I started college determined to be a physician but since my parents could not afford the cost of medical school I decided to pursue a degree in Respiratory Therapy. I had already worked in the Housekeeping department at our local hospital during High School so I knew the ropes of health care rather early in life. During high school, I spent a lot of time getting to know the RT’s at the hospital and learning the kind of work that they did. My rationale was that a job as a RT was a good way to start my medical career and provide the funds for the large tuition bills that were my future.
When I finished my RT degree (an Associates), my desire to be a physician had waned. Observing the long hours and lack of freedom was not endearing and I knew I wanted something that would provide more freedom. I was also determined to get my Bachelor’s degree and enrolled in a local university (Furman University). I wasn’t sure what to major in but since I was good with numerical relationships and systems, I just sort of picked Accounting (yes, just sort of picked it 🙂 ). This was partly motivated by the fact that by my 20th birthday, I already owned rental property and had a complex multistate return with independent contracting income in a neighboring state. Tax really intrigued me as there were plenty of opinions but not enough attention to the facts. This choice seemed perfectly natural then, but in retrospect, the combination of Respiratory Therapy and Accounting was certainly an odd combination that even baffled my accounting professors. During my studies, I also discovered that tax is not really the domain of accountants as I only had one tax class for my entire accounting curriculum. Its something you choose to specialize in.
I also had a lifetime love for travel taking every opportunity to visit a new place, a new restaurant or drive down a road that I had never journeyed. As a child, I would explore every street within a few miles of our home and when I got a moped (one of those motorized bicycles), the journeys took me as far as a tank of gasoline would allow. Later in life, I would attend Respiratory Therapy conferences solely for their destination and desire to travel to a place that I had never been to experience the journey to the unknown. I once went to a two day RT seminar in Pittsburgh and drove home 400 miles in the opposite direction. Why? Because I had never been to Columbus, Cincinnati, and Lexington. Since I grew up in South Carolina, anything north was intriguing.
I began dating my future wife during my last year at Furman and she fed my penchant for wanderlust. Our dates would include rising at 2:30 in the morning, driving 4 hours to the beach, spend the day and meander back to be home by midnight. As I was finishing my degree at Furman, I began interviewing for jobs. I was offered an opportunity to work in a health care consulting group but was also exploring work as a Travel Respiratory Therapist (a “traveler”). A traveler in healthcare is a healthcare provider that works as a short term staff member of a medical facility, typically, for periods of 3 months and then mobilizes to the next location which could be anywhere in the country. By this time, we were engaged and my wife, to my surprise, was all for spending our first years of marriage on the road. So the journey began. We spent three years traveling, working in 9 different cities. Something we have never regreted doing.
Travelers, as we are called, often have complex tax returns requiring a filing for each work state in addition to the home state return. It is a daunting task for someone who has never attempted it and since travelers are often paid per diem reimbursements, those reimbursements add another layer of complexity to the filing. On the first assignment I worked during the tax filing season, a couple of my traveling coworkers brought large folders of tax documents and handed them to me. “You have an accounting degree, right?” ……. “Yes” ….. “Please, do this for me – I’ll pay you anything reasonable to get it off my list…” I had already finished my own return. A three-state return that included SC, GA, and MN plus a rental property and stock trades and thought, what the heck … this might be fun. In the subsequent years, I got calls from other travelers referred by my former co-workers who asked if I could prepare their returns. Each Spring, I engaged in an annual ritual of doing a handful of traveler tax returns. It was an interesting diversion, and I actually liked it.
We traveled for three years and my wife had developed her own version of a travel job by working with HR Block each Spring at whatever office was near my assignment. In her first year, she worked at the busiest HRB office in the nation located in Stamford CT. When one works at H&R Block, they are generally required to complete their personal tax return in-house under the review of a supervisor. This initially created a conflict as her immediate supervisor could not wrap his head around the complexity of a traveler’s return. We actually had to go to the franchise owner before getting approval for the return I had already prepared. During our three years of traveling, my wife developed an interest in nursing as a career. We finished our last travel gig with an assignment in the Washington DC suburbs and she was able to enroll at a community college nursing program. That itself was a miracle as the waiting lists for nursing schools were two years long.
