Accountant finds greener pastures in private practice

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There’s nothing quite as satisfying as finding your niche in life. Some careers start early, as if pre-ordained. Others evolve and unfold later in life – allowing themselves to bank real-life experience before finishing college or choosing a profession. In the end, it doesn’t really matter which road you take, says Catherine Skiles, a Pikes Peak region CPA who opened her own private practice a year ago after fifteen years in public accounting. She must be right: In her first year as CEO of her own private practice, Skiles has already discovered that professional skills plus passion and focus leads to financial success.

That philosophy may be heartening to hundreds of Colorado Springs employees facing recent layoffs from large corporations. “I just talked with one of my clients who lost his job due to down-sizing at age 40,” said Skiles. “He still has 40 or 50 years of his life ahead – he can do anything he wants if he sets his mind to it.” Those are not empty words from a woman who found herself considered almost “over the hill” as a thirty-year-old when applying for a job with Big Eight accounting firms in the 1980s.

Skiles, who spent the first ten years of her career as a manager in the insurance industry before moving into public accounting, discovered that her preference for statistics and analysis enabled her to set up and manage the firm’s audit and collections operation. At the same time, she also decided to finish college, getting her B.S.B.A at Robert Morris College and an M.B.A at Duquesne University – all while serving as her family’s breadwinner.

Following two years with a private accounting firm in Pennsylvania, Skiles moved to Colorado in 1988 with Big Five firm, Deloitte Touche and received her master’s degree in taxation from Denver University. “Working and going to school was a tough way to do it,” she recalls. “I certainly didn’t have a lot of free time.” New CPAs have to spend two years gaining experience before they’re allowed to take the certification exam, Skiles explains.

When Deloitte Touche merged with a local Colorado Springs-based accounting practice, Skiles became a partner in the firm. “We had 40 to 50 people on our payroll, and I was focusing more and more on estates and trusts as well as tax preparation and planning.” Her experience includes work with manufacturing and real estate clients in addition to a number of private foundations.

“Suddenly, in the newly reorganized environment, I found that I just wasn’t getting the recognition or appreciation I needed,” admitted Skiles. With the prospect of continuing in an unfulfilling job ahead, she decided to take the next big step. Allowing herself two years to prepare, Skiles worked with her employing firm to transition into her own business.

“I was terrified at first – and worried about where the business would come from,” she said. “So far, I have been very pleasantly surprised.” Skiles says that she filed tax returns for 125 to 150 clients this past year, and notes that at least 100 of her large firm clients followed her entrepreneurial move. “I tried to do everything right as far as leaving the firm was concerned,” she said, noting that she sent letters to all her clients to give them a choice to continue with her or stay with the firm.

“It was the best decision I could have made,” she said. “Even my former partners say that I was the only person to doubt my own success, but it wasn’t easy to make the break.” Her practice focuses 35 to 40 percent on estates and trusts – but she still relies primarily on “middle-aged, middle-class business people” who represent the core of her business.

What she loves is the variety of a typical week. “No two cases or clients are alike,” she points out, adding that she often works with IRS form 1041 or 706 cases. “Sometimes my projects are very complex – for example, there is a family whose estate I recently worked with. The parents died, leaving behind a ranch and vacant land. My job was to get an appraiser as well as a business estimator to establish a value for the complex estate. The siblings were at odds and ended up suing each other.” Typically, Skiles orders appraisals for the deceased’s possessions or business – and creates a financial checklist for an estate’s executor for use as a guide in establishing an estate’s value. “From tracking stocks and bonds to affixing appropriate values to business inventory items, my job is to find a meaningful point between the estate’s highs and lows,” she said.

Currently, Skiles says that 80 percent of her clients come from Colorado Springs or El Paso County. Another 10 percent represents out-of-state clients who have stayed with her since she left Pennsylvania. The remaining 10 percent are clients from Teller County. Her marketing plan relies on personal referrals from existing customers – and on community involvement.

The offices of Catherine B. Skiles, CPA, P.C. today can be found in Woodland Park where she occasionally uses an executive office suite for client meetings. “This arrangement works well for me,” she said. “I’m in Colorado Springs several days a week to meet with clients, but can work on weekends if I like from home. It’s also a benefit to my clients because I can keep my administrative overhead down.” Skiles employs one other part-time person to assist with information technology. “I thought I could handle it myself,” she says, “but I got busy so quickly with my first private practice tax season that I decided to get some help.” She also has hired an independent contractor to help with high season tax work.

Skiles also allocates many after-work hours to area local nonprofit and professional organizations as a volunteer. She is past president of the Colorado Springs Chapter of the Colorado Society of CPAs, past president of the Southern Colorado Women’s Chamber of Commerce and past president of the Estate Planning Council of Colorado Springs. In addition, she currently serves on the boards of Leadership Pikes Peak, the Pikes Peak Foundation for Mental Health (where she was elected 2002-2003 president) and Colorado Springs Assets for Youth.

As testimony to her determination and talent, in 1999, Skiles received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Southern Colorado’s Women’s Chamber of Commerce. She was involved with the Women’s Chamber since its inception in 1993 and was honored for the work she did to keep the organization going in the early years. “I like to be an active part of any organization I support,” says Skiles.

Whether conferring with attorneys on estate legal documents, computing a taxpayer’s federal and state return, or donating her time and expertise to a better community, Cathy Skiles is living proof that hard work, determination and skill pay handsome dividends in business and/or personal rewards.