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Episode 23:

The Power of Perspective for Career Success

Randy Crabtree


On Episode 23 of The Upstream Leader, Jeremy Clopton speaks with Randy Crabtree, co-founder and partner of Tri-Merit Specialty Tax Professionals. Randy discusses the life-changing experience that led him to shift the course of his career to align with his passions. He highlights the importance of leading with open-mindedness and enabling employees to shape work around their own passions.

About the Guest

Randy Crabtree, co-founder and partner of Tri-Merit Specialty Tax Professionals,  is a widely followed author, lecturer and podcast host for the accounting profession.

Since 2019, he has hosted the bi-weekly “The Unique CPA,” podcast, which ranks among the world’s 5% most popular programs (Source: Listen Score). You can find articles from Randy in Accounting Today’s Voices column, the AICPA Tax Adviser and he is a regular presenter at conferences and virtual training events hosted by national accounting associations, state CPA societies and other industry associations including the National Restaurant Association among others. Crabtree also provides continuing professional education to top 400 CPA firms across the country.

Randy was listed in the “Ones to Watch” section of Accounting Today’s 2021 “Top 100 Most Influential people in Accounting.”

Schaumburg, Illinois-based Tri-Merit is a niche professional services firm that specializes in helping CPAs and their clients benefit from tax credits and incentives including R&D tax credits, cost segregation, energy efficient incentives (179D and 45L), the employee retention credit (ERC) and the work opportunity credit (WOTC).

Prior to starting Tri-Merit, Crabtree was managing partner of a CPA firm in the greater Chicago area. He has more than 30 years of public accounting and tax consulting experience in a wide variety of industries and has worked closely with top executives to help them optimize their tax planning strategies.

Highlights / Transcript

Welcome to The Upstream Leader. Today’s episode focuses on the importance of leading yourself and creating career success. Our guest for this discussion is Randy Crabtree, co-founder and partner of Tri-Merit Specialty Tax Professionals. Randy is a widely followed author, lecturer, and since 2019, he has hosted the bi weekly The Unique CPA podcast. You can find articles from Randy in Accounting Today’s voices column and the AICPA tax advisor. He is a regular presenter at conferences and virtual training events hosted by CP America, Prime Global, Leading Edge Alliance, Allinial Global and several state CPA societies. Before joining Tri-Merit, Randy was Managing Partner of a CPA firm in the Greater Chicago area. He has more than 30 years of public accounting and tax consulting experience in various industries, and has worked closely with top executives to help them optimize their tax planning strategies. Today, our conversation concentrates on Randy’s career journey and the significant inflection points along the way. Randy, welcome to The Upstream Leader.

Jeremy, thanks. This is like the highlight of my career. I’ve been waiting for this invitation. I appreciate you getting me on here.
Well, we are excited to have you. I know you’ve had me on The Unique CPA and it was always an enjoyable conversation. So I’m excited about our conversation today.

I am as well.