I continued to handle a handful of traveler returns each Spring and the more returns I completed, the more contracts I read and the more I studied the tax rules that apply to traveling professionals the more I realized that there were very few accountants, recruiters, travelers, and especially agency executives that really understood how the whole per diem, multistate tax flow really worked. I never really thought of pursuing it as a career as Daina needed to finish school, but the seed was planted. It was about this time that our company name developed. After finishing a tax return, one of my clients told me that he was really glad that I understood how to do “Travel Taxes”. The simplicity of that phrase and its description of our clientele made perfect sense and I began tossing the name TravelTax around to see how it worked. In 2005, we trademarked the name and I was very glad as we subsequently had to sue two CPA firms for violating our trademark and plagiarizing some of our proprietary documents. Copying may be flattery, but stealing someone’s labor is another thing.
After my wife finished her nursing degree I added another academic pursuit to my oddball mix of degrees. I began taking courses at a local seminary and eventually earned a Masters in Bible, concentrating in linguistics – a fancy word for a lot of Greek and Hebrew studies. After finishing my degree I joined the Board of Directors of a Bible College in the Caribbean. While attending board meetings and spending time on the campus, I became acquainted with a number of individuals serving in foreign missions who shared with me their frustrations in finding tax professionals who understood international tax laws. They all wanted to do the right thing but could never find someone who could tell him what the right thing was. This, coupled with my own personal frustrations with the traveler’s returns further influenced the founding of TravelTax.
After finishing my seminary degree, my wife and I decided to get out of Washington DC. We never intended to stay there. Although I am highly appreciative of my decade in our nation’s capital, our traveling days showed us the kind of place that we wanted to live and raise kids and we had planned since the first year of our marriage to pursue adoption should we find that we could not have our own children biologically. Our first assignment was in northern Minnesota in a small town of 12,000 people. It was the most enjoyable assignment of our travel career and when we settled in the DC area we promised to find something very similar to that town when we were ready to start a family. In 2001, after looking at a number of job opportunities in the Midwest, we received a cold call from a hospital two hours north of Omaha, Nebraska. Getting an ICU nurse and a Respiratory Therapist in one package was definitely a bonus for the facility and we instantly fell in love with the area during our interviews. It took us about one month to make the decision to accept the job and on August 14, 2001, we moved from the bustling suburbs of Washington DC to a small town in northeast Nebraska (Norfolk) in which the next Wal-Mart going west was 400 miles and five stoplights away. Four weeks later, was 9/11.
There is more to this story. At first, the entire plan had a romantical feel to it – big city couple moves to farm town but at the same time, I had this grinding fear of changing our entire lives on the whim of a dream that we concocted during a 3-month assignment in Minnesota. During the last weeks at work in DC, I had a patient that was given 6 months to live and after his physician gave him the sad news, I was the first caregiver to see him as he was due for his treatments immediately afterward. I had been there before… I made sure I had nothing on my plate that would give him the sense that I was rushing through things. I wanted to let him talk and show patience and sympathy. After a few minutes I found out he had no family in the area and the only immediate family member still alive was a brother who he had not seen nor talked to in 10 years. I asked him where his brother lived. He said, “some little town in Nebraska named after a President”. I asked if it was Madison, which was the county seat near Norfolk. “Yes! That’s the name!” he said. Sort of stunned, I remembered that I had the phone book of Norfolk in my backpack in the office and while he was still working on his treatment, I ran down to the office to retrieve it. When I returned, I handed it to him and asked him what his brother’s name was. He gave me this stunned look and asked how the **** I had that phonebook. When I told him I was moving there in a few weeks he gave me another dumbfounded look like I was a crazy idiot. Long story short. A few weeks after I moved, I went to his brother’s house, tracked him down at work, and told him about his brother. they got together before he passed away and I got a wonderful note from his brother’s wife thanking me for connecting them together after all the years. This is one of the ways God ratified His leading us to this town.
For a number of years, I had been reading a publication entitled Healthcare Traveler (HT). This was a monthly journal distributed freely to anyone with an interest in travel healthcare. It contained some interesting articles addressing the needs of travelers and advertising from staffing agencies and other companies that were involved in the traveling healthcare industry. Occasionally, there would be a tax article, but I was not impressed with the content as it tended to address general principles versus specific, real-life tax dilemmas that many travelers faced. One section of the publication was somewhat of an open forum where questions received by the publisher were presented in an effort to solicit answers from the readership. One of the questions that grabbed my attention was from an individual who had a specific question about per diems. On a whim, I decided to write an article as an answer to the question and to my surprise, it was published in the next month’s edition. I started writing full articles for Healthcare Traveler and at one point I was submitting a piece every month. This is when TravelTax went from a winter hobby to an official business. In 2002, we began advertising in HT and I put together a website using some crude color schemes and a Jeep logo that I had located in some clip art files. The yellow/blue color combination remains the corporate colors and the Jeep logo has been perfected a number of times by my wife and staff.
In the first year we went national, we handled about 60 tax returns. In 2003, that number went to 150 and by the time 2006 arrived, we had passed the 400 return mark. We hired our first employee in 2007, surpassed the 600 return mark and in 2015, we were well over 1200 clients. From 2006 to 2010, I also spent over 40 days a year traveling to cities with a high concentration of traveling professionals to present mini tax symposiums for travelers. During the downtime between sessions, I would visit any staffing agency that was in the town to meet with recruiters or leave some literature about our practice. In the infancy of our operations, every new client offered the opportunity to explore a new state. By the time I had filed at least once in every state, the structure of the various state tax returns were deeply embedded in my mind. I would often visualize say a Delaware or Indiana tax return in my head, juggling numbers and theorizing various combinations of income, interest, dividends and capital gains and how each of these would relate in a matrix. Every state has its own nuance and by this time I could rattle off the taxable income formulas for each with a list of special deductions to watch for.
Just like healthcare, every new patient presents a unique set of issues, some of which are new or unfamiliar. Running to the reference manual is commonplace in healthcare just as much as tax preparation. You can’t remember everything. Some new twist, some nuance of a common situation forces you to research various options. One of the more interesting dilemmas I faced was the growing number of Canadians working temporarily in the United States in the healthcare, engineering, and the informational technology industries. Not knowing how the Canadian tax system worked, I was not only intrigued by reviewing a client’s previous year Canadian return but also how the tax laws of both countries interfaced for individuals engaged in cross-border employment. I started reading Canadian tax manuals and attended a cross-border tax conference to get a grip on what I should expect to see on both the US and Canadian return. Just like the travelers, where I was not satisfied with how my clients’ returns were prepared, I realized that many of my Canadian clients had filed some bad returns that could potentially jeopardize their immigration status and subject them to some serious penalties. This embarked us on what I would consider the second phase of our operations, the expansion into international tax services. I started doing Canadian returns in 2005, almost all of them by hand. Doing tax returns with pencil and paper is extremely frustrating when an error occurs, however the repetition, stimulus of writing the numbers and reading the manuals deeply embeds the understanding and flow of a tax return more than 1000 returns done on software. Since my career spans the era of paper filing and electronic filing, I am thankful that I once had to prepare returns with pencil and paper. Not only did we add Canadian returns to our services, but my work with the Bible College in Puerto Rico led me to begin preparing Puerto Rican returns primarily as a pro bono service for the missionaries and permanent staff teaching at the college. This expanded to regular clients who are either employed or investors in the Puerto Rican economy.
In 2003 I also begin dealing with many audits of Healthcare Travelers. Tax audits, and working with auditors can be a real-life horror if you don’t know the structure of IRS protocol. Any Enrolled Agent (EA), CPA or attorney can represent a client before the Internal Revenue Service and for the most part, any state revenue agency. Audit defense, however, is an art that requires you to function as an attorney without the benefit of all the coursework in litigation and procedure. The National Association of Enrolled Agents (NAEA) offers a three-year curriculum in representation and I attended these sessions in 2003 through 2006 in Washington DC. After the third year, you are designated as a “Fellow” of the National Tax Practice Institute (NTPI). It is an extremely beneficial three-year course and I am grateful for the foundation that it provided me. As our practice grew, the capability of representing clients in tax controversies was becoming non-negotiable, especially in specialty areas that we operate. I have always taken the mindset that if I prepare the return, I should defend it for free or pay the interest/penalties if I am wrong.
