One NeuGroup member has “had to learn from doing” to tackle tax—and also tap internal and external experts.
When the head of tax at a midsized multinational company left to take another job a couple of years ago, the CFO tapped the treasurer to run tax, too. The treasurer shared some of the challenges she faced and how she addressed them at a recent meeting of the Treasurers’ Group of Thirty and in a follow-up interview.
A difficult beginning. Three of four junior tax staffers also ended up departing, leaving the treasurer with only one other tax person after being in the tax job for just a month. “That was obviously pretty difficult,” she said. “I literally had to do two jobs because we didn’t have many people at first.”
- The exodus also changed the nature of the role senior management had initially intended the treasurer to play in tax. “At the time, they thought that it would be more of a management role for me; whereas with the departure of all those people and a new set of eyes, it became much more of a rebuilding cleanup exercise than a pure managerial exercise,” she said.
A key hire with an accounting background. Senior management combined the roles in part because “there was enough crossover between the two disciplines that it made sense to have a more unified approach,” the treasurer said. But when it comes to matters of tax compliance, GAAP tax provision, tax returns and audit defense, there is little crossover with treasury, she said.
- “I ended up going out and hiring a really ‘heavyweight’ director of tax,” she said. “And one of my requirements was that they had to have a CPA. Because there’s two types of people out there in the tax world. There’s the CPAs and then the lawyers. We didn’t have enough structuring going on at our company to warrant a legal background. We really needed the accounting background.”
- Her advice to peers building in-house tax teams: “If you are going to build internally, you need to get someone very heavy underneath you.”
Scaling the learning curve. To learn what she needed to know about tax, the treasurer posed lots of questions to her tax director and, when necessary, the company’s outside tax auditor. And, like a lot of learning, much is done on the job. “I had to learn from doing,” she said, including the analysis of the implications of a tax and legal structure proposed by the company’s outside auditor.
- “I felt like I was really good at asking questions. And I felt like I could sort of think the way tax people think. But when you just don’t have the fundamental subject matter expertise, that’s where it gets difficult because you haven’t done the tax return yourself.”
The need to pick your spots. Making the transition to running tax and treasury requires deciding how much effort to devote to mastering tax concepts. “The tricky thing as a manager going from treasury to tax is how much time do you invest in that stuff,” the member said. “Because learning about these tax concepts is complicated and most things are not 10-minute discussions, it’s 20- or 30-minute discussions, at a minimum.
- “I have to pick and choose how much I want to learn. I’m never going to be a tax professional and sit and do a tax return for a multinational company. I have no desire to do that and I won’t do that,” she added.
When wearing two hats pays off. The treasurer’s knowledge of repatriation of cash, global cash forecasting and cross-border investments has proven valuable in her management of this multinational’s tax team.
- “Whenever there is cross-border, you have to involve tax,” she said. “So as we look at cross-border investments around the world and repatriating cash, now that I know more about the tax elements, I can really represent both areas at meetings and we don’t have to have yet another tax person on the call.
- “So our tax director can focus on the stuff he needs to be working on and then I can go back to him for clarification or ask him to work on certain things.”
When outsourcing makes sense. The company does most of its domestic tax work in-house, but outsources transfer pricing studies to its outside auditor in addition to having the firm review other complicated, international tax matters. In response to a question from a peer at the meeting, she said, “Outsourcing is very expensive when you talk to the big four firms.”
- The company outsources more in its operations abroad, including the preparation of tax returns and value-added tax (VAT) payments.
Dividing her time. When the treasurer took over tax, the company was in the midst of a global tax restructuring that required her to spend 80% to 90% of her time on tax. Her goal for 2021 is to spend 20% to 30% on tax and the rest on treasury.
- “But I’d be happy if I could get down to 50% on average,” she said.