So before we get too far into the career journey, and talking about the various milestones and inflection points along the way, I’m going to start with a question that really, it’s the basis for the conversation. But I’m gonna have you start us off, and then we’ll take it from there. And that question is, how did you become the leader that you are today?
Yeah, you know what, it’s a great question. Because I don’t always think of myself as a leader. I think of myself as an entrepreneur. And I think that’s what’s done it, I’ve always wanted to run a business, start—I don’t, let’s go back, I don’t want to really run a business, I want to start a business, I want to grow the business. It took me a while to realize I don’t really like the running of the business portion of it. And I think that’s the leadership standpoint is just the knowing that you want to be an entrepreneur, knowing that you wanted to start a business. And then knowing that you have to have certain skills to do that, and this for me started at age 16. I started a window washing company and was hiring all my friends from high school and paying them a pretty significant hourly rate back in the late 70s. So aging myself now, you know, I think it was probably six bucks an hour when minimum wage is probably just 250 or less. And it was a lot of fun. We got a lot of business. So I think it just started from knowing that I wanted to have my own business.
Okay, so I want to talk a little bit about that then. You said you didn’t necessarily, don’t necessarily identify as a leader, but more as an entrepreneur. When did you realize you don’t want to run a business, you want to have a business? When did you come to that realization? Was it in high school dealing with your friends, because I can only imagine that it probably maybe a little bit more fun at that point. But when did you come to that realization? That’s a pretty big one.
That yeah, that’s actually fairly new. And this is something you and I talked about before the show started. But it really started eight years ago was probably the reason it started. And eight years ago, I had a stroke. And that just made me change the way I look at things. And I look back now and we can go deeper into that. But I look back now at that point, and saw that there was certain things that I enjoyed doing, there were certain things. You reevaluate everything after, you know, an event like that. So I looked at that, and I saw, there’s certain things I like to do. There’s certain things I don’t like to do. I did a self evaluation, and look back and go boy, even at age 16, I didn’t really like managing people, I really didn’t even like, you know, scheduling jobs. I like doing the work. I like collecting the money as well. I’m sure I liked working with my friends. But there was just, I look back and then over the years, it just kicked in, there’s certain things that I do enjoy. There’s certain things I have passions about. And there’s certain things that I don’t. And it took that event before that really kicked in.
At that point, where were you in Tri-Merit? You’re a co-founder. So were you in a significant leadership role at Tri-Merit at that point? Were you running the business and then if so, how did you make that change in your professional career from maybe running to doing and realigning with where you found passion?
Yes, we started Tri-Merit 15 years ago. You know, Tri-Merit, especially tax, we deal with CPA firms around the country, but we started, which is what I am a CPA, so that I had a passion for, I enjoyed working with CPAs. But when we started 15 years ago, it was Andy Lane and myself. Andy’s an engineer, I’m a CPA. Just by default, it seemed like, Okay, I should be managing partner, I don’t even think we had a discussion about that. It was just, you know, Andy’s job was gonna be out and to do the projects and evaluate R&D tax credits. And mine was to do business development and overall manage the firm. And so it was just by default, so eight years ago, when the stroke happened, I was still in that role. I was managing partner. Again, did we officially ever even say that? I don’t think so, it was just default. That’s what happened as we grew, we had some decent growth. And so it was, that’s the role I was in, I was leading the firm, I was leading business development. I was managing overall, I had people involved as well. But that was my role. And looking back now, that’s not a role I should have been in. It just wasn’t my, it really isn’t my skills, it really is not my passion. I’m big about following your passion. And that wasn’t, that portion wasn’t my passion at all.
So how did you make that transition, then? Because I would imagine it’s difficult—the firm was probably in a little bit of a challenge when the managing partner has a significant medical event, obviously, somebody’s got to step up and take on that role. How did you make the transition at that point? And then how does what you’re doing today compare to what you were doing then? And then back to your passions?
Yep, for sure. So it wasn’t immediate, it wasn’t like, okay, Randy had a stroke, we have to change things. That’s not what happened. And just as a side note, I’m fully recovered. I am extremely fortunate. And I think the numbers are about 8% of individuals that suffer a stroke during their life fully recover. It’s just, I can’t be more blessed than I am because of that. So I feel great about that. So I had recovery, it took about four to five years before I mentally recovered. And so during that time, I was struggling a lot with just, even hidden, people didn’t even realize I was struggling, but mental health and all that kind of stuff as well.

And so, but during that time, it wasn’t this immediate transitions, like, Okay, we need to change things. I kind of fought it too, because Andy had come to me and said, Hey, I’d like to take over the role of managing business development. And I’m like, but he’s an engineer. That’s not what he does. Not that I know anything about really business development, you know, I know to be personable, I know that, you know, be open, be honest, be all this stuff. And this is what I do. But so that started the process of just, Okay, after Andy saying a bunch of times that this is something that he wants to start doing, and I shouldn’t have thought it but that started the whole transition that started the whole, you know, mindset of, okay, I don’t have to do this, this isn’t have to be my role in this.

And so that started the process, and then it took a few years. But then at, you know, probably three years after that, Andy took over Managing Partner role of everything. And you know, fast forward, looking back, I mean, that was the best decision we’ve ever done. I mean, he is so good at the things I am so bad at. I mean, he is so good at the whole, you know, processes and implementation and overall vision of where to go. And just that engineering mind, I think is a big part of it, he sees the steps, where I was more of a wing-it type person, he sees the steps and how you go to it. And so he did that. And then once he did that, I transitioned.

And this is where at that point, I still was mentally not in a good place for about a year after that transition. But at that time, I started thinking, what really am I good at? What are things I enjoy, what are things I should be doing? And so I started to do a self evaluation. Is that what we call this at the beginning of self awareness? Or self awareness? And that’s the same thing. Yeah, did this self evaluation, start looking. You know, from day one, I was out dealing with CPAs. I love talking to CPAs. I’m geeky. I love talking about tax, especially tax for sure. I was doing CP presentations. I always had like a adrenaline high doing that. And so you start thinking more abou,t I enjoy that stuff, that I enjoy and honestly, I sound like I have a big ego, which I probably do. I’m really good at it.
You’re very good at it, I would agree.
Well, thank you. And that was a fish, well I probably was fishing for that. So thank you. But so I started to just concentrate on, Okay, these are the things I like, I’m pretty good at digging in and looking at tough topics or complex tax topics, and being able to communicate that in what I think is an easy to understand way, because I’m talking to CPAs, or I’m talking to business owners. I mean, there’s a difference between the two. And so if you make it to a point where it’s easy to understand, you know, it comes across well.

So I started looking at that, started looking at, I don’t like really managing people. I like working with people, I like motivating people, I like looking at people’s individual strengths, and the way they learn and trying to work around them. So I started just looking at all this stuff. I’m like, this is really what I need to just fully concentrate on. And when I dug completely into this end of things, I’ve never had more fun in any business. And I’ve started multiple businesses, any businesses that I’ve worked in, I’ve never had more fun, never had more passion, never had more satisfaction. Five years ago, you know, when we started this transition, I wasn’t sure how long I wanted to work. I was at the standpoint like, okay, you know what, I’m gonna force myself to put three more years in, and then that might be it. I can’t see stopping now. It’s just, why would I? I’m having too much fun.
Let me ask you this, Randy. And I want to go a couple different directions. But I want to go back to something that you said. You said you fought the transition? And do you think, I mean, it’s like you mentioned you were in a difficult place mentally. Do you think part of that was because being the managing partner, even if it wasn’t named, was your identity back then? Was it really an identity shift? Because you went from being the managing partner, arguably, now I would call you a creator. You know, you’re truly a creator, you create articles, you create presentations, you got your podcast, I would also throw you into the category of leader because what you just said is, you love to work with people and get the best out of them, help them find their strengths. And to me, that personifies leadership so perfectly. Was it a bit of an identity shift from maybe being the boss, to being something a little bit different, that maybe didn’t have a title tied to it? Or an identity? Is that part of it, do you think?
It’s definitely it. And you’re giving me goosebumps right now, because you are right on with it. It was, I am, it’s an ego thing. I mentioned ego before, honestly, I mean I feel I do have a big ego, but I’m not a egomaniac type thing. It’s like, I want to be recognized, I want to be known as something. I think I do want that, I think I crave that. And being managing partner of a very significant specialty tax firm in the country. You know, I felt we were one of the top firms in the country. It was an identity.

And all of a sudden, I’m just this also ran in the business. I mean, really, that’s probably what my mindset was. It has not been anything like that at all. And I’m still the face of the company, really, not that that matters. But again, to someone with an ego, it does matter. I’m the face of the company. But I’m, I think, the face of the company, because I’m, we talked about before I’m honest, I’m upfront, I tell it like it is. If somebody doesn’t have a credit, I’m going to tell them, they don’t have a credit. I’m not going to promise things that don’t exist. I share my knowledge all the time.

And so things like that is my new identity now, is that Randy’s this expert out in the industry. And we can look to him for anything. Not even if he’s working with our clients or not. He’s there, he’s gonna answer any question that we have. And that’s my new identity. And that is really who I am. It’s not this leader of a firm. It’s not this. And so yeah, I fought it because of ego, because of identity. But looking back, there was no reason. It was the best thing that ever happened to me and to the business.
Yeah, and your identity now is interesting. When I think of you, I don’t even necessarily think of tax credits and R&D tax credits, because many of your articles are on completely unrelated topics. It’s not just about the tax side, you really have become a creator and a source of knowledge on a number of different topics. And it sounds to me from what you’ve shared, that generosity goes back to when you started a business in high school and you’re paying people three times what minimum wage was. You’ve had a spirit of generosity about you from the very beginning it sounds, and having gone from managing partner to now the role that you’re in, would you say that you’re almost in a better place to share that knowledge and be able to to be generous in the fact that you can go out there and create anything that you want? Or how does that play a role do you think?
1,000% in a better place to do that. It is, so I purposely don’t want to be known as Randy Crabtree, the R&D tax credit expert. Which if I’m known as anything in the last year, it’s really Randy Crabtree, the employee retention expert, which I honestly feel that’s probably, I’ve probably educated more people on ERC than anybody else in the country. But it’s just a passion and that’s that generosity too. You know, you share your knowledge, and I’ve dug deep into this stuff. I’ve shared my knowledge, I’ve had people reach out to me left and right.

Sharing your knowledge is generosity too. I’m not looking for anything in return. I know things will come. Not everybody that I, you know, answer a question, I’m going to get business from, but I know things will come. It’s the same thing with people in the office, I tell them constantly, I’m always there for you, anything you want, you know, anything you need, any question you have, any time—well, 2am, maybe not—but any other time, reach out to me. Because, you know, I’m at a point now where I’ve done a lot. I am winding down even though I don’t see it happening. I just have joy watching where people are going. I have two people that I hired in the business that came straight out of college, probably 10 years ago now. Both actually were working as personal trainers. I was using one and my son was using the other. And they just finished college looking for a job. And they both reached out to one to my son, one to me and said, hey, you know, are you looking for people?

And I just saw their work ethic, I saw everything, and hired them. One guy is now, his official title is probably CFO, he’s probably a CFO/COO, you know, early 30s does a great job. The other guy just started being manager of our inside sales team, which is a brand new portion of our business. And that’s not generosity. They’ve worked hard. But that’s joy I get watching what they’re doing, and it’s so much fun. So yeah, I’m in a much better place to be able to share everything, to be generous in time is one of those things that everybody has. And if you can share it, I think it’s important. And I try to.
Yeah, I’d say you do a spectacular job. I know, I think we first interacted probably, goodness, it’s probably been five or six years ago, it was before I joined Upstream. But it was when I was going through one of our programs and met you at a conference. And you’ve always been quite generous with your time and willing to talk to anybody. And I greatly appreciate that. And I know everyone else does as well.

Where you’re at now, it’s interesting, as I think about this, because it sounds from what you’ve described, that you have more passion, more joy, perhaps more energy, doing what you’re doing now, without the title of managing partner, than you did with the title of managing partner, and that is not at all meant to be a knock on the title of managing partner. But the more I bring that up, because it really shows that sometimes we strive for that title, that position, that role that’s perhaps at the top of the hierarchical pyramid. When in all actuality, that isn’t what we want. That isn’t what we need. That isn’t what we should be striving for.

If I’m thinking of say, a 25, 30 year old that’s listening to this podcast, and they’re trying to figure out, am I really on the right track? Am I really shooting for the right goal? Now, obviously, you had a significant life event that helped reshape that perspective, as you shared. How can somebody that’s in their, you know, their 20s, their 30s—heck, how about somebody in their mid 50s, that’s still trying to, that’s maybe where you were at, thinking maybe I just need to be done, because I’m just not enjoying it anymore? How can they change their perspective without having to have a significant life event?
Right, no, that’s awesome. Because I look back and I go, and I think, what if I had this mindset when I was 25, it’d be great. But I’m glad I have it now. If I can help motivate, I don’t know if that’s the right word, but give advice to somebody, you know, today that will help them in the future. I mean, the bottom line is, and this is my theme, and that always has been for the last five years is, find your passion. And this is a big deal with, are you familiar with John Garrett, what’s your and? Okay, so John, I was, I think living what you’re and before I met John. But after meeting John and talking about that, what you’re and, and John talks about, for those who don’t know, John Garrett talks about, you know, people are not the auditor or the tax person or whatever, they’re the hiker or the mountain biker, or they’re the, you know, shot glass collector, whatever they are, they have passions outside of work.

And so, when I talk to people about this, you know, find your passion inside of work, but maybe that’s you passion outside of work. And start there. What do you enjoy doing? What do you enjoy outside of being an auditor of car dealers? You know, maybe you have another passion. Well, can that be your role? Can you go to your firm? Are they open enough to say, hey, I want to start, maybe we don’t have an expertise in dealing with restaurants in our business, in our firm. But I just love everything about restaurants, and I have a passion for restaurants. And so can I go to your Managing Partner, go to your manager, go to your supervisor, whoever, can I start to try to put a program together where this is a new niche we have within our businesses, restaurants, because I have such a passion for this. I just love what they do. I like to see them grow. I like to see the formulation of recipes that they do. It’s just something I enjoy.

So now you can go and now all of a sudden your passion for going out and dining at fine restaurants could become your passion at work as well. Now, it’s not always that simple. But if you start to have that mindset of what do I like to do, whether it’s an outside of work thing, or an inside of work thing, you know, hey, I’m doing audit, and I’m doing tax and I hate audit. And I like tax. Okay, look at tax. Okay, now I’m looking at tax. And I really don’t like 1040s. But I love the complexity of partnerships. Okay, so now that’s, you’re digging deeper into that. So maybe that’s it. So just look for things you enjoy, things you’re passionate about whether it’s outside of work or inside of work, and try to start veering your degree in that direction.
So let’s take this from the other standpoint, you mentioned retention, and I’m sure there’s going to be some managing partner or partner listening to this that says, Great, my employees are going to go find passion. And I’m going to build on your example, right? I want to be a restaurant, I want to focus on the restaurant industry. My firm doesn’t do that. So I’ve got to leave. So talk about it from the leader’s standpoint, within these firms, somebody comes to him and says, Hey, Randy, I’ve got this passion. We don’t do that here. I’m going to have to go find another firm. How does a leader respond to that?
I think a leader needs to be open. I think you can’t be closed minded, I think of somebody’s coming to you with an idea. I mean, everybody in our firm has ideas, I want to hear every one of them, I want to go forward with it. So I just think you have to as a leader, you have to and I think like you said before, I think I’m, I think I’m a good leader of people. I’m not a good leader of a business, I think I’m a good leader of people. And so when someone comes to an idea, you just have to be open. And let me give you an example. Employee retention credit, which you just mentioned.

So employee retention credit went through changes at the end of 2020. And I just, I became passionate about that, I started digging into it. I started researching, I started looking at everything about it. But at that point in time, I wasn’t sure we were going to make that a service offering. I just wanted to start learning all this stuff. And I was trying to educate people on it. And a month into it. I was working with somebody who was new to our business, somebody very divine, who I’d known for years. But he had recently come to work with us, he was in specialty tax forever. And he was adamant about the fact that, hey, I want to start doing this as a service.

I’m going, I’m completely open to that, I’ll be honest, I’m not going to set it up, I’ll know the credit inside and out, I will educate it, I’m not going to be the implementer. And I, because I know that’s my weakness. That’s not what I do. I have ideas, I can get people motivated on it, I can’t put it into place. And so I actually said to him, if you want to put the program together, if you want to implement this, I’m all for it. Let’s go, full blast ahead. And he worked like crazy and put this in place. And, I mean, the revenue numbers are just mind blowing of what we’ve done on this because he came and said, I want to do this, I have a passion for this. I really think it’s something we could do. And I felt it was, but I felt I couldn’t do it by myself, implement it. And with him doing that, we’re able to do it. So he came with that idea, with that passion. And he did it. And it was by far our largest revenue source last year. And it will be again this year.
Very nice. I like that example. I appreciate that. I want to hit a topic real quick. And it’s this, there’s so much conversation right now, it seems, about the great resignation. And I’m sure everybody that’s listening to this is probably tired of the phrase the great resignation, because they’re feeling it more than they’re hearing about it. When I look at that, there could be some of this that is a result of the pandemic, people are finding their passion and they’re realizing it’s not where they are and they’re going to be resigning.