The last component of our practice that slowly developed over time is reimbursement policy services which focus on a staffing agency’s compliance obligations when paying per diems. Staffing agencies are required to vet any employee/contractor that it intends to provide reimbursements that are excluded from reportable wages (tax-free). It involves reviewing the documentation that the agency uses in their due diligence screening of a traveler’s tax status, and concentrated training for recruiters / staffing agency employees so that every employee is on the same page. Over the last 10 years, the IRS has ramped up its focus on per diem policies of staffing agencies and our engagements have increased annually. In the future, we will be offering web-based video training services and certifications for recruiters and staffing agency employees.
When I finished the three-year curriculum at the NTPI, I wanted something more than the standard seminar for my continuing education. In 2008 I enrolled in the graduate-level tax program at Golden Gate University in San Francisco. This was an incredibly challenging yet phenomenal experience and I still take random classes as a part of my continuing education. What Golden Gate University offers in the taxation curriculum that differs from other schools is a faculty that has significant work experience. For example, my choices for professors teaching the tax procedure class – a class in which the legal framework of the Internal Revenue Service is studied – was either a retired Tax Court judge of 25 years or the Pacific Director of IRS Chief Counsel. Most tax procedure classes at other schools are taught by spectator CPAs or attorneys that throw together a series of facts vs. real-life experience and practice. It took me five years to finish the coursework and two years to finish the very last class due to my Father’s death, my mother’s medical needs and then the adoption of our two boys. Three different semesters I enrolled and dropped the same, last class until I finally pushed through.
In 2015 I started the next phase in the journey accepting and adjunct instructor position in the Accounting department at our local community college, teaching the tax curriculum. Since we have relocated, I intend to teach locally in the fall of 2020 and eventually, I plan to pursue a PhD in accounting with a focus on taxation when the kids are on cruise control. My oldest serves in the Army and my youngest, has special needs and will be with us awhile. There are two research projects that intrigue me which could be the foundation of a dissertation. The first is an exhaustive presentation of accountable reimbursement policies in the staffing industry and a study on the history of the IRS compliance efforts in this area. The second topic derives from my desire to contribute to foreign missions. The project would focus on the international taxation of foreign missionaries and relief workers. To pull the research into a manageable presentation, I envision constructing a 20 country matrix to differentiate taxation methods of individuals who would hail from Country A but live and work in Country Y. This would be an intriguing project as it would require international travel to meet with various executives in tax administration and government to study tax policies as it applies to religious-related vocations of taxpayers from other countries.In 2016, we bought an office building and moved our operations out of a small house that was next door to our residence. This was formerly a dental office. Just after settling in, our family moved from Nebraska to the town I grew up in, Greenville SC so my youngest could attend Hidden Treasure Christian School, a special needs school with a 40-year history that my wife and I were well acquainted with. This was a daunting task that required hiring entirely new staff and finding new offices. One immediate blessing was a more robust labor market and we nearly tripled our staff to 13. One of my first hires was a friend that I knew from my college church group in 1986 and a second was the wife of the best man at my wedding. Another move that God orchestrated in an incredible way.
If you have read this far, I consider it a compliment. Life has certainly provided a set of twists and turns but through it all, God made it an interesting journey and the road ahead is bound to have a few more surprises/ Joe
Co-Authored the 2015 edition of Highway Hypodermics
Travelers Conference 2014
Speaking with Mary Heavener, attorney at
Morgan and Lewis in DC at the
Aria in Las Vegas in 2012. Yes, Mary and Joseph.
We were certainly talking about things of
Biblical importance 🙂
Booth at Travelers Conference 2011