Q & A With Chris Sullivan, head of VSH CPA firm

By Emily Hamann 
The Bellingham Business Journal

The busiest time of the year is over for Chris Sullivan. She is the new managing partner of VSH, a certified public accounting firm based in Barkley Village in Bellingham. Sullivan is a Whatcom County native, and a graduate of Western Washington University. She’s been working at VSH for more than 15 years. She took over at the 45-employee firm in
January. Now that tax season is over, she had some time to sit down with the BBJ.

Responses have been edited for length and clarity.


Did you always want to be a CPA? 

In high school I enjoyed my accounting classes and took a job shadow program and visited the local CPA and thought it was so boring. And at that point I changed my career.

All the students that went and met with the attorneys had such a great time.

I changed my plan. I went to community college to become a paralegal, I went to work for a law firm. And determined that that was just a glorified secretary, at least at that particular firm, and didn’t work for me.

I was going back to school to be a lawyer.

And finally then it all came full circle.

I took those aptitude tests and they kept saying you’re very analytical and you need to work with numbers. You know, it’s not that I’m a science/math person, I’m more about analyzing. So it definitely pointed in that direction, but it took a few years, a decade, to get there.


What is your specialty in public accounting? 

Primarily my career has been working with business clients. As a specialty it’s probably two pronged: Working with business clients, obviously with their tax work, but there’s certainly some consulting that’s done with business clients, and then the international piece.

International is just another layer of tax compliance and planning to occur when there’s some type of transaction that crosses the border.

So you work with domestic companies that do business in, like, Canada?

It can be referred to as inbound, which is a foreign business coming in, or outbound, a U.S. business operating outside.

And based on the proximity to Canada we certainly see a lot of that on the Canadian side, but our practice includes a significant number of businesses outside Whatcom County, operating in different countries.


Do you still get to work with clients as the managing partner? 

Absolutely. At VSH we’ve approached the managing partner as the lead partner overseeing the operations of the firm, but still maintaining their client contact.

What I have done is transition some clients to [other] managers. But other than that I still maintain a working relationship with all of my business clients.

And as a firm we still govern more as an executive team. I oversee all of the operations, but there are other partners that might oversee one particular section, but it all rolls up to me.


What are some of the biggest mistakes you see companies make when it comes to their accounting? 

Not valuing the accounting. Seeing it as just overhead, or a cost center. Not wanting to invest, whether it’s in the technology or the people. And sometimes that’s scaling it and
understanding the size of the business and when they should invest in something more sophisticated, whether it’s software or a person: you know when they just need a bookkeeper, versus an accountant, versus a controller, versus a CFO.

What is some of the value that companies get out of accounting that they don’t usually tend to think about?

Accounting obviously encompasses everything related to the business.

It’s a snapshot of the business.

And so what I like to do with my clients is make sure they understand what those financial statements are indicating, so that they can internally use them to forecast the future, as much as they can.


So, today is the day after tax day. What is tax season like at a CPA firm, especially yesterday? 

It was very quiet. It has been really fascinating to watch the progression and the advancement that we have made in dealing with that deadline.

I think back ten years, and how much I worked, as an employee at that point, not as a partner, how many hours to meet those deadlines.

And then the exhaustion, and the relief of meeting that deadline.

And I’m really proud that we have put together a culture that, we don’t have to kill ourselves to meet our deadline, and let’s find out a way, through our assistants, and our processes and our hiring to try to balance it.

So, how does it feel the day after?

It’s still a relief.

Our CPA personalities are very much deadline driven, and we like to meet those deadlines.


What pitfalls to businesses fall into,
specifically when it comes to filing their taxes?

There’s probably several.

What can happen is they’re not
connecting with their CPAs in advance. My ideal world is I’m meeting with clients very regularly throughout the year and that there’s no surprises on March 15 or April 15.

As a business owner, you should be meeting with your advisor, and that’s why we like to be called advisors and not just your CPA or your tax preparer.


What are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen in the accounting industry since becoming a CPA? 

What I see in the industry is the idea of going beyond just compliance work.

There’s a lot of information in these financials statements, and how can we assist the business with the information we have at hand?

You need people who aren’t just your typical accountants anymore.

Now we’re looking to how can we advise our clients.

And to advise our clients you certainly need to have all these numbers, but you also have to have a relationship, and want to have a relationship with your client and meet with them regularly.

I have seen this significant shift.

We’re all trying to staff and provide services beyond preparing a tax return. But we’re still in the midst of the shift.

So it’s kind of fascinating, how do we hire for being the consultant and the advisor versus just being tax preparer.

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