With Mary McDonald
Mary McDonald joins Randy Crabtree on Episode 104 of The Unique CPA to talk about #TaxTwitter. When Mary, Dan Heron, and Allison McLeod started planning the #TaxTwitter Retreat, they had no idea that it would far exceed their expectations, potentially bringing together professionals from various areas of the tax industry in an environment of camaraderie, learning, and even wine and beer tastings—the latter, thanks to Randy! Who knew that the power of community and networking could lead to such unexpected results?
Today, our guest is Mary McDonald. Mary is Principal at the CPA firm Hansen House out of Duluth, Minnesota, which is awesome. But almost more importantly, at least for our discussion today, she is one of three people who are actively putting together the #Tax Twitter retreat, which will be held in Denver, technically August 11 and 12th. But I think a lot of people will show up on August 10, which is a Thursday, and have dinner, and I’m hoping to be there. But before we go far into that, Mary, welcome to The Unique CPA.
Thank you so much for having me. I’m excited to be here.
Yeah, I’ve seen this #TaxTwitter in general for a long time, but then I saw that you were planning this retreat and I thought, man, I’m going to have to talk to somebody about that at some point. But before we get deeper into that, I gave you a quick intro. You want to expand on that? Anything I think you got from “uniqueness,” you do have a uniqueness and you were, what, a third and fourth grade teacher for a handful of years before CPA came calling?
Yeah, I don’t even know what number career this is for me at this point, especially if you count all the different versions of CPA part. But, yeah, my first career was an elementary school teacher. I taught third and fourth grade for about five years and then decided that as much as I enjoy kids and working with them, I’m not a big fan of parents, and so teaching doesn’t work for that part. Then I did a number of things, kind of off and on for a few years until I ended up at a CPA firm actually here in Duluth as their office manager and worked there. I started in January and February.
A tax preparer left, and my boss at the time said, hey, you know what? The software does most of this. Why don’t you help us out and do some tax returns? I discovered that I really liked doing tax returns and worked through the season. In April, of course, the phones died off.
I was super bored. They gave me my boss and his coworkers gave me some different companies, some corporation returns to work on, some payroll, things to do. And again, I really enjoyed what it was. But strangely, they don’t teach you any accounting in education.
So I kept asking the questions, why is this a debit? Why is this a credit? And I love the people I work with and their answers. They’d been doing it for so long.
Debits are on the left, credits are on the right.
Has to balance. And I know that part. I don’t know why—I wanted to know the whys of it.
So I convinced—I had two bosses—One in accounting, one in finance. It was a double office. I convinced them to help me go back to school. Went back to school, working full time. I did as many online classes as I could until I reached that point of either I quit my job and finish and really do this, or this is as far as I go.
So I quit my job, finished up, graduated 2008 with my accounting and finance degrees, and right as there were no jobs in Duluth, it was fun.
Not great timing, I guess.
Not super great timing. But everything happens the way it does, Right? Ended up taking a job with the Big Four firm down in Minneapolis. Worked there for three years. Got my CPA while I was there, ended up in private. Worked for a Fortune 50 company out of Minneapolis for a couple of years. Decided that was not where my values were.
I really like helping people. You work for a company, you help the company. Went back into public accounting, and in 2016, my husband and I moved back to Duluth, trying to figure out kind of what we wanted to do, where we wanted to be. And I ran into my former boss, the one I had started with at the tax conference, the Minnesota CPA Conference that November. And he had somebody who was leaving, and so he and I had coffee, and he asked me to come back on. So I ended up being a CPA at the firm that I learned taxes from.
Which was really fun. It was just wonderful. And it was great to be back in the community up here.
Yeah. So I was there for about five years, and then I merged over to Hanson House Company, which is where I’m currently at now. So that is the CPA journey in a super fast nutshell.
That is super fast! I got to ask a question. What year was that? The conference? The Minnesota CPA Society conference, do you remember?
It was 2016.
Okay. So, yeah, I spoke at that conference probably back in 2010, 11. So I thought, I wonder if I was there at the same time as you. But there you go.
You should come back. It’s a good conference. Yeah, it was big. I remember that. And it was fun.
