Stephen Parnham is a specialist tax adviser and author of Steve’s Tax Books. He has over 30 years experience helping individuals, owner managed businesses and trustees improve their tax positions. As well as advising his own clients, he provides professional technical support to firms of Chartered Accountants and Solicitors.
Read the first 2017 edition of ALFIES Folk to gain an insight into how tax has transformed, from being a supporting role to a leading profession in its own right, separate from accountancy, law and finance. For everyone who is currently considering setting up an independent tax practice, Steve shares why he left the corporate world and established his own company. Learn what motivated Steven to write and don’t be surprised if, having read his article, you find motivation to start your own book! Finally, discover how Steve balances his professional and personal passions for both tax and mountain hikes.
Your Linkedin profile says you are a mountain loving tax adviser. What got you into Tax?
When I was starting out in the mid-1980’s people with degrees didn’t choose to go into tax. Tax wasn’t on anyone’s radar. It was something you came across if you were working in a parallel profession such as accountancy, law or finance. When I left university to train as an accountant part of the experience entailed a six-month secondment to the firm’s tax department. I enjoyed it from day one! It was a good fit for me. The work was more conceptual than I had experienced to date and I loved the buzz. As my tour of duty came to an end and a life in auditing loomed, I threw myself on the mercy of the tax manager and asked for sanctuary. His generous response sealed my fate.
Tax wasn’t on anyone’s radar. It was something you came across if you were working in a parallel profession such as accountancy, law or finance.
Things have moved on from the 1980’s. The gold standard professional qualification for taxation attained chartered status back in 1994 and These days you can take a degree in the discipline and it is now perfectly possible to work in a tax consultancy where the directors are all chartered tax advisers rather than accountants or solicitors but nevertheless employ accountants and solicitors. Ironically, the very opposite of the position when I started out.
What led you to set up your own practice?
Once I had obtained sufficient breadth of experience and qualified my leanings were very much toward private client and family businesses.
I have always taken the view that the secret to a working knowledge of tax is to gain a certain breadth of experience before specialising too much. It is all too easy to get pigeon holed into a particular area of tax if you are not careful and there are pressures within firms which serve to reinforce a comfortable inertia. In my early years, this quest for knowledge and experience compelled me to move between firms of accountants to obtain what I felt was the vital background I needed in business tax, corporation tax and private client. Often a hard decision to take but it was the price of getting the necessary experience.
My practice is focussed on a small, niche client base and steady referral work from accountants and solicitors.
I have found in my professional life that there are time and place for everything. That perspective ultimately led me to leave the accountancy firms which I grew up with for a law firm and then a tax consultancy before setting up my own practice in 2009. That move gave me the freedom to control my time and to choose the work I do and, more importantly, don’t do. My practice is focussed on a small, niche client base and steady referral work from accountants and solicitors. It also allowed me to write and blog on tax related issues in a way which I would not otherwise be able to.
So, why do you write?
I have always written short, and sometimes not so short, pieces for professional journals but the freedom to control my time has enabled me to radically change the nature of what I write. It has also allowed me to consider changing the whole format of my writing and start thinking in terms of publishing books.
I have no particular interest in publishing just another set of technical books on tax. There are plenty of those, many are excellent and it is a crowded market. My aim is rather to offer books which offer a broader, clearer perspective and appeal and which attempt to translate complexity into something which can be of practical use to taxpayers. For instance, in my experience taxpayers regularly struggle to grasp the principles of capital taxes planning, particularly inheritance tax planning. It is understandable. Many taxpayers would really benefit from experiencing a few of those ‘ah ha’ moments of insight where they finally ‘get it’ and which will transform the way they think and act. I will be publishing two or three books in 2017 which aim to provide that insight in the area of inheritance tax planning. Although they will be designed for anyone to read, I guess the same books can also serve as a quick introduction for professionals whose field of practical expertise lies elsewhere and for those who require a refresher and feel ‘the need for speed’.
I will be publishing two or three books in 2017 which aim to provide that insight in the area of inheritance tax planning.
On a separate but parallel level, I am driven to write books which are more reflective of the nature of tax and the professions and the issues they are and will be forced to grapple with. How things fit into the real world.
My first book of this genre will be published on Amazon in early December, ‘The Intriguing Truth about 5th April.’ The real story of how 5th April became the end of our tax year.
Understanding why changes were made to our calendar and how those changes were implemented astonishingly requires a grasp of 2,500 years of history and its twists and turns. Discovering that history is revealing. For instance, the Romans gave us the month of April and yet in the 1st century AD, Nero proclaimed that April be known as Neroneus. Had this catchy re-naming survived Nero’s death, we might now have to endure preparing self-assessment tax returns for a year ended 5th Neroneus. An uncomfortable prospect for many a modern reader … but arguably an appropriate one? However entertaining the twists and turns, it is understanding the deeper forces that made this date of 5th April an inevitability which is fascinating. It is not the story or the ending you may be expecting!
Writing is really rewarding work and a perfect complement to tax planning. Everyone should have a go.
But what is it about tax that attracts you?
I am sure that every professional has their own take on this.
When I left my first firm of accountants in search of experience after five or so years, my tax manager stressed that I would not find anything quite as intellectually challenging as tax in my lifetime’. He felt that the discipline and I were well suited to each other and he was right. Ultimately, that is why I settled with private client work in its broadest sense. There is an edge to this kind of work, the kind that stretches you and forces you to grow. As professionals, I believe that it’s our purpose to answer that call, and we end up creating better and more interesting work as a consequence.
There is an edge to this kind of work, the kind that stretches you and forces you to grow.
But it is not just about the intellectual challenge and cannot ever be. There is a big difference between a profession and professionalism. I have always respected the military maxim that ‘proficiency (a skill) without professionalism (an attitude, a state of mind) equals mediocrity.’ Professionalism is not a box ticking exercise. It is important to be more than just a cog in a wheel, a mere replaceable skill, a ticker of boxes. Professionalism is all about what you tolerate. Full stop.
I have been privileged to work with some individuals who have embodied the principle that ‘professionalism is what you tolerate’. Add to that the intellectual, technical challenge and I would count myself as extremely fortunate in my choice of direction and profession.
And the mountains?
Part of my family comes from Cumbria so I have always known the mountains and loved them. Yet you can never underestimate them. People talk about conquering mountains but that is an illusion. You are only there on sufferance as anyone caught in an electrical storm or winter blizzards will testify. Being badly prepared whether, in terms of clothing, equipment, navigational skills or attitude is not an option. The mountains can be unforgiving. Perhaps that is part of the attraction.
People talk about conquering mountains but that is an illusion.
It is also a mix of using navigation skills, judgement, anticipating the weather poring over synoptic charts immediately beforehand and making decisions in the mountains themselves and sometimes in poor conditions. Not to everyone’s taste but very satisfying … and liberating.
My wife is a qualified mountain leader and that has pushed me beyond my comfort zone on many an occasion. As with professional development, to challenge one’s preconceptions about what is possible can be rewarding. Walking in the mountains is an activity that sits well with tax and with writing. All quite different activities but activities which in my world complement each other.
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