If the words "busy season" start your stomach churning, Rabecca Eunis, CPA, knows how you feel.
Starting her accounting career with her father's firm, Eunis soon learned to hate the three-month grind to tax day. Her disdain grew so strong that it motivated her to launch her own firm — not to escape tax season but to find ways to make the experience less stressful and more fun.
She succeeded. Not only that, but her approach worked so well that she grew her firm to the point that she was able to purchase her father's practice.
What did she do to make busy season a better experience for her team? And how did those choices help her firm flourish? Find out in the latest Small Firm Philosophy podcast, produced by the AICPA's Private Companies Practice Section in partnership with the Journal of Accountancy podcast.
Resource: PCPS busy season fun calendar
What you'll learn from this episode:
- Avoidable practices that make busy season harder than it has to be.
- Ways to preserve as much family and free time as possible for team members.
- Tips for injecting fun into the most taxing time of the year.
- An explanation of "bowling in the dark" and how it applied to busy season.
- The effect that the changes Eunis discussed had on staff productivity and firm growth.
Play the episode below or read the edited transcript:
— To comment on this episode or to suggest an idea for another episode, contact Neil Amato at Neil.Amato@aicpa-cima.com.
Neil Amato: Welcome to a special edition of the Journal of Accountancy podcast. This is Neil Amato. This episode is a partnership between the Journal of Accountancy and the Small Firm Philosophy podcast, which is produced by the AICPA's Firm Practice Management Team, also known as the Private Companies Practice Section, or PCPS. In today's episode, learn ways that you can inject fun — yes, fun — into busy season. You'll hear that conversation right after this word from our sponsor.
Jeff Drew: Welcome to the Small Firm Philosophy podcast produced by the AICPA's Private Companies Practice Section in partnership with the Journal of Accountancy podcast. I'm your host, Jeff Drew, a manager with PCPS. Tax season. What do you feel when you hear those words? Anxiety, dread, a headache coming on? Today's guest knows how you feel.
When Rabecca Eunis first started in accounting, she learned to hate busy season. When she started her own firm, she knew she wanted a different experience for her team. This tax season doesn't have to be torture, she said. Heck, it could even be fun. How can busy season be less miserable and more enjoyable? We're going to explore some ideas today with our guest. The aforementioned Ms. Eunis, a CPA and serial entrepreneur who has started several businesses and also serves as a member of the PCPS Executive Committee. Thank you, Rabecca, for joining us today.
Rabecca Eunis: Thank you, Jeff, for having me. I'm happy to be here.
Drew: Well, we're going to do something radical and start at the beginning. When and how did you get started in accounting?
Eunis: I've been an accounting since I was 12 years old. I worked in my dad's firm. I'm a second-generation CPA. I've been with him since I was 12 and started out just answering his phones and taking appointments and eventually moved up to payroll. He had a payroll department and then eventually went into the accounting side and then the tax side. I came through the ranks right through college, and then after college, decided to hang my own shingle with my husband.
Drew: When you are doing tax with your father's firm, what was tax season like for you?
Eunis: Terrifying, gruesome, ghastly. It was pretty brutal. My dad's motto was every day is Monday and there's no such thing as a clock, and that's how we work through tax season.
Drew: You were like — lots of nights and weekends just constant.
Eunis: I mean, 12- to 14-hour days, Saturdays were supposed to be 8 to 12. They never were. We were always there until at least 2, 3 o'clock in the afternoon on a Saturday. It was a grind, and it would beat you up.
Drew: After you finished college, you decided you were just going to start your own firm with your husband.
Eunis: Yes. Worked for my dad for another year or so. Then I just decided that tax season was it. [I] needed to do it on my own, something different, and my husband and I decided to hang our own shingle and start our own firm.
Drew: Now you've started several businesses, which firm was this?
Eunis: The Eunis Group.
Drew: I mean, the name.
Eunis: The tax and accounting.
Drew: The Eunis Group. That one is still in existence.
Eunis: Yes. They all are still in existence for years. The Eunis [Group] is still in existence.
Drew: Yeah. How big a factor in launching the Eunis Group was your belief that tax season didn't have to be so painful?
Eunis: Oh, my gosh, immeasurable. It's an enormous factor in our firm when we started. I swore we would never do a tax season as stressful as the ones that I came from. I would never put anybody through that kind of duress. Not worth it. It's just not. And I didn't want to be a firm that represented that.
Drew: How was your firm different? Can you describe how it was, and then when did you start it? So people have an idea of how long it's been around.
Eunis: We started our firm in 1997, and we were small. It was just my husband and I, and we had an administrative assistant and that was it. We did everything. Slowly but surely we put on the team, and as we put on the team, we grew. When we grew, we had a full-blown tax prep department. They were going through tax season with us. Again, I just couldn't make it the typical accounting firm scenario of tax season.
I just didn't want that to be, and that whole stereotype, [I] didn't want to follow behind that, and I didn't want my team to suffer, because, think about it, they're with you more than they are with their families or anywhere else especially during tax season. You have to make it a mutually beneficial place to be for you and for them, and then we just decided to establish a community within our own firm and a camaraderie that we all had together as a team.
Drew: The reason I invited you to join me on this podcast is we'd had a conversation earlier and you had told me that you love the survival tactics of tax season, so can you talk about what you did to help your team survive busy season?
Eunis: Well, first and foremost, there was never any, let's say, harsh words or behavior during tax season. The way I came from — you have to understand, I came from an old-fashion Italian dad who — I was the baby of the family — and him walking out in a fit of rage over something was not abnormal.
I swore that would never happen in my firm ever, and that's just not how my husband and I are made up. We're more fun-loving. Let's have a good time. Everybody knows the deadlines. Everybody knows what has to get pushed out the door. But let's have a decent time trying to get it done. If you make light of a situation, it just poses for a better atmosphere for production and mentally for people to want to work and to work alongside of one another as a team.
We would do different things. Some of the common things we would do is we would buy lunch every Friday, wherever. They picked where we went, and we would buy lunch, bring it into the office, we all go into the cafeteria and some days it was just — we had quite a few of our employees were from Bryant University.
I graduated Bryant, so I would always get interns during tax season, and so we would say that we live vicariously through them and what they were going to be doing all weekend. We like to hear what's going on in school and things along that nature and about personal, we tried to make it just no work.
But there were days where we just decided, hey, let's do a brainstorm and what can we do this week? What can we do better next week? What did we work on? Things along that nature. It really just depended on whatever the team brought into the cafeteria on that Friday. By way of conversation, we just went with it and rolled with it.
But it was never a stressful conversation. It was always just enlightening really because we would learn about them or their families or their activities or things like that and you can keep it wide open. That was one of the easier things that everybody does; it's pretty common. But we add other things that we went through as well.
Drew: Before you can jump into that, just to give people an idea. First for those who don't know, Bryant University is in Rhode Island. You were in Providence or Rhode Island at the time, is that correct?
Eunis: The campus is in Smithfield and it was actually Bryant College when I went there. I'm dating myself right now. It is now Bryant University.
Drew: Then the firm was in Providence, is that right?
Eunis: Close to Providence. It was in Cranston, Rhode Island.
Drew: Close to Providence. So the Providence area.
Drew: About how many people were in the firm about the time you were doing the brainstorming in the lunches on Fridays?
Eunis: We were still pretty small. We had maybe 10 or 12 with half of those being full-time staff and the other half being what we call the bullpen, and that was where all of our interns worked, and it was where we had cubicles set up in the center of the office, and then that's where they were with the admin and then the principals were along the exterior walls with window offices and things along that nature, so about 10 or 12.
Drew: Well, what are some of the ideas that came out of those brainstorms or some of the ones that you and your husband came up with?
Eunis: The ones that my husband and I came up with, we just looked at it when I was in the firm, and what was very difficult for me was every single night until 8, 9 o'clock at the office. Drive home, barely sleep, get up, be back in by 7:30, 8 o'clock the next day, and if you walked in after my dad walked in you were late. It's very stressful. One of the other things was it was every Saturday from January through April 15, and it was brutal.
What we decided to do was we set up teams in the office. I was on the corporate side, my husband's on the individual side, so corporate would stay Tuesday and Thursday evenings late. Personal team would stay Mondays and Wednesdays. The admin, she could pick and rotate whatever days she wanted to stay, but she stayed late two nights. One with corporate, one with individuals. There was one day a week for each of us that we didn't have an admin staff in the front after a certain time of day after like 6 o'clock or something like that, 5 or 6 o'clock, and we would just have to cover it, but it wasn't that big of a deal.
Then one of the other things we did was we rotated Saturdays. No one ever worked consecutive Saturdays in a row. That way they at least got a full weekend every other weekend, not just a day and a half off. We certainly did keep to a half of a day. On Saturday, we would open between 8 and 8:30, and we would leave by 12:30. I just was very steadfast getting the team out because burnout is real. I felt it during tax season with my dad, and I never wanted anyone else to ever have to feel that way, including myself.
