Less Taxing Matters: Great Person Theory Explains TEI's Success over Nearly Seven Decades
Timothy J. McCormally
TEI - 3/15/2012

In the mid-1840s, Scottish writer Thomas Carlyle propounded what at the time was known as "the Great Man Theory" — the idea that history can largely be explained by the influence of great men and women, or heroes, who through their charisma, intelligence, and political skills have an outsized and decisive historical effect. The counter-argument, ascribed to Herbert Spencer, is that great men and women are the products of their societies and that their success actions would be impossible without the social conditions built before their lifetime.

I have no difficulty reconciling the competing theories championed by Carlyle and Spencer in the nineteenth century, especially within the context of Tax Executives Institute. In 1940s, Paul Smith had the vision to see the need for an organization of in-house tax professionals and the commitment to see the vision through to fruition. To be sure, he was a product of his times, and had he not "taken up the cause" at some point someone else likely would have.

The key phrase in the previous sentence is "at some point." TEI was formed in 1944 because Paul Smith was where he was, doing what he was doing, perceiving the needs he perceived, and acting upon those perceptions. Had he not been there would TEI never come into existence? Would there today be an organization devoted to in-house tax professionals? I have to believe the answer is yes, because the idea is so strong — the need for the organization so great — that I have to believe that eventually someone would have come along and say, "Hey, I have an idea…."

Eventually. And that's the rub. What often separates the great from the good and the average are timing and persistence. Great men and women raise the hands and step forward when others — good, solid people whose lives are overflowing with endless "to do's" and competing demands — pause. The hesitation doesn't make them bad people; it makes them human.

During the third week of April, I visited three chapters — in New Orleans, Seattle, and Anchorage — that confirm the vitality of TEI as a whole and the transcendent importance of individuals — of men and women who step forward, as products of their time, to help build and maintain the organization.

New Orleans Chapter

TEI's New Orleans Chapter, founded in 1948, was among its first. It has a storied history, as does the Crescent City itself. In 1976, a young attorney with the Ethyl Corporation became president of the New Orleans Chapter, and from the reports in the Institute's newsletter at the time ("TEI News"), the chapter held a number of well-received, well-attended meetings. That young man was Terry D. Hubbs, and after he served as chapter president, he continued working and eventually retired.

The New Orleans Chapter continued, too, and flourished. In 1977, just months after Terry completed his service as chapter president, the Institute held in New Orleans what was then — and continues to be — its largest Annual Conference ever. Over time, however, the tax community in the Gulf Coast region changed and, regrettably, shrunk as companies consolidated, moved, cut back, or sometimes ceased to be. This change was accelerated dramatically by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, which forced companies to relocate (some temporarily, some permanently) or shut down. The chapter continued to hold meetings, but the membership base was smaller and the chapter's leaders were often hard pressed to recruit their successors. Those who remained and had jobs were busier than ever.

But they were loyal, to each other and to TEI. And one person in particular, an associate member who lived in Baton Rouge and who recalled with gratitude what TEI has meant to him and his professional development, stepped forward. More than three decades after he served as chapter president the first time, Terry Hubbs raised his hand and offered to do it again. I have the time, he said. I will work to recruit members, to mentor new leaders, and to help TEI as it has helped me, he promised. So two years ago, at the age of 71, Terry Hubbs became president of the New Orleans Chapter, a position he has held for the last two years. (The chapter had to first receive a waiver from the Board of Directors for an associate member to hold office.)

