When people think about places such as Baxter Springs, Kan., where I live and run my practice, I believe they get a stereotypical image of Heartland, America—cornfields, dusty roads and dying towns. They are right—and wrong. Towns like mine are the quintessential expression of American life.
Baxter Springs, population 4,200, is one mile from the Oklahoma border and 10 miles from Missouri. Its claim to fame, aside from being the largest city in the county and having a cow-town history, is that it sits on a historic (and still working) section of the famed Route 66. Tourists from around the world stop to see where history was made. Recently, we had a motorcycle caravan of 1,000 bikers. A week later 85 Model T’s visited our famous museum. Since many of the buildings in town (including mine, which was built in 1878 as a bar) are historic sites, tourists roam the street, stop to read the plaques that tell the story of each building, and peer in. Those of us at work in the historic buildings sometimes feel like we are in a zoo!
After graduating from college, I worked for a couple of firms for a few years to gain some experience. Then, at age 25, I decided to go back home to “hang my shingle.” Although my decision to go home was a “no-brainer,” I admit that opening my own firm was challenging. Back then (25 years ago) the profession had few female CPAs. The town already had one CPA. An attorney, who has since become a business partner and close friend, jokingly asked me if there was room for two of us in Baxter Springs. I said, “We’ll see.” A few years later, that attorney became my client, and my practice thrived.
My practice fluctuates in size, according to the clientele I serve. I’ve had up to eight employees. Currently, I have an accountant and an administrative assistant. Although I provide all types of accounting services, including doing tax returns for my former high school teachers (which is always interesting; they never forget anything), I specialize in outside controllerships to small family-owned businesses. That’s where my job gets interesting.
It’s no secret that small-town businesses have fallen prey to big-box retailers. To survive, entrepreneurs have come up with businesses that solve unique problems. For example, one of my clients is a storm chaser. When a disaster—such as a hurricane, tornado, flood or blizzard—strikes anywhere in the country, this company rushes in to restore power. Their work is challenging— for them and for me. They are often in harm’s way; I assist in keeping their bank credit line going, paying their employees and any other business needs they may have to enable them to concentrate on the disaster at hand—all on a moment’s notice, as well as during the “off” times when Mother Nature maintains her composure.
Most of the businesses I work with as an outside controller are family owned. A former client was a family who started its business in a barn more than 25 years ago with just a couple of employees. Recently, I assisted in selling it to a publicly held company when it was grossing over $6 million a month and had 400 employees. I am so grateful to have worked with the owner and his family. I learned much from them. I feel they are a huge part of my success. I miss our day-to-day interaction but enjoy working with them in their retirement.
I have a very strong work ethic. I love to have things in order. I prefer to keep my firm structured as it is, with me the only CPA; that enables me to manage my time and focus—even if I have to start my day at 4 a.m. to ensure my family’s needs are met as well as my professional and business obligations.
CPA firms throughout the country range in size from sole proprietors to the Big Four firms. At this stage in my life, I prefer being a sole proprietor. My family, my profession, my community and, of course, my clients are all priorities. Running my own business allows me the flexibility to juggle those priorities as needed and to maintain work/life balance. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
—As told to Linda Segall, firstname.lastname@example.org,
a freelance writer from Jacksonville, Fla.
Photo by Heather Brittain Photography
More from the JofA: