As the promise of 2021 looms on the horizon, most people are anxious to close the books on what is likely the most unsettling year — from the pandemic to politics to PPP loans — we will ever experience. Strong leadership has never been more essential than it is today. To share their best leadership practices, Az Business magazine sat down with Arizona business leaders to watch in 2021, including Randy G. Brammer, CPA, CCIFP, partner at Wallace, Plese + Dreher.

Randy G. Brammer has more than a decade of public and private accounting experience. Working with small-to-midsize companies in Scottsdale, Chandler, and throughout Arizona, he concentrates on building stronger internal controls and improving financial reporting.

Here is the full transcript of the interview with Randy G. Brammer

Az Business: What impact did COVID have on your practice?

Randy Brammer: The impact on our business from COVID, first and foremost was, a safety concern for our folks. That’s going to be first and foremost through this entire deal. So how do you do that? We pull out some people from our executive committee and we start having discussions on what will happen if this does get more intense in our area of the country? And what’s going to be the impact? What are other people doing? Some of the multinational-type corporations had already started sending people home. So you start hearing about that. News starts tumble-weeding from there.

On March 13th, we decided to basically send everybody home. So afternoon of March 16th, employees are alerted, we’re going to be working remotely for the foreseeable future. We know as much as anybody else does. So what hardware type needs do you have? Who can work at home? And thankfully we had made some investment on the technology side for working remotely and working from home.

So dialing in type of capability was certainly already there. And few things aside, we were basically up and running the next morning on the 17th. Everybody connected, everybody working. And that’s an interesting time of year for something to happen to a CPA firm. Just past the March 15th deadline was certainly a long one way to go. So a nerve-wracking time, and never a good time for something like that. But in our line of work, that was a hairy situation. You have a little uneasy feeling into that. So that was the first big impact was now none of us are in the same room together, and we’re all going to be calling, emailing, texting, instant messaging, whatever your choice is, all of the above, to stay in contact. And that continues to be the biggest challenge is communication. So that’s the biggest impact that I would say that it’s had is on us, on how we work, and us not being able to be in front of our clients as much as we like. So that’s been pretty impactful.

Az Business: How have you been able to maintain your business?

Randy Brammer: So not being able to interact with our clients on a one-on-one basis, which is what we love to do. That’s what we like to do. That’s what we speak to. We serve privately held businesses, Arizona based. We do that for a reason. We want to be in front of people all the time, whether it’s lunch, whether it’s bouncing an idea off of us, whether it’s tax planning, family planning, estate planning, whatever it is, we want to be able to be there and that’s best at their office, at their chosen lunch place, whatever it is. So we figured out after a couple of weeks, everybody working remotely, that we were going to physically be able to get jobs from A to B. We were going to be able to get to the finish line with everybody’s tax returns and financial statements.

It was going to look different. It was going to feel different. There was going to be a lot of adjusting, but we figured out we were going to be able to physically complete that work. But what was left, what was lost was that client touch. And when you can’t go out and be with them, because everybody was adjusting at the same time. Everybody had different rules and things. So what it really came down to was that thing in your pocket that does all the apps and everything, it also makes phone calls. And what we did is a lot of phone calls. So that was probably, if you were going to say what maybe came good, that maybe you take away and keep doing, it’s picking up the phone.

Az Business: So what is it about your leadership style or your leadership strengths that you were able to handle this fairly seamlessly?

Randy Brammer: My leadership style is letting people do what works best for them. That old adage, “put good people around you and stay out of the way.” There was definitely an element to that. And when I say communication before with clients, it was equally as important with the staff, because without them, you can’t make it go. So it’s listening. Not everybody was going to be in the same bucket. We can’t just, let’s set a policy in a room with three people and just throw it out there and say, “Too bad if it doesn’t work.” Everyone’s going to have a different situation.

Schools shutting down, if you have kids, what are the age of your kids? What do you need? You live in a studio apartment, maybe you don’t have the greatest home office set up. Or what distractions do you have? So it was a lot of, “Tell us what you need. Do you need hardware? Do you need a monitor to take home? Is it a chair to take home” Think about the time a year, folks are working nine, 10, 12 hours a day, and they’re sitting in a kitchen chair. “Can we get you a chair?” So it was really just kind of individual plans for people and being open to what they needed to help our clients.

Az Business: How’s business been through the pandemic?

Randy Brammer: Business has been really pretty good. Certain clients, were devastated. For some, it was a light switch. Revenue went to zero. So there’s been some consulting and some, “How can we help?” There’s certainly been, financially we have to be patient. And having those discussions as a partner and manager group of, “This is not a normal year. You can’t look at everyone the same. And some people are going through a really, really hard time with these businesses that they’ve built. And compassion is going to probably lead the way on this. And they’ve been good to us and it’s time for us to be good to them.”

Those few that we’re working with, it’s been actually a pretty good year financially. Work, we still needed to get done. And the clients that were doing well still wanted to talk, and the ones that weren’t still wanting to talk. So there’s been, like I said, an awful lot of good client communication and an awful lot of work. The first few months of this, it seemed like everybody went into survival mode. “How am I going to get to tomorrow? How am I going to get the next week?” And then you get through a couple of months, and all of a sudden we started seeing people looking out, and there’s no prospect activity.