Terry has been true to his word. He attended our Leadership Seminar (both in 2010 and 2011). He asked questions, he listened carefully, and he shared insights. He then returned home and set about to do the work that needed to be done, including recruiting several new members and his successor, Elizabeth Lestelle at Whitney Bank. In mid-April, I travelled to New Orleans to attend an all-day meeting on state and local tax matters that Terry and his leadership team had planned. I was impressed with both the quality of the speakers and the enthusiasm of the audience. I was also impressed — and gratified — by Terry's hospitality and warmth. He hosted a fabulous speakers dinner in the French Quarter and shuttled me from the hotel to the meeting venue (the Lindy Boggs Conference Center at the University of New Orleans) and then to the airport. Terry breathed new life into the New Orleans Chapter and hence proved the continuing truth of Paul Smith's vision of members serving members. In the TEI world, he was — he is — one of the great men that Thomas Carlyle wrote about more than 250 years ago — an unsung hero who by his personality and his persistence has made a difference. The New Orleans Chapter is in his debt, but so too is the entire organization.

Seattle Chapter

Over the years, the Seattle Chapter has provided TEI with many leaders. Honorary member Neil Wissing, who worked for Weyerhaeuser until his retirement, holds the record for service on TEI's Executive Committee. Three members of the chapter hold Institute- level positions: Brian Ugai of Starbucks is currently Vice President- Region VIII and a member of TEI's Executive Committee (as well as former chair of both the International Tax Committee and the Membership Committee); Mike Bernard of Microsoft is currently the chair of TEI's IRS Administrative Affairs Committee (as well as a former Regional Vice President and member of the Executive Committee); and Jocelyn Krabbenschmidt of Amazon is the current chair of the International Tax Committee.

All four of these individuals have not only worked diligently and effectively for TEI, but they have also mentored countless members, both in their companies and elsewhere. By their example, they have inspired many others to get involved. The results of their unstinting efforts — as well as those of Jonnell Quarrie of Drugstore.com, the current chapter president — were on full display at the chapter's April 18 meeting. The half-day meeting featured a series of roundtable discussions moderated by members of the chapters on topics as varied as tax department leadership, SALT hold topics, ASC 740, international developments, and IRS initiatives (such as CAP and QEP).

I was especially glad to talk with Jennifer Bowers of Starbucks, who will serve as next year's chapter president. Jenn moderated a session on accounting methods (along with Daniel Bartholomew of Amazon), and the discussion was both deep and nuanced. Indeed, that can be said of the exchange of information and insights at all the sessions. Everyone in attendance participated, and the energy level in the meeting rooms was palpable. It is no surprise that the chapter is growing and that, even in our hurried time, the chapter is able to recruit talented, enthusiastic members to serve in leadership positions.

Alaska Chapter

My last chapter visit in April was to Anchorage, where I had the privilege of presenting the charter to TEI's newest chapter. The leaders of the "Alaska Chapter Movement" were Dave Stevens of Afognak/Alutiiq and Kristy West of Arctic Slope Regional Corporation. I got to know Kristy a year ago when I visited Anchorage for an organizational meeting; she had joined the Portland Chapter five years before, but the "commute" from Anchorage was too long to permit her to be a regular participant in chapter meetings. In contrast, I have had the pleasure of interacting with Dave for 15 years, first in his role as a member and 1998-1999 president of the Arizona Chapter, then as Regional Vice President, and most recently as a member of the Portland Chapter.

Hence, both Kristy and Dave knew the value of membership before they started, and from experience Dave knew about the hard work involved in being a chapter leader. They set about to identify in-house tax professionals to join TEI, and by the time the charter period had closed, they had recruited 11 tax professionals (from as far away as Juneau . . . nearly 600 miles from Anchorage).

The newest and modest size of the chapter, however, did not impede its efforts to have a successful year. For example, the speakers at the April 20 meeting, where I presented the charter, included the Matthew Fonder, Director of the Alaska Department of Revenue, and his colleague, Robynn Wilson; Brian Lasselle and Joan Olmstead of the Internal Revenue Service; and Steve Seward of the Seattle office of Van Ness Feldman. Not surprisingly, the depth of the interchange among the members (and between the members and the speakers) were precisely the same as you would find in any of TEI's other 54 chapters. Given the enthusiasm of the group — and the potential for so many of the participants in the meeting to be "great men or women," a la Thomas Carlyle — the Alaska Chapter has a bright future.