I look at the flip side of that, though. That means there’s quite a few people that are leaving other employers that could be good candidates for leaders that are listening to this and maybe they’re losing people but there’s a bunch of other people that are leaving other employers that are now candidates in the job market. So let me ask you this. You said you hired two personal trainers that are now in leader roles in your organization. How do leaders shift their mindset from we’ve got to have someone that essentially meets the criteria and fits the mold of what we’ve always hired? How can leaders take advantage of the fact that we’re at a place where there’s a lot of people that are entering the job market because they’re leaving other places? How do you keep an open mind and look for ways to fit new people into that mold?
Yeah, my whole thing has always been find a good person, find someone that has good work ethic, find someone that is, you know, personable, that all these things. They can do a job within the business, you know, there’s no, you don’t have to be a CPA to work at a CPA firm. In fact, CPA firms are, you know, obviously, you know, they’re, they’re identifying now as I can, I don’t know if that’s the right term, but identifying as advisory firms, not CPA firms. They’re getting away from tax and accounting and getting into HR and getting into tech, into these other things. So there’s so many rules. I mean, if you’re a decent-sized firm, there’s so many roles within your firm that could be filled with individuals. And once you get a good person in, well be open to opportunities elsewhere within the firm. I think that’s what it is. And not only within the firm, like we just said, something that’s not even existent in our firm already, be open to that, and you’ll find good people.

I mean, micromanaging, I can’t even say that word, it is so tough to even think about, don’t do it, give people freedom, give them the ability to find a course that’s best for them, but you know, help direct them as well. But I think that’s the key, just don’t pigeonhole people into certain roles, be open to where they can go and just find good people. And my mind is completely blank. There’s a managing partner out there with a large firm, that he has that same mindset, and they’ve grown significantly. I mean, I think most of their new hires are not CPAs. But they’re people that they know they have attributes that will be good. Moving forward with the business, I think that’s what you need to do.
Yeah, hiring good people, and then teaching them the skills that they need. That’s the nice thing about skills and knowledge. They can be acquired, but finding good people, that sometimes, that’s the hard part to teach. So yeah, Randy, I have thoroughly enjoyed our conversation. Let me ask you real quick, you know, as far as resources, you know, looking to find your passion. Is there anything as far as a book, a TED Talk, a podcast, anything that you would recommend as a resource for someone that’s kind of at that point where they’re trying to figure out, is this really what I’m passionate about? What’s a good resource out there for them that you recommend?
Well, I already mentioned it, but I’m not a big reader on business books. I probably should be. That’s not a passion of mine so I don’t. But the one book, and I already mentioned it, is What’s Your And? by John Garrett. I think even though it’s not specifically a business book, man, you look at that, and you read that. And you see how people implement things in the business from their everyday life, or just getting to know people outside of work. Every time we hire someone new, I try, and I’m probably behind on a handful of people now, because we’re hiring somebody every week right now. I try to just reach out on the Team call and just talk about not work but talk about, you know, hey, what do you enjoy? What’s your passions? What do you have fun doing? What do you do outside of work? And we get into the family, we get into the sporting stuff, we get into what they do on vacations. And so What’s Your And? talks about that, and I think not even concentrating on how I run a business. But how I get to know people is huge.
Randy, I really appreciate that. And thank you for your time today and talking about this. For our listeners, you know that idea that you’ve got to find your passion, and sometimes it requires letting go of an identity to find the identity that we actually want to have. There’s an ego side of that—ego is not necessarily a bad thing. I think that that actually drives a lot of people to success in a lot of ways. There are times it can go a little far perhaps, but you’ve got to have you’ve got to find that passion and know what you’re working toward. And I appreciate how you’ve shared your journey along the way. For listeners. I will say that Randy is going to be speaking at our Headwaters Conference, July 21, and 22nd 2022 in Park City, Utah. We’ll be talking on that Friday morning. We’re actually going to do a breakfast session and Randy and I are going to be talking a little bit more on this topic, going a little bit more in depth, love to if anybody is going to be out that direction. We’d love to see you there. But, Randy Crabtree, thanks so much for joining us on The Upstream Leader.
Well, thank you. I had a great time, I really appreciate you having me on.



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