I was raising a young family at the time. My children were national gymnasts, so we were traveling. We had things to do, so I most certainly needed it for my own well-being as well as wanted to set up the team. I wanted my team to realize I really cared for them and their well-being and that I didn't want them to suffer burnout, that we truly are a real team. We're not just employee-employer.
Drew: What are some of the ideas? I know you guys did some creative things during busy season to even out of the office, what are some of the things that y'all did?
Eunis: We did quite a few different things. One of the things we did one year, I had an advertising client that would do all the marketing logos and designs for pads and pens and things like that, so I happened to have ordered some beach balls and Frisbees with just fun sayings on them. And when this one particular day, I felt the bullpen and the team, they just were quiet, seemed heavy, weighted in there, so I just went out and I just started tossing a beach ball around and it just started hitting them in the cubes and they're like, no idea what's going on. It was just a 10-minute break where we're just throwing Frisbees and beach balls and laughing and we queued up the music and we turned it up and we just had a great time. Just like a little bit of a relaxed, just shake it off a minute.
Everybody stand up. Everybody move around. That was one of the fun things we used to do at random. If we could feel the climate and the atmosphere getting heavy in the office. A couple of other things. Well, one of the other things we do is we really knew our team anyway, but we would let them put ideas in a fishbowl of things that they wanted to do for extracurricular activities. One of the things that popped out was bowling in the dark. It was called rock and bowl, and so we went to a bowling alley that did this and it was on a weekend and basically they had disco or like a theme of the night.
Usually rock and roll, '80s rock or pop music or whatever, and there was a DJ and they play the music and they turn out all the lights on lanes, and so you bowl in the dark with some iridescent lights on and things like that. They have little competitions as you go. You can win prizes and things along that nature, and so that was great way to just defrag, let it go, just have fun, just laugh, and joke around. I mean, that's one of the examples of things that we used to do, but we still let them pick and choose and throw it in the fishbowl, let's grab an idea every week, and we couldn't do it every week because not everyone's schedules would permit, but we definitely were like, OK, when are we going out next, and then we'd pick the day and then we would pick the activity or the event.
Drew: Did you do anything else in the office besides the Friday lunches? I think you might have mentioned to me, you guys had a dress-down day.
Eunis: Yeah. Being in Rhode Island and the dread of tax season, we're also in the toughest months of the year weatherwise. We used to have this thing where this one particular day it was snowing so badly, and I sent a group text out to my team and I said, listen, guys, I know that it's really nasty out. If you can't get in, that's fine. If you can come in, don't worry about getting dressed, we're going to dress down. We did and it was fine. Then we had this joke that every time the weather was inclement, I would send the text, like dressing down. My husband bought a sign. As you know, normally, big companies will do a dress-down day and put a dollar in a jar and say, please excuse our appearance, we celebrate dress-down day.
It's usually a particular day. What he did was he bought a sign that just said, please excuse our appearance, we celebrate dress-down day without a specific day. We had the sign up every day so that in any day of the week that it wasn't the perfect day or we were tired and we didn't feel like doing the dog- and-pony show, we would just send the word out to the team that, hey, it's dress-down day, let's go. I think that was a lot of fun too, because in my brain when I am uncomfortable and I'm in suit clothes and dress clothes, I don't know, it's not as comfortable to work. Or if you'd just in casual business attire, jeans, a nice sweater, or whatever it is, it's just more comfortable. You just feel in a better mood, I felt like. Well, it was that way for us, anyway.
Drew: Could you tell a difference in the productivity of the team as compared to when you were going through tax seasons?
Eunis: Yes, 1,000%. When I worked at my dad it was silent, like everybody was afraid to talk. Everybody was afraid to move around. They weren't all bad days, don't get me wrong, but it was always like that. It was this heavy-weighted feeling, and we were all so tired. It was exhaustion and focus wasn't there. Productivity wasn't as much. We were still pushing. but when we were in the review stages of tax returns we found errors because people were exhausted and were trying to push. But when we were doing what we were doing, I'm not saying we weren't tired because we were. It's mentally exhausting no matter how much fun you try to make it.
However, when you're working together, and you are getting a couple of nights off a week where you can go home and defrag and be with the family at a reasonable hour, the nights off were about 5 p.m., the team that wasn't staying late would leave. Usually it was a little later, and having a Saturday off and just time away. Our team would come in on a Monday ready to go and ready to take it on, bring it on. What do we have this week? Here's what we did last week. We were hitting targets and goals that were like crazy ridiculous just because we were having a good time, and we built the business hand over fist.