I was in a room, I swear it had to seat 1000 people or more, this room. And there was probably 300 in there. And it seemed empty because it was so big, which was a little weird for a speaker. You’d like to see this concentration of the crowd, but it was a great event.
I remember that.
Alright, we’re already getting sidetracked, which is what I tend to do on the show.
Well, as you can tell by the fact that I started as an elementary school teacher and now I’m a principal at a CPA firm, I clearly always take the linear path. We’re fine. Straight line, I guess, if we’re going to deviate a couple of questions.
So, as a teacher, you didn’t like the parents, but now you’re dealing with the parents on the tax side. Is this fine, when you’re not talking about the kids and you’re talking about the business or the tax?
You know what? And actually that’s fair, because for a lot of especially the business owners, the businesses really kind of are their kids.
Right. And their taxes are really kind of the report card. So we’re having conferences, but there’s less judgment around the taxes than I think parents often feel around their kids.
Oh, yeah, I can see that.
And actually, my education background has come in really handy because, you know when somebody’s glazing over, you know when somebody isn’t understanding what you’re saying, and you figure out a way to get it to them so that they understand it, and you get that light that goes off. So really, it still is teaching.
I can see that. I had two careers before becoming a CPA, and both those careers helped me, actually. Computer science was my undergrad, and I was out programming, and just having the knowledge in general of technology is important, obviously, more and more important as the minutes go by, it seems like right now.
More and more important.
Yeah. Did you see that, what was it, GPT-4 prepared a tax return this week or something like that to the dollar, correctly?
Yeah, I got that call for it.
Well, you can now call the client. Perfect way to delegate.
I like that. That was my least favorite thing when I was preparing taxes. So that and then I was in sales for a year, which I was awful at, but those skills that I learned I didn’t realize were going to be important in the future, those types of things.
So everything you do, you end up using in the profession. You find the passion in which it sounds like you found the passion in your profession, which is nice. Alright, so I want to get into this conference because I’m so excited about this, because of community, for one. I just love the community within our profession. But let’s set a little background: You’re not the only one working on this. You have two other people, is that right? Two other people helping you?
I do. I’ve got Dan Heron and Alison McDonald, who are helping me with this. So the three of us—Dan had actually started the idea a couple of years ago, and we finally kind of got to the point where, no, we’re going to do something. We’re going to do something. So Dan has been fantastic in the background. Allison keeps us on track when it comes to planning everything, so she’s brilliant. I think I’m just there for comic relief. I’m not exactly sure which piece I do, but yeah, it seems to work out with the three of us.
Nice. And what is that—there is something on your Twitter page. You have something under that, that describes you. What was that? What does it say there?
It’s the “Plucky comic relief.”
That’s it! Yes.
And now I’m blanking on the name of the movie, but there’s a movie with Tim Allen and Sigourney Weaver, and it’s kind of the satire of all of the space films and things like that, Star Trek and Star Wars and so on and so forth. [Producer’s note: The film is GalaxyQuest] And one of the characters is wearing the red shirt, and of course the red shirt. You go down to the planet, the red shirt dies. And so they end up going down to the planet, and they’re in the transporter, and he says, “But I’m wearing the red shirt. What’s going to happen? I’m going to die. And they look at him and say, no, you’re just the plucky comic relief. It’s okay.”
So you’re in plucky comic relief.
I am the plucky comic relief.
That’s going to make the conference a lot of fun, for sure.
And then let’s talk just in general real quick about #TaxTwitter. Do you know how this originated? I assume you’re not the originator.
I am not the originator of it. I found it in 2020, in “March Eternity,” when all the COVID stuff happened. And I was looking for help with the first round of PPP that was coming out. We had no idea what was going on. I found Adam and Eric. They had been reading the regulations or the proposed regulations, and it was so convoluted. One of them had said, so you need to sacrifice the goat underneath this moon during this month, wearing this. And it hit my funny bone.
And so I jumped in with that, and I felt like I found my community.
Especially as somebody who works in a small firm where I did a lot of the business stuff, my partner did a lot of the individual things. And I don’t want to say siloed or segregated, but we definitely were in charge of learning the things that we needed to know and there wasn’t anybody else to ask. The big firms have the luxury of “here’s our department that does these things,” right? As small folks, we don’t have that. So Tax Twitter, in a way, kind of became that, I think, for a lot of us, that place to go ask our questions, figure out what was going on. “Is this dumb? Am I thinking about this right?” And you’ve got that pool of knowledge that’s so valuable and support.
So I’m not sure who started it. My guess would be Kelly Erb from Tax Girl, but she might deny it. I’m still going to give her total credit for it.
Yeah. So Scott Scarano told me this morning, the other day that he knows who started it. But I texted him this morning to ask because I knew we were talking about this.
In fact, I just—live, right now, breaking, I just found the text. So this is what he thinks. Stephanie Soong. S-O-O-N-G. Do you know that name?
I’ve seen it.
Alright, so this is what he’s saying. She’s the founder, started this in 2016. And the reason I ask Scott well, Scott I know real well, but Scott is running this, which by the time this plays will be outdated, but running this March Appness, I don’t know if you’ve seen that. It’s a lot of fun, this bracket for the accounting profession, kind of mimic around this.
Yeah, it’s fun.
He and I talk a lot because we kind of both come up with ideas, and I’m very fortunate. I have many people that can implement them. If I’m stuck implementing, we’re in trouble.
But Randy, it’s okay, you got people.
So let’s talk about the implementation then. So a couple of years ago, the idea came about, and then what was the next step?
It was just like, okay, we got to do this. Let’s find a location. Let’s find a date, let’s find a spot.
What went into the whole thought process then?
I think originally the idea kind of behind it was, again, we’ve got this great network, we’ve got this great community, and we all talk to each other online, and we all know each other, exist and are real people. And there is something super valuable about that face to face, right?
Oh, for sure.
And that actual interaction. When you are with somebody and you’re picking up on the cues and the visuals and the body language, and then you’ve got other questions, and there’s such a natural flow right there’s this really organic loveliness that happens when you are in person with people.
And this idea kind of was that we wanted Tax Twitter, this beautiful, lovely community, to have that opportunity. We wanted to be able to get together and get in person. Now, I know people have been meeting each other one offs. I met with Adam last year. He came to Minneapolis which was fantastic. And that’s something really interesting to try to describe to people. No, I’m taking a day off of work to drive to Minneapolis to meet this guy from Florida. You’re what?
So is this like an axe murderer thing? Text me when you get there. Text me when you’re leaving. Send me pictures. It’s fine. He’s a tax guy. What’s going to happen?
But to have an actual event where people from all over can come, get together, meet each other, see each other, the first decision owners was really kind of, what is it going to be? Is it going to be a conference where we all learn stuff? Because, again, we’ve got this huge knowledge base so we can teach each other things. So we’re going to do that, or are we just going to have a chance to get together? And because it’s the first one and we actually did send out polls around this, the general consensus was, you know what, let’s just have it be a chance to meet each other first. The networking piece around it, the questioning, that can happen again, kind of that organicness around it we thought would be really valuable for everybody. Plus, as we were discussing it, we’ve got CPAs and EA’s, and I think there’ll be some financial people there and probably some attorneys.
And for the three of us who don’t do this for a living, how do you manage making sure that everybody gets the right certifications they need, the right credit hours, the keeping track of everything? We decided that was above our pay grade. So if somebody wants to take that over for next year, we’d love to have help with that.
Are you asking me to volunteer?
I am, Randy.
I do have people, and we are running a conference that actually is going to be, what, just over two weeks after yours, which we will have CPE available. But the whole theme of that, in my mind, is about community as well. So I think we’re kind of on the same page because it’s so important. It is in every profession but our profession in general, I believe just because, one, we’re not getting people, we don’t have many third and fourth grade teachers that decide to change their career and become accountants. I don’t know why.
I don’t know either.
And we don’t have a lot, unfortunately. And I don’t know if the stat’s right or not, but I was talking with Dan Hood, editor in chief of Accounting Today last week, and he told me, boy, it seems a little not accurate, but I’m going to believe Dan because I believe everything Dan says.
Absolutely. We got you, Dan.
