “Every return is reviewed by my wife’s ‘eagle eyes,’” says Jim. “Even though I’m an Enrolled Agent, I still have my wife check my completed returns. For newer preparers, we do a little more due diligence, and we compare client info sheets with returns. Not only is the policy to double-check each return a comfort to each busy preparer, it is also a great value for Asheville Tax & Accounting’s clients.”
Drake Software adds an extra layer of accuracy insurance. “Being able to flag a field or force a preparer to check a field is a huge advantage,” Jim explains. ”Even I may miss something if it’s busy, but if I set it up at the beginning of the season, it’s flagged, and it forces me to double-check.”
As far as customer service goes, Asheville Tax & Accounting feels strongly about the way things should be done. “The experience our customers have when they walk through the door, from the first person they meet, needs to be a pleasant one,” Jim maintains. “Completing a tax return is a very personal experience, and each preparer meets with the taxpayer in a private office setting, not a cubicle. We don’t ever want our clients to feel like they’re sitting in a classroom, looking at the back of the next client.”
It’s important to Jim and his staff that the office be comfortable and welcoming. “Some people feel that taxes are painful, so our office tries to make the experience as pleasant as possible,” he says, and then adds, “Bring your family if you need to. We have toys and coloring books for the kids.”
Getting the Word Out
“Getting the word out and knowing how to allocate our advertising dollars is a challenge,” says Jim. Asheville Tax & Accounting uses its Drake-provided marketing kits for the images on its Website, in office windows, and throughout the mall where it’s located. They also advertise via billboards, radio, and TV ads.
“This year, we want to focus more on the Web,” says Jim. “Social networking is going to become an important part of marketing, especially for locally owned and operated businesses. People share their experiences through social networking, so we’re putting a lot of focus on Facebook and Twitter to be a presence there.”
“In Asheville, we have a lot of self-employed artists, graphic artists, etc., who are into social networking,” he continues. “They are tech-savvy and might be tempted to file for themselves online, but we just have to present the case that they will probably pay less tax and get a larger refund if they see a tax professional—especially a tax professional who understands their community and their business.”
Words of Wisdom
When asked what advice he would give to someone considering starting a tax practice, Jim calls to mind the old real-estate adage of “location, location, location.” “Seriously,” he says, “if you want a high-volume office, the key is location.”
His second and more important piece of advice is this: Train yourself, and train your staff. “I can’t emphasize training enough,” he says. “Tax law has become so complicated, and a software program just can’t answer every question. Without training, there are so many errors you can make. No software program alone can catch all the theory and concept behind tax law, and when untrained people market themselves as tax professionals, it casts a shadow over our profession.”
Coming Soon …
Although Jim and Jody’s lives belong to the office from December through April, the rest of the year “offers a huge amount of freedom.” They generally spend some of that free time outdoors. “We love the scenery of Western North Carolina,” says Jim. “You’ll frequently find us on the [Blue Ridge] Parkway or in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. We love to camp and fish.” When they’re not adventuring outdoors, the couple spends a lot of time working on their fixer-upper house. “There’s always another project!” Jim says with a laugh.
The Lowes love to travel, but they know better than to plan a post-tax-season trip. “We’ve learned not to go on vacation right after tax season because we just need to rest.” He pauses, then smiles. “Actually, we’ve been thinking: Scrunched over a desk for so many hours a day during tax season really takes a toll. The next project is to get a hot tub!”
From May 2010