Az Business: How do you think Arizona is set up to come back from this pandemic?

Randy Brammer: That’s a good question. At first blush, Arizona seems like it’s going to be in just fine shape coming out of this pandemic. It’s one of those, I think the longer it goes, the worse it is for anybody, but you see what factors Arizona had going into it. We’re all very good. Companies were doing well, population was growing. Housing is still a backlog. There still isn’t a house for you if you move here, it has to be built. But it’s one of those, the longer this goes, the less people maybe have the ability to move. So short of that, Arizona, you look at the growth in distribution on the West side with the beverage companies and Amazon opening up 13 new facilities planned, and tech going in the East Valley. Lots and lots of growth. People still want to live here.

Az Business: So looking ahead a little bit, what are the challenges that are going to pop up in 2021?

Randy Brammer: Accounting wise, things to look for now in preparing for 2021 tax returns. The biggest impact will likely be your Payroll Protection loan, assuming that you took the steps and you get it forgiven, which I think as sitting here today, there actually isn’t any, and that’s the big frustration between SBA and Treasury and in our banking friends. It’s unfortunate, but assuming that, that does go through because that’s again, what we know today, is those will be forgiven. That’s a really big number for a lot of people. And what year is that going to hit, is the other interesting issue that’s actually pretty debated. And that’s, if the loan doesn’t get forgiven until 2021, so that means do I take my deductions for wages that I paid in 2020, or do I just allow those wages now and recognize the income now, beforehand?

And the accounting gods have given us a couple of different options of what we can do from a book standpoint, but now more than ever, it’s, if your financial folks, financial statement audit review folks, aren’t in align with your tax CPA and your tax group, you’re going to have some pretty big challenges. Because if those folks aren’t talking and you could end up in a tax situation that you were really not ready for. And it could really flip on you if the financial statement people have decided for your audit, you’ve met all the criteria, and this is going to be forgiven. We’re going to go ahead and record that at 12:31 2020. Did they talk to your tax partner? Did they talk to the client on that? Because that could be a really, really big swing that people aren’t expecting. So make sure more than ever, when you’re working with your CPA towards ear end, that your audit review team members are in sync with your tax team members, as they always should be. But this could be a real big miss if they’re not this year.

Az Business: What attracted you to the accounting profession?

Randy Brammer: It’s a little bit of a story, I guess. I was going to Northern Arizona University as an undergrad, and I really had no idea what I wanted to do. I was always good at math as a kid. So I figured I’ll start there. Engineering is really way too hard. That’s way too much math. So I had to dial it down a notch and went to the college of business. I don’t know how, maybe that’s where the engineering rejects go. Maybe it’s where the marketing people went and made it better looking. I’m not sure, but I ended up in the college of business, and when you start there, it kind of bought me a whole year, because regardless of where you go in that, you pretty much take the same kind of core classes.

OK, this is great. My dad’s happy, family’s happy. I’ve got some direction. I can buy myself another year. So you go through that and then it’s, “OK, now you have to start to go. What do you want? Like accounting, finance, marketing, management.” And I don’t know. So I chose accounting. I don’t know why. It seemed like not a lot of people were choosing accounting. And I’d gotten, from talking to parents, and professors and others, it was, if you really don’t know, but you think it’s in the world of business somewhere, you’re not going to go wrong with accounting. Anything you want to maybe do, accounting won’t prevent you from doing, but if you do something else, it might prevent you from doing that.

I thought, “Well, that’s about as logical as it gets, let’s go to accounting.” So we went through that and I went through and got my accounting degree. And it’s, “Well, now what are you going to do?” Well you’re supposed to go work for a big four firm. So they come and interview and that didn’t really excite me a whole lot. What you think at that time when you’re 21, 22 it’s, “I got to work for a giant firm. I got to start my own firm,” which doesn’t seem like it makes sense, because you don’t know anything yet. But you got to work for the government. Well, I don’t really like any of those answers. So I took my accounting degree, and I went and worked in industry for an air ambulance company here in Mesa, Arizona. And I did that for a few years, and the firm, Wallace, Plese & Dreher became our audit firm.

And I was sort of getting an itch and looking to move, and was chatting up the managers, and staff and whatnot, on the job there, and learning a little bit about Wallace, Plese & Dreher, and they happened to be looking for some star young recruits, and the rest is history. 16 years now been there. And what I love the most about it, that I didn’t know in college, and I didn’t know when I took that industry job, and I didn’t really even know when I took the job at Wallace, Plese & Dreher. But my favorite thing about it is I’m just constantly amazed at learning the ways people find to run a business, and to make a living and earn money. It’s fascinating.

Just driving through a bunch of old warehouses and seeing, they make this little part that goes on this thing that Honeywell buys. It’s things that you don’t think about at all going about your day. And it’s just the people that you meet, and Phoenix in particular, the entrepreneurial spirit of people to just start something in their garage. And then you’re meeting them 20 years down the road and it’s a $25 million company. And they’re wanting to get their family involved, and their story is always fascinating. And it’s my favorite part about going out and meeting business owners is just listening to their story of how they started and what they’re doing now. And it’s usually pretty impressive. I just love that.