We got you, Dan. Exactly. It’s that—I don’t remember the years, but 20 years ago, let’s say, 2% of individuals entering college were entering accounting degrees. Now it’s 1% of individuals entering college are entering accounting degrees. Now, I don’t know how that translates to overall numbers, but just the fact that people are finding more interesting in their mind professions to go into is a problem, and I think we’re seeing that problem now with the lack of individuals available to help during tax season, which you are currently sitting in.
And probably 25% done.
Wait, 25% done?
There are four deadlines.
Alright. Okay. You are right. That’s what you mean. I was thinking till April 15, I’m going, okay, my math might be wrong because we’re March 16.
Randy, don’t worry. This is the third and fourth grade math that they’re teaching these days.
I do not like the new math.
It’s easy to say that anything you don’t understand, it’s the new math.
It’s fine. Honestly. I’m going to go on a rant for a second, and my kids are now in their late 20s, so this has been a while, so the new math is not even new anymore. But everything that I would look at with new math, what they were being taught, it was like they’re being taught how to do math without understanding math.
And that was so disappointing to me. Alright. Yes. But what you were saying about community and our profession actually is interesting.
Thank you for a beautiful setup.
Nicely done. So one of the things that the three of us discussed now, we could easily, as a community, spend Thursday night, Friday, Saturday, and do nothing but drink and tell stories and network.
Oh, sounds fun.
We could definitely do that.
Somebody else needs to plan that one. We won’t hold responsibility or liability on that. But we did want to have even though we’re not going to have continuing education, we did want to have some sort of mild structure. So we kind of thought, “Alright, what do people really want to talk about? What are the hot topics right now?” And so we’re still kind of building this piece out, but we did focus on how do we help our profession, how do we get more people in?
And then technology. And we figure we get this amazing group of people together in a room, we might be able to come up with some really fantastic ideas.
Yes, I agree. I have seen so many interesting things on, and I probably haven’t participated enough. I’m more of a lurker. Is that the right word?
I’m watching what’s happening on—look at me. 60 years old, and I know lurking. Nice.
You might want to have that part edited out, or at least don’t use that as, like, the sound bite for something.
Exactly. Yes. You could take that out of context, for sure. We might want to be careful there. Just don’t take that into account.
Just be careful with that.
Alright. Yes, but I’ve learned so much. Just and I’ve met people that I built I just told you this morning, Allison, and what’s her last name?
McLeod. (pronounced McCloud)
That’s what I thought it was.
And Allison, forgive me if I am butchering that—well in my brain, that’s how it reads.
Me too. I completely agree that I assumed it was Alison because it’s a little different spelling. I assumed it was McLeod because it’s not different than I used to.
But I’m going with Alison McLeod. That’s what we’re doing. She and I started messing each other on Twitter yesterday. She had put something out there and I had responded to her, and then it took me about a day for it to hit it’s like, oh, wow, she is part of the Tax Twitter Retreat. This is awesome.
And so now, I never would have met her before. I never would have talked to her. It’s only been messages. But without that so it’s so cool.
And community is so important.
Yeah. So let’s go into a few things. So we know the inspiration now. We’ve got this community that has been very helpful to you and other people and sharing knowledge in that. We kind of know the theme that that’s what the theme now of the conference is built around is this community. And now you already did mention that the themes of the speaking, which would reiterate that it was technology, say the three again, or the four.
So it’s really two: There’s technology, and then the second one is really, how do we help our profession? So it’s bringing people together around that. And hopefully we’ve got enough people coming, even if all we do is set up a bunch of whiteboards or sticky pads or whatever and throw ideas out there. But at least we’re all together generating it.
Yes, which is great. So community collaboration, which is important. Knowledge sharing, which is important. You have a hotel with conference rooms. Is this how it’s working?
Yeah. So we reserved a place. It’s actually a little building from the Catbird Hotel in Denver. It’s in one of the neighborhoods. It actually looks super cool. So if you’ve got significant others or kids coming, there’s a ton of stuff to do around where we’re going to be. My husband is excited to come and just kind of try out the breweries.
You’re going to be busy talking to people. I’ll just go over here. But the space that we have is big enough that we can meet as a group, hopefully. We don’t know how many people are coming yet. We’re not event planners. Let me just be very clear: We are tax professionals doing our best, but there are also rooms that we can break out into and have smaller groups, sessions, things like that. There is a kitchen. So we’re hoping to get Brian Streig to do a cooking demonstration, probably either Friday night or Saturday night, maybe Friday night.