Every single year we were increasing the business like nobody's business. Our clients loved coming in because it wasn't this heavy atmosphere when the clients came in, they knew that there was something always going on. Clients walked in when we're doing the beach ball and Frisbee thing. It was, it is what it is, and they had a blast. They were like, this is my accounting firm, what? I noticed an insurmountable increase in productivity in our firm over my dad's firm.
Drew: Did your dad ever come in and see this, or what did he think about what you were doing?
Eunis: The funniest thing is that we actually acquired my dad's firm and his team was afraid to start working with us because they thought that we were very highly sophisticated, whatever, and then we brought them in. We welcomed them with open arms.
My dad didn't really get it. When we bought his firm he was happy because we retired him. The few times he came in, he was fine. But I think in his brain because we weren't grinding every single day like with the face on, that stressed-out face and oh. my god, the overwhelmed, we weren't like that. It was almost like, are you not working? It was a different mentality. It's old school versus new school, and we were working. We were making more than his firm ever made, but we were having a great time doing it. We were serving clients and having fun and getting stuff done and really enjoying the time.
I didn't really know that it was that big of an impact until my interns were ready to leave, and their internship was over. And I had a call from Bryant, this woman Joanne, who worked in the internship office. She was the coordinator. She's like, I don't know what it is about your firm. You're one of the smallest firms on our list here, but everybody signs up for your firm. She's like, I don't know why.
I thought that was fantastic. I was so excited to hear that because I always got concerned that our firm was too small or whatever. We pushed them over to the edge. We were like as far as jump in, two feet, and let's go. You're not here to lick envelopes. You're prepping tax returns and doing bookkeeping services. We gave them a lot of education, but we also had a lot of fun, too. I thought that was cool, but my dad definitely thought that we were not really working.
Drew: I mentioned when I was introducing you that you are a serial entrepreneur who has started several businesses. Can you talk about some of the other businesses you started and what you're doing now?
Eunis: Sure. One of the other businesses we started is called the Prestige Fitness and Gymnastics Center. It's in Massachusetts. As I mentioned before, our kids were national gymnasts. So why not start a gym with a coach? I don't know, it seemed like the right thing to do. We started that gym with five athletes, two of them were mine, our children, and one was our niece, and the other two were just friends. The gym has now grown to over 400 athletes in the gym with 150 kids on team. That's a lot of fun. They compete nationally, but we start them out in mommy and me gymnastics, so it's cool.
One of the other businesses we own is a salon in Rhode Island, Salon Sapphire by Sabrina Marie. We went into business with our niece, who is a very extremely talented hairstylist. That's one of our other ones. We still dabble in the accounting industry, I should say. We do a little bit more than dabble, but we have recently relocated. We sold our firm in Rhode Island. The past three years we've been down in South Florida, started another firm. This firm is pretty much a CFO outsourcing firm and a tax firm. That's where we hang our hat but not to the extent of tax like we used to do it up in Rhode Island. We are 100% virtual so no team in a bullpen here.
Drew: No beach balls and it is hard to throw a virtual beach ball. Is there anything I should have asked you but didn't?
Eunis: No, I don't think so, to be honest. I think it's really important that from what we did was we truly tried to treat our team like human beings and understand their outside world, not just inside our firm. When you take a real genuine interest in people like that, and you truly try to cater to them as a team because basically I worked for my team, really. That's one thing that my dad didn't do. My dad tried to dominate and lead where he didn't actually say what is it that I can do for you to help you.
I think that that's what we did with our team that made it such a success. It wasn't about what is it that I can do to help you at work. It was pretty much outside if they needed time off, if they needed to make a personal phone call during the day or leave for whatever reason and come back. We tried to be as flexible as we could to reduce the amount of stress, especially during the busy season.
Drew: You mentioned having ideas and part of the reason we are doing this podcast now is because it's about time for PCPS to publish their annual busy season fun calendar. We did one last year and it was very popular, And the calendar, well, it looks like a calendar, and it includes ideas for fun activities on certain days like ordering pizza on national pizza day. It's got a bunch of stuff like that. I'll include a link to last year's fun calendar in the show notes and then update it when this year's calendar goes live, which should be right around the beginning of December. That brings us to the end of our time today. I want to thank you, Rabecca, for joining us.
Eunis: Thank you so much for having me, Jeff. This was a lot of fun, and I can't wait to see the calendar. That's a great idea.