January 26, 2024

Celebrating 50 Years at Weiss – A Conversation with Frank Lee

Frank Lee, partner in the Tax Services department of Weiss & Company LLP, recently celebrated his 50th anniversary with the firm in December 2023.

That is not a typo. Not his 50th wedding anniversary – 50 years of engaging work in the tax area, where he is regarded as a genial colleague, a friend and counselor to clients, and a mentor to many. Lee has many exceptional skills in all areas of public tax accounting as well as commercial business valuation.

We spoke with him recently to learn about what keeps him motivated and interested in his work. Lee is working because he enjoys it.

An Early Start with the IRS
He grew up and attended college in Lincoln, Nebraska, graduating with a Bachelor of Science degree in business administration from Nebraska Wesleyan University. Lee’s first job out of college was with the Internal Revenue Service in 1968. He had hoped to work in Omaha, but there were no openings in the Omaha field office at the time. The Chicago office was hiring, which is how he ended up here.

He passed his CPA exam in 1970. After four years as an IRS agent, he was promoted to the Appellate Division. It was only then that he realized he was not expected to know everything; he just needed to know where to find the answers.

Lee always saw the IRS as a steppingstone, and after six years he was receptive to Jerry Weiss’ recruitment offer to come work with him and about 20 other people at their growing firm, then known as Graff, Weiss & Company. “In those early days I was the tax department. It was just me. I reviewed every return and answered all the tax questions,” he said.

The Numbers Tell the Story
Back in those days, the way the firm mentored and trained the newer accountants was to have them shadow a more experienced partner. Lee worked with Weiss and accompanied him on client visits, taking notes and doing whatever Weiss asked him to do. He observed how Weiss interacted with the clients, what questions he asked, and how he framed his answers and recommendations. It was a great learning experience, according to Lee.

Lee said, “I guess what keeps me involved is that each day is different. There are new opportunities and new challenges, so the work itself changes constantly. I’ve always found it interesting. I like dealing with the different challenges that clients have, helping them save money and accomplish the goals that they set for themselves.”

He disputed the idea that accounting is boring or monotonous, and told a story to illustrate his point.

“I’ve done a lot of volunteer work over the years, usually in some kind of treasurer role. One time I was reviewing the expenses of the PTA where my kids attended school, and the principal said to me, ‘How can you stand doing this? It’s just looking at numbers.’ I said ‘Well, I’m looking at numbers, but the numbers tell a story. And I’m interested in the story.’ I look behind the financial statements. Why are they making money or not making money? What costs and expenses are they incurring?” said Lee.

Involved with Business Valuation from Its Early Days
Lately, in addition to his tax work, Frank has also increased his involvement in business valuation. Business valuation is the process to determine the economic value of a business. Business valuation work is typically requested by an attorney, such as before a sale or as part of estate planning or gift tax planning.

Lee described how he was first exposed to business valuation procedures through a course when he worked in the Appellate Division of the IRS. Most of the early standards for business valuation were developed by the IRS. Many are still used today, although the profession has evolved over the years. Within a year or two of taking that initial course, he passed the exam and became a certified valuation analyst.

He is a member the National Association of Certified Valuators and Analysts. The association helped establish business valuation as its own distinct practice, with a different approach than tax accounting. Lee said, “Tax accounting tends to look at the past, whereas business valuation looks toward the future.”

Lee approaches each case with an open mind and without any pre-conceived ideas or notions. Only then is he able to determine a fair number. Each case is unique, but the analyst must possess a fundamental understanding of what is driving the numbers.

A Good Listener
Although Lee does not offer therapeutic advice, often the conversations he has with clients do feel like counseling sessions of a sort. Lee acknowledged, “I’m not their therapist, but I can be a sounding board because I don’t have any interest other than helping them. I’m not selling them anything. I’m just trying to help guide them in the right decisions.”

In addition to his tax expertise, Lee is a very good listener. He sees the connection between his early work at the IRS and what he does now. In both situations, he needs to be very good with numbers and absorb a lot of detail, but also be able to take a step back and see the big picture, which is the story the numbers tell.

He added, “You can’t tell the story without listening and asking questions. I always tell my clients there are no stupid questions. If you don’t understand something, please ask. I can’t help them if I don’t understand what they are trying to do.”

Advice for Colleagues Just Starting Out
What advice does he have for younger colleagues who ask what it takes to become a partner?

Pitching in to help the firm is one way to attract positive attention. Early in Lee’s career at Weiss, someone he had worked with died unexpectedly. Lee stepped up and took on a lot of the extra work to make sure the clients’ needs were addressed.

Lee encouraged his younger colleagues to take responsibility for their work. “Any return that leaves your desk should be as close to perfect as possible, the best that you can do. Be curious. Ask questions. Take more responsibility,” he said.

Partners also have a responsibility to bring in new business, but in Lee’s opinion, the best way to do that is to have satisfied clients. “If your clients are happy, they will refer their friends, colleagues, and family members to you,” he said.

Over the course of his career, technological advances have changed dramatically. (He remembers using adding machines!) While technology is terrific in many ways and can save a lot of time, it also emphasizes the need for accountants to master the fundamentals.

He is a big proponent of checking the results to make sure they make sense. Don’t assume the technology ‘knows’ the answers. And as for the use of artificial intelligence, it still comes down to being able to ask the right questions to connect the facts to one another and tell the story, which AI can’t do…yet.

Clearly Lee finds his work within public tax accounting to be intellectually challenging, emotionally satisfying, creative, remunerative, and fulfilling. For anyone with an aptitude for numbers and an interest in a rewarding career, you couldn’t do better than to work at a firm like Weiss.

About Weiss & Company

Innovative and flexible like the best boutique firms, with the broad selection of services of larger firms, Weiss & Company delivers solutions precisely tailored to your needs.

Stay Connected

Newsletter Signup

For the latest financial news you can use, subscribe to our company newsletter, The Weiss Advisor

Signup Now