I was talking with Ian again, forgive me, Ian. I want to say winer. He’s a big wine guy, and I’ve just been kind of watching all of his stuff, and I would love to get him to do a wine tasting.
Oh, that’d be great.
We do need a sponsor for that. So let me just throw that out there. Sponsor for the wine. Sponsor the wine tasting. Let me know.
Well, if we add a beer tasting to it, I may consider sponsoring that.
Randy, we can do a beer tasting.
There you go.
Come sponsor the beer tasting. I’ll tell you just on a tangent here. I grew up in a big beer family. My dad was a home brewer. Had stocks in some of the Minnesota companies here. We know a lot of brewers here. I have done beer tastings for friends. I’ve done this. If you want to do a beer tasting, Randy, we could set something up.
Alright, we may have to talk about this. That’s one of my expertise is hosting as our firm Tri-Merit during the pandemic. Talking about community real quick, I gotta segue again, talking about community. Before the pandemic, I traveled nonstop. Now I have started again, last July, about a year and a half ago, started traveling a ton again. But when everything shut down, it was like, how are we going to stay in front of people? How are we going to meet people? How are we going to build new relationships? How are we going to have this community? And we support tax preparers around the country with what we do. Bottom line is, I took my bar, which I’m a partner in a craft beer bar, combined it with our specialty tax services, and we created these online beer tastings, which really had nothing to do with our services. From a tax standpoint, it was just—yeah, I know.
The combination is kind of loose.
It was more just the relationships we built and meeting new people, where we did these online beer tastings. The people at the bar are experts. They’re Cicerones, which is the Sommelier of beer.
It’s not an easy test.
No. And so we have Cicerones, and what we would do is we get on, we invite people, and we just send them beer. We drink beer. We just talk about beer. And it was nothing really about business at all. It was just, hey, let’s all stay connected. And how can we do that? Like you with Tax Twitter, I met more people. I built more relationships, stronger relationships during that year and a half, I wasn’t traveling than I do when I was traveling, just because of this online community that we created through beer.
And so I can completely see that. So it’s fun, but that’s how we do it. We are social creatures. We are meant to be around other people. Now, some people are harder to be around than others, and they take more energy. But I think that one of the things the pandemic really taught us, was that it doesn’t matter if it’s about tax or beer or whatever, right. It’s being around other people and it’s sharing those experiences and understanding that you are not the only person in the world.
Right. Alright, so we got the hotel, we’ve got the concept.
Registration is up?
And we’ll talk about that at the end, how we get to the registration link and everything. Do we have an idea of how many people have registered so far? And now we’re talking in March, just so we know which is good.
I don’t know. I will say that. So Dan and Allison and I—at least Allison and I for sure, I believe Dan as well—are staying at the Catbird Hotel, which is right next door to where the retreat is going to be happening.
If we get more than ten people at the hotel that are underneath the retreat umbrella, we do get a group discount on rooms. So that is something to consider. I don’t know how full the hotel is. The rooms look kind of fun and funky. So that’s kind of one of those things. We really don’t when we put it out there initially, we figured we are going to get somewhere between maybe 20 and 60 people.
Now having said that, we do have a Twitter account for the retreat, which is Gain, Loss, & Basis, @taxretreat. It’s out there. And that account has more than 300 followers. So it just kind of all depends on what people can do. And we do understand that it’s hard for people to get away. We tried to make it around a weekend so that it was a little more flexible. That’s where the Friday piece came in, so you can do a longer weekend. We tried to look and see what other conferences were happening, so we weren’t overlapping with too many. But we also understand that it’s hard to get time off for some people if there isn’t education involved and some people might be not interested in that. Totally get it. So for this first one, we really are just kind of going into it with we’re trying not to hold onto it too tightly. We’re just kind of seeing what happens.
And I am a follower of that, so I’m one of those 300. At least I thought I was following that. So, yeah, definitely go look at that on Twitter. But then there is also a website as well for that, which is TaxTwitterRetreat.com.
We tried to make it easy.
That is nice and easy. I’m really looking forward to this. I think there’s going to be great information shared by the community. There’s going to be great collaboration just getting to meet people that you’ve known virtually exactly as real people in person, seeing them 3D rather than 2D, or even seeing them not even in two D. A lot of times you just see in their words. So now in reality, you’re going to see them.
Maybe some final wrap on this. Anything you want to make sure we all understand and know before we close things out.
Really, I think this is going to be one of the best chances to do real networking, the way that they tell you at the Big Four, “You got to start to do the networking thing.” And you think that that means you need to go out and ask all of your friends to let you do their taxes, when in reality, what it means is forming those relationships where you can help somebody. I think this is really going to be a good chance to do that, to do some actual real networking.
Yes, I agree completely. And it will be a good time.
Oh, it’s going to be a great time. Please. You’ve got the three of us. I promise to bring all the snark. Let’s see, what else can I promise? That we’re going to be doing our best. We’re going to try. We’re going to try. We’re going to try really hard. There might be participation awards, I don’t know.
Everybody gets a trophy.
That’s right. Everybody wins. You come, you win.
Nice. And one of the most important things, it sounds like already there’s going to be wine and beer and food.
And food, absolutely. And again, if anybody’s interested in sponsoring any of these events, let me know.
Well, that’s one thing I didn’t ask. But you did say sponsor for the wine.
But yeah, that’s important. So, yeah, if there are people looking to sponsor, I think this is a great community to do it with.
And I guess the other piece that maybe is important is that there aren’t any registration fees. We’re not charging anything for the conference. Obviously you have to pay your travel and lodging and things like that. Hopefully we can get that discount at the hotel. But because this is really a retreat, sponsors would be great, but we’re not charging anything for it. So that might be something people want to know.
Free conferences are probably important.
We were talking ahead of time. That our conference—I’m part of a group that is now giving out scholarships for conferences. And our conference, we are going to give out scholarships as well. So well, you would need a scholarship if you wanted to get your airfare and your hotel paid for, but the conference fee is comped. There is no conference fee.
There is no conference fee.
Okay. And then you if people want to reach out to you, how can they find more information out?
So easiest way right now probably is through Twitter, just because if you email me, I’m going to think you’re a client and that’s going to make me salty. So I am @AccountingAsArt.
@AccountingAsArt. Sounds great. Well, Mary, I appreciate you being on. I am looking forward to this event. I was thrilled that you agreed to come on and talk about it and looking forward to seeing you in August.
I’m super excited. Thank you so much, Randy. We’re going to have a great time.
Thank you for joining us on The Unique CPA. You can find the show notes for today’s episode and learn more about Tri-Merit at TheUniqueCPA.com. Remember to subscribe and leave a five star rating on your favorite podcasting app. And join us next time as Randy talks to Jennifer Wilson and Renee Moelders on The Unique CPA.
About the Guest
Principal at Hansen House Company, Mary McDonald brings a unique perspective to the world of accounting with her background in education. As a former elementary school teacher, she has honed her teaching skills and ability to connect with others, making her a valuable resource in the tax industry. Mary actively participates in the #TaxTwitter community, where she collaborates with fellow tax professionals and offers guidance on various tax-related topics. With a passion for helping others, Mary is dedicated to making a difference in the lives of her clients and peers.
Mary earned her Bachelor’s in Elementary Education and Teaching from the University of Minnesota Morris in 1995. She subsequently earned her Bachelor’s in Accounting and Finance from the University of Minnesota Duluth in 2008.
Meet the Host
Randy Crabtree, CPA
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 (Tax-saving opportunities for the housing and construction industries) and he is a regular presenter at conferences and virtual training events hosted by CPAmerica, Prime Global, Leading Edge Alliance (LEA), Allinial Global and several state CPA societies. Crabtree also provides continuing professional education to top 100 CPA firms across the country.
Schaumberg, Illinois-based Tri-Merit is a niche professional services firm that specializes in helping CPAs and their clients benefit from R&D tax credits, cost segregation, the energy efficient commercial buildings deduction (179D), the energy efficient home credit (45L) and the employee retention credit (ERC).
Prior